DAVID MASLANKA, “Liberation” = Concerto for Alto Sax and Wind Ens.; Liberation – Paul Nolen, alto sax/ Illinois State U. Wind Ens. and Sym. Winds/Stephen K. Steele – Albany

by | Jul 2, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

DAVID MASLANKA, “Liberation” = Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble; Liberation – Paul Nolen, alto sax/Illinois State University Wind Ens. and Symphonic Winds/Stephen K. Steele – Albany Records TROY1319, 59:33 ****:
David Maslanka has been, deservedly, one of the big names in wind music (and beyond) for a long time now. His music is consistently creative, scenic and captivating for the performer as well as the listener.
Maslanka has also written many high quality works for solo winds and ensembles including many for saxophone as well. The present Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble may be one of his largest, most dense and spiritually complex works in his output, however. It is also a wonderful work that it is best listened to – at first – not casually; but with the inherent meaning and symbolism at hand.
The Concerto is a big work at over forty minutes and is structured in five movements, each bearing a very personal and – occasionally – spiritual point of reference. Specifically, the first movement, “Song: Fire in the Earth”, is a personal reminiscence of the composer’s images of the brilliant fall colors in a Montana tree-filled field. The music is, correspondingly, lyrical and largely plaintive with little bursts of drama; much like a sudden shock of color. The second movement is an Interlude: “Bright Window, Your Night is Full of Stars.” This title – and the principal melody – is from Maslanka’s Mass. The original, a Catholic Song to the Blessed Mother, is used here to commemorate the loss of Joseph Christenson, Director of Bands at Iowa State and a close friend of the composer. Soloist Paul Nolen’s tone and affect here is positively and appropriately reverential.
The third movement is also extracted from Maslanka’s Mass. The title “Dear Jesus, What have you DONE?!” (exactly as written by the composer) is, itself, a bit unsettling and bespeaks high emotion; maybe even a little frustration. This is a big, angst-ridden and emotional movement with the saxophone practically crying out in places. The fourth movement, also a Interlude, “Starry Night”, is – as the composer indicates – not a “quiet night’ but a rather boisterous one with the music nearly approaching a scherzo and giving the soloist many moments of technical “starry” technical flourishes, almost like fireworks.
This expansive piece concludes with a Song: “Mortal, Have You Seen This?” and uses this quote from a legend in the Book of Ezekiel. Here too Maslanka quotes from a prior work (his Hell’s Gate) and the music is ethereal, beautiful but also a bit apprehension filled and closes quietly. Maslanka, a very religious man, has created an expansive, metaphysical and spiritual work where the solo saxophone is used as the focal point but it also serves almost as a guide or narrator to the storyline and inner feeling contained in this monumental work. Nolen is a wonderful saxophonist and the Illinois State University Wind Symphony proves to be a very impressive ensemble.
Liberation is, at its core, another deep spiritual and somewhat ponderous work in terms of subject matter. Written for the Japan Wind Ensemble Conductors Conference, and originally for wind ensemble and chorus. The “liberation” in this case is both a reference to the Libera Me (Deliver Me oh Lord) from the Roman mass for the dead and in the composer’s awareness that Japan, the nation, has endured an atomic bombing as well as natural disasters and have “liberated” their spirit and their national resolve from such disasters. (Maslanka makes some personal and religious points in his notes on how people can “transform the fire within… into acceptance, love and peace”.) As in the Saxophone Concerto, the deeply personal and philosophical point of view of the composer has fortuitously given us another very emotional and gripping work on a grand scale.
Not all of Maslanka’s music does carry the same level of personal belief, emotional input and philosophical underpinning resulting in the gravitas of these two works. However, I am a fan of all of Maslanka’s music and I do consider these two works among his very best; but, in particular, the big, dramatic and thoroughly impressive Concerto for Saxophone. Nolen is a terrific player with ample technique and a wonderful tone. He is also a professor of saxophone at Illinois State University. The ISU Wind Symphony and Symphonic Winds under Stephen Steele are great ensembles filled with clearly gifted young musicians from many parts of the state which gave me pleasure recalling some of my own roots (and yet these ensembles were a terrific discovery to me).
I should imagine that any concert saxophonist, any lover of good wind ensemble music and any admirer of the music of David Maslanka would like this a great deal. I recommend this disc strongly!
—Daniel Coombs

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