Saturday 18 January 2014

Works for wind ensemble by Philip Glass and Mohammed Fairouz in terrific performances from the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble on a new release from Naxos

Philip Glass (b.1937)  grew up in Baltimore, USA and studied at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School and in Aspen with Darius Milhaud., He later moved to Europe, where he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger and worked closely with the sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar. When he returned to New York, in 1967, he formed the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Although the new musical style that Glass was evolving was labelled as minimalism, Glass never liked the term and preferred to speak of himself as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures.’ He has now composed more than twenty operas, eight symphonies, two piano concertos and concertos for violin, piano, timpani, and saxophone quartet and orchestra, soundtracks to films, string quartets and works for solo piano and organ. Glass presents lectures, workshops, and solo keyboard performances around the world, and continues to appear regularly with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, written in 2000/01, has been recorded in a transcription by Mark Lortz on a new release from Naxos , coupled with Mohammed Fairouz’s 2012 composition, his Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers both played by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble directed by Paul W. Popiel  
Mohammed Fairouz (b.1985) a resident of New York City, studied at the Curtis Institute and New England Conservatory and composition under György Ligeti, Gunther Schuller, and Richard Danielpour. His compositions, that incorporate Middle-Eastern modes into Western structures, include four symphonies, an opera, fourteen song cycles, ensemble works, chamber and solo pieces, choral settings, and electronic music.

Fairouz has received many commissions for works including from the Detroit and Alabama Symphony Orchestras, the Borromeo Quartet, Imani Winds, the New Juilliard Ensemble and Cantus Vocal Ensemble. He was chosen by the BBC to be a featured artist for the television series Collaboration Culture.

The University of Kansas Wind Ensemble is joined by timpanists Ji Hye Jung and Gwendolyn Burgett in Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra.

Movement 1 opens full of life, with pounding drums and vibrant, rhythmic playing from the wind ensemble. As the music settles it reveals varying wind harmonies and subtleties that help to lift the music from its simple structure. Rhythmically the music certainly pulls the listener along.

Movement 2 has a rather sombre tone as quietly sounding timpani are slowly joined by various wind instruments as this movement beats a slow rhythmic beat against a delicate wind theme. Slowly the ensemble grows in power as sections of the winds weave around the insistent rhythm before descending to a hushed coda.

Cadenzas allows some spectacularly fine playing from both soloists with a percussion contribution that includes xylophone and tom toms. This is a surprisingly engrossing section with many subtle sounds that leads straight into Movement 3 with almost tribal timpani strokes before the wind ensemble enters adding a rather playful feel. Rhythmic variations add to the interest as well as virtuoso nature of the cadenzas.

This is a most enjoyable work, in places good fun. It is finely played by these artists.

Mohammed Fairouz’s Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers (2012) takes its inspiration from a comic book by Art Spiegelman that captures the horror and reactions to the tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. Written for wind ensemble, the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble is joined in this recording by trumpeter, Janis Porietis .

The New Normal opens quietly, drawing lovely sonorities from the wind ensemble with some quite unusual sounds. Suddenly a huge outburst changes the nature of the music – the horror of 9/11 – a rising motif with clashing chords. The music quietens a little, in a kind of quick funeral march before the opening theme returns but is interrupted by the violent second theme. A quiet, sinister section appears with a plaintive trumpet over the sonorities of the ensemble that continues until the end.

Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist is scored for timpani, two sets of chimes, bass drum, harp, piano double bass and suspended cymbals that are scratched by coins to create the strange, quiet opening. The chimes enter as do piano, harp and double bass in this haunting music, a landscape of bleak destruction. The music descends to the depths with piano and double bass in their lowest register along with strange percussion sounds. The bells continue to chime occasionally as if in memoriam. Eventually the music reduces to cymbals before harp picks out a theme. Slowly the music growls in the bass with piano and double bass before there is almost silence as cymbals quietly sound to end.

One Nation Under Two Flags comes as a shock as the wind ensemble loudly play a marching theme backed by xylophone in this almost caustic take on patriotic march themes with the music moving into a swing version of a march. Dissonant interruptions try to break up the rhythm before the music fragments into variations of the theme before returning to the lively, brash march to end.

Wood blocks give the rhythm of a ticking of a clock in Anniversaries before the rich sound of the wind instruments enter with a slow melancholy theme. The metronome marking for this movement is precisely quarter note (crotchet) = 60 making this final movement 9’ 11’’ long exactly. The ensemble weaves a sonorous, melancholy theme around the ever ticking wood blocks as lower wind instruments add deep mournful sonorities. Fairouz varies the textures as the movement progresses and grows inexorably louder, with xylophone and cymbal clashes joining as the music leads to a sudden end.

This impressive symphony receives a terrific performance by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble.

The recording quality is excellent and there are informative booklet notes by Paul R. Laird, Professor of Musicology at the University of Kansas.

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