Above and Beyond
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Above Beyond (feat. Russ Schulz)
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Few wind ensembles have earned such international acclaim as the United States Marine Band, virtuosos who here perform an excitingly varied programme directed by the award-winning conductor of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz. Established classics such as Frederick Fennells edition of Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy sit alongside Paul Creston's festive Celebration Overture. Copland's pungent Emblems evokes Amazing Grace in masterly fashion, whilst Schwarz himself contributes his own recent composition Above and Beyond, written specifically for this band in recognition of its remarkable musicianship.
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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.
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.
Now, the live, concert recording: 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.
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.
John J. Puccio
But the program is really interesting (for those of us who dig wind band repertoire outside the likes of Sousa & Co). From such perspective, as well as performance, I don't regret my purchase. But listening with headphones during a morning walk, the acoustic presented itself as rather dry; that is, not at the level of the best that Naxos Wind Band Classics has offered in the past.
Surely, when I tried it in my computer, under more reberverant (but artificial) conditions, things improved notably. Still, some warmth is still missing (can an audience be "contagious"?)
Not a complete acoustical success then, this live 2012 concert.
Post Mortem: So the last track, the arch-famous Marine's Hymn (based on a tune by Offenbach, incidentally) rings for the final minute, and the audience wakes up! -- which makes their overall behavior the more pathetic.