From All Sides = RALPH HULTGEN: Whirr, Whirr, Whirr!!! for wind ensemble; LUIS NANI: Lost Forest for wind ensemble; KIT TURNBULL: Scenes from Childhood for wind ensemble; CHEN QUIAN: Ambush! From All Sides – for wind ensemble – University of St. Thomas Wind Ensemble/Matthew George – Innova Recordings 765 (Distr. by Naxos), 49:46 ****:
There have, fortunately, been many composers and many university-based symphonic wind ensembles who have sought to add breadth and depth to the available repertoire for what used to be your basic “band”. The University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota, along with the University of Texas, and many others, has led the way in this endeavor. The St. Thomas ensemble, in fact, has commissioned over thirty new works since 1992 from composers well known in this genre, such as Ralph Hultgen, Philip Sparks and David Maslanka, to many others who are not as widely recognized. If this latest release from the UST ensemble is any indication, the results are both important and of uniformly high quality.
The opening work, “Whirr, Whirr, Whirr!!!” (with three exclamation points), by Ralph Hultgen, is a brief, fast, aggressive tour de force for the ensemble. Consistently quick, chromatic and punctuated by percussion, the meaning behind the title is implied in some stream of consciousness run on sentences by the composer in the booklet notes. The tone of the notes is, indeed, a bit tongue in cheek and is best summarized by his last comment; “Your mind spins, ducks and dives, leaps and plunges and seems to Whirr, Whirr, Whirr!!!” The effect of this impressive and demanding work, from 1999, is that of an almost kinetic energy that borders on loss of control as the band is put through some wild technical flourishes. This is an exciting and energy-filled work that does tax the players but captivates the listener. Hultgen himself is also a wind ensemble director in Queensland, Australia.
“Lost Forest” by Luis Nani is a much more ethereal and atmospheric work inspired by the composer’s feelings and research into the deforestation of the Pachamama mountain regions in his native Argentina. This very recent work (2009) relies on some local dance forms and some creative use of indigenous percussion to paint a tonal picture that is majestic in places, austere and “sad” in others. The composer also cites, in the booklet notes, the vanishing of exotic bird species in the area and the loss of natural feel to what seems like an “English park” to a local environmentalist. Ultimately, the effect of “Lost Forest” is that it sounds and feels like a tone poem, of sorts, for wind ensemble with nice tone color and impressive brass chorales. Nani is also a wind ensemble conductor at the Universidad Nacional de Villa Maria, Argentina.
Kit Turnbull’s “Scenes from Childhood” (2008) is a seven movement, extended work based – literally – on memories the composer has from his growing up in London, but more particularly, the work evokes memories that he believes children – anywhere – might carry. Therefore, each movement depicts a specific type of scene that a child might hold dear. The movements are like short, picturesque vignettes and quite effective and charming. I particularly enjoyed the “Circus Troupe” with its somewhat disjointed bits and pieces of melody intended to represent the overwhelming nature of many things happening at once in the eyes and mind of a child at the circus – multiple inputs that compete for the attention of the listener as well; very clever and well done. There is also a very pleasant and representative flavor to the “Magic Lamps and Flying Carpets” movement as well, intended to create an air of the far east that a child might ”hear” when reading stories about Ali Baba or Aladdin. It seems that this piece might be a very audience pleasing work on a program too, and is well worth any wind ensemble’s attention.
The final work in this set is “Ambush! From All Sides” by Chinese composer Chen Qian. Written in 2009 for the University of St. Thomas ensemble, this is a musical portrait of an actual battle in Chinese history, the battle of Gaixia, in which two warlords of rival dynasties, Chu and Han, engaged in deadly combat for control of the empire. The title refers to the ambush of the Chu forces by the Han army and the suicide of the Chu warlord and resultant loss of his forces. This is an extended work that does sound openly programmatic with its modal melodies, exotic percussion and bursts of violence. There are moments of impending doom and the dramatic finale, tinged with sadness – a very interesting work!
This disc really is fun to listen to and makes one want to find the others in the series. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good wind ensemble writing and playing. Young high school and university musicians might find it especially enjoyable as they discover how much good quality rep is actually out there. Kudos to Matthew George the conductor of this fine ensemble, as well as to the audio engineers at Innova for achieving the highest quality performance and sonic results!
— Daniel Coombs