University of Kansas Wind Ensemble
Paul W. Popiel, conductor
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transcribed by Mark Lortz) – Philip Glass
- (Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett, timpani)
Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ – Mohammed Fairouz
The Naxos collection of “Wind Band Classics” has consistently delivered strong performances and this recording of two large-scale works by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Paul W. Popiel is no exception. True, I am an alum from KU but I don’t think any of the praise I am about to extoll on this disc can be led back to some kind of Jayhawker loyalty. Everyone should be able to agree that the performances on this disc are top notch.
The Concerto Fantasy by Philip Glass is a bit of an odd work. Featuring the timpani can be quite tricky and while the performances by the timpani soloists are precise and impressive, I think that this piece rarely sounds like a fully completed composition. The timpani are certainly active in the piece but there is little to my ears which makes them foreground material. The recording is clean and clear and preserves the physical separation between the pair of soloists but at the end of the day the piece just sounds like an accompaniment lacking a focal element. Glass’ harmonic vocabulary seems even more conservative than usual and I found little to engage in either texturally or rhythmically. I am not overly familiar with the original orchestral version of the piece so I am in no way trying to compare the wind ensemble sound to the orchestra (see apples v. oranges, books v. movies, etc.). And honestly, the piece doesn’t intrigue me enough to track down more recordings of it.
My general dislike of the Glass is made up for, however, with Symphony No. 4 ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ by Mohammed Fairouz. Inspired by the Art Spiegelman graphic novel of the same name, Fairouz delivers as powerful and evocative a work for wind ensemble as Karel Husa’s Music for Prague 1968. Beginning with “The New Normal,” this four movement symphony draws in a wide array of creative and affective ensemble colors but none more colorful as in the second movement “Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist.” In this second movement, metal percussion, harp, piano, and double bass scrape and groan through a grey-inspired aural landscape. The not entirely playful third movement “One Nation Under Two Flags” portrays a “Red Zone” and “Blue Zone” through musical juxtapositions of a sort which would make Ives proud. The final movement, “Anniversaries” uses a ticking clock motive throughout to highlight the notion of passing time but also to imply a ticking time bomb. The composition rides this metaphor well by transforming a simple steady rhythm into something ominous and foreboding. Throughout the entire disc, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble sounds fantastic. All the musical layers are clear and articulate but their precision does not come through sacrificing emotion and lyricism (such as it exists in either work). Rock chalk, Jayhawks!