JOHN MACKEY: Asphalt Cocktail; This Cruel Moon; Fanfare for Full Fathom Five; Sheltering Sky; High Wire; Hymn to a Blue Hour; Antique Violences: Concerto for Trumpet; The Frozen Cathedral; The Ringmaster’s March – Christopher Martin, trumpet/ Dallas Winds/ Jerry Junkin – Reference Recordings HDCD RR-144, 75:02 ****:
I guess John Mackay is a bit of an anomaly—writing orchestral music that no one supposedly was in any great hurry to hear, then turning to band music and finding an outstanding, educated, and enthusiastic audience. Coming up in the band program myself, I have seen this before; the orchestral world is highly cultish, incestuous in terms of its closed-off associations, and tied in to the composer flavor-of-the-month club, often with composers who have found a way in through residencies and contracts yet who no one seems to like, and often for good reason. This is not to tar and feather all of them—many are great contributors to the modern scene of no little importance–but I have reviewed enough of them last 30 years to know that there is a lot of junk masquerading as art out there.
The band scene is different. There are far more high school and college bands than there ever will be orchestras, and the demand—and appetite for—new music is quite astounding. When well played new music hits a pumped-up audience, the effect can be quite thrilling. Hopefully one day the great band composers will get the accolades they deserve as important contributors to the American musical genre. Bands have been around for a long time, and our native composers, starting perhaps with Sousa, certainly elevated the art to one of coequal standing with our orchestral composers.
Mackay is also a modernist in that he writes with a computer and digital keyboard, claiming that his piano skills are such that the would inhibit him from producing the music he is capable of. Listening to this delightful album proves the point of his assertion. His music is as charged-up and blisteringly American as anything I have ever heard. He is not a lyricist, nor does he state such, but the music has its moments, as in the gorgeous Sheltering Sky and impressionistic, overpowering Frozen Cathedral. Even his Trumpet Concerto, played here by the fabulous Christopher Martin, Principal Trumpet of the New York Philharmonic (and who went to high school seventeen miles from where I live in Atlanta), sounds in many places like movie music (not a disparaging remark) from someone trying to narrate a story (which this concerto does.)
Asphalt Cocktail is a knock-you-off-your-seats opener which is now somewhat of a band standard, while the final Ringmaster’s March demonstrates the composer’s utter familiarity with this most important of genres, Fillmore and Goldman in the forefront. These are but a few highlights of this rollicking disc, played with abandoned splendor in the Dallas Meyerson Symphony Center. If you have been avoiding band music all these years, you simply don’t have any idea what you are missing. Turn off that Mozart and slide into some of this stuff for a while—you will not regret it! Typical, standard, everyday Reference sound—meaning absolutely great.