Above and Beyond (CD review)

Music for Wind Band. Gerard Schwarz, "The President's Own" United States Marine Band. Naxos 8.573121.

Even though the musical sound of a wind band may be an acquired taste, when it's presented as well as Maestro Gerard Schwarz and "The President's Own" United States Marine Band offer it here, it's kind of hard to resist. Of course, it may help when most of the composers involved wrote the music directly for a wind band, yet that doesn't interfere with our enjoyment of several famous transcriptions and arrangements we find here in the music of Creston, Copland, Schwarz, Grainger, Rands, Barber, and Offenbach.

First, a word about the artists: American conductor Gerard Schwarz most folks probably recognize as the longtime Music Director of the Seattle Symphony (1985-2011). He has earned numerous awards over the years, made over a hundred record albums, and currently works with several all-star orchestras. The U.S. Marine Band, known as "The President's Own," is the oldest military band in the country, tracing its formation back to an act of Congress in 1798. They are also one of the best wind bands in the country. Or in the world, for that matter.

Now, a word about the only drawback in the recording: the sound. Naxos chose to record the album live in concert. Not a good idea. More about that in a moment.

It's the music that matters, and whether you like wind-band presentations or not, you'd have to admit that Schwarz and company do up these numbers proud. We start with the Celebration Overture, a 1955 work written for wind band by American composer Paul Creston (1906-1985). I liked Schwarz's insistence that the piece sound both rhythmic and melodious and not just loud, as some marching bands might play it. The piece has some sweet inner beauty (the middle section particularly), which Schwarz captures nicely.

Next, it's Emblems by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), a work the American composer wrote in 1964 on commission for the College Band Directors National Association. One hears a brief quotation from the hymn "Amazing Grace" in the piece, a pleasing touch. Otherwise, it's a pretty simple, straightforward work, one that Copland said wouldn't "overstrain the technical abilities" of young musicians. It's pleasant enough music in a modern vein, and Schwarz carries it off with seemingly a minimum of effort. The band plays well for him.

After that is a piece by the conductor himself, Above and Beyond, written in 2012 especially for the Marine Band. Schwarz wanted to write something "slow and expressive," as he puts it, a real adagio for winds that he knew the Marine Band could pull off. While I personally found it a bit on the dull side, even when it gets rambunctious toward the end, there's no denying its expressive and atmospheric moods. And who can doubt that Schwarz plays his own music as well as anyone?

Then we get the longest work on the program, Frederick Fennell's edition of Australian-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy, a fifteen-minute piece in six movements that the composer wrote for the American Bandmasters Association in 1937. The Grainger work is the centerpiece of the program for good reason. It's very good, indeed. Based on folk songs Grainger collected, these "musical wildflowers" as he described them are wonderfully infectious, charming, jaunty, melancholic, and tuneful by turns, and Maestro Schwarz appears to take great affection in them. His manner with the band is gentle and persuasive, making the pieces as touching as I've heard them.

Gerard Schwarz
Following the Grainger piece is Ceremonial by English composer Bernard Rands (b. 1934). It's rather dark and forbidding compared to the other music on the disc, yet it possesses a captivating, pulsating vigor that Schwarz realizes quite well. Even though I had never heard the work before, I can see how some conductors might allow its repetitions to get monotonous. Schwarz never does.

Then it's on to Medea's Dance of Vengeance and Commando March by American Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Both of Barber's works are enjoyable, particularly the first one from his ballet. You might not think music transcribed for band could be as gentle in places as this is, and Schwarz effectively plays up the dramatic aspects as well, creating more than sufficient excitement.

The program concludes fittingly with the Marines' Hymn, arranged by Donald Hunsberger and based on a tune, interestingly, by Jacques Offenbach. Here, the audience, generally reticent in their applause, finally come a little more alive, clapping along a tad more enthusiastically throughout the brief piece.

Maj. Jason K. Fettig produced and MGySgt. Karl J. Jackson engineered and edited the album, which they recorded in concert at The Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland in March 2012. It's in the nature of wind-band music that the sound is going to be somewhat deep and mellow, but here it's not quite so. In order to minimize audience noise, the engineers recorded it fairly close, making the winds sound clearer but drier than we usually hear them. Still, there seems a veil over the sonics, and I would have liked a dash more hall ambience; but it doesn't happen. Dynamics are fairly wide, with decent impact, while frequency extremes appear limited. Triangles and other percussion seem relatively weak and the deep bass a little disappointing.

Ah, and then there is the audience, of which one is always aware despite the close miking. Then, too, they clap in a curiously lackadaisical manner at the end of each selection but the last. Although I know a lot of home listeners enjoy live recordings and the sound of an audience around them, I find it intrusive and distracting.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa