MELINDA WAGNER: Trombone Concerto; Four Settings; Wick – Joseph Alessi, trombone/ New York Philharmonic/ Lorin Maazel, cond./ Christine Brandes, sop./ Laura Gilbert, flute/ Alan Kay, clarinet/ Curtis Macomber, violin/ Richard O’Neill, viola/ Fred Sherry, cello/ John Feeney, bass/ Stephen Gosling, p./ Karla Lemon, conductor/ Jayn Rosenfeld, flute/ Jean Kopperud, clarinet/ Linda Quan, violin/ Chris Finckel, cello/ Daniel Druckman, percussion/ New York New Music Ensemble/ Jeffrey Milarsky – Bridge Records 9345, 61:29 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Melinda Wagner first hit the big-time charts with the appearance of her Flute Concerto, which garnered the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Unfortunately for many, that prize proves about as career-killing as landing a role as a Bond girl, but with Wagner that has not happened, and her career has proceeded apace nicely, these fairly recent pieces (all post-2000) showing fine development in a number of genres.
The big splash here is the Trombone Concerto, written for noted artist Joseph Alessi, and inspired during her time as Composer-in-Residence at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. She felt overwhelmed by the sight of the Rockies, and began to conceive of putting the nobility and power of the mountains into a concerto. But this work is far more than a concerto—I am not even sure the term fits, quite unlike her prize-winning Flute Concerto. There is not a concerted demonstration of trombone virtuosity (like you might hear when listening to Urbie Green playing jazz) but instead a powerful emotional presentation of the trombone’s innate power, subtlety, reserve, boldness, and dignity. Most of the time we don’t get this when listening to this instrument as most solo pieces simply like to blast away, and the instrument is generally reserved for specialty moments in orchestral writing. And though Wagner’s music is full of life and color in general, the latter aspect is never a “focus” of attention, rather something that exists because of the emotive power of the music and not vice-versa. The four movements of the work are titled “Satyr”, “Elemental Things”, an interlude, and “Catch”, but these words don’t in any way presage a tone poem of any kind, and I find them totally superfluous. Just listen to the logic and beauty of this piece, coupled with the accessible and integrated technique of the trombone, and you will hear one of the best wind concertos composed in quite a while (2006), and brilliantly performed by Alessi.
With Four Settings (“Last poem”/ Robert Desnos, “The Wings”/ Denise Levertov, “Safe in their alabaster chambers/ Emily Dickinson, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!”/ Emily Dickinson) we get thrust into an entirely different world, one of instrumental accompanied song of great substance, and at 21 minutes for all these settings, a lot a depth. Wagner has looked to create contrasts in these pieces, light/dark, time and space/earthly things, etc. All this is interesting in analysis, but in the end it only serves those wishing to delve into the creative conscience and manner of the composer’s artistic quest. In fact, these works are finely honed to the textual basis, not word painting in any manner, but instead generating a human receptivity that touches the emotions and seeks to manifest the esoteric and undergirding power behind the words. The fact that there are developed motives ends up meaning nothing. All that really matters is that Wagner knows how to set a text, includes the voice in a way that is consistently pleasing and non-destructive of the vocal art, and comes across almost as naturally as listening to a conversation strewn with emotive power. Beautiful music lovingly performed.
Finally to the oddly-titled Wick, and the earliest piece here (2000). Wagner says she liked the way the word sounds, though the alternative meanings of something lit and something drawn up has meaning too. She says the piece is “naughty” and I think she’s right—though I can’t really tell you why I think this. You have to hear it but you will understand it. It’s a tripartite work (that she did not plan, it just sort of happened) and as pure music stands up very well, never flagging for one moment in its attention-getting properties, and making use of the entire arsenal that this composer has developed so well—and that means just about every facet of the musical art that you can think of. This is not “dumb” music but neither is it overly-intellectual; fantasy-like but decidedly not programmatic. What it is, is engrossing, well-constructed, pleasing, and vibrant.
This is one of the best discs I have heard this year—don’t miss it.