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Monday, May 9, 2016

Network, Puts / Britten / Mahler / Bryant, The Ohio State University Wind Symphony, Russel C. Mikkelson

Wind band. Anybody who participated in such ensembles in high school and/or college may right now be recalling one or more of the annual spring concerts. My high school was blessed with gifted music teachers and we had a good band, considering we were novices. The spring concert was a chance to be ambitious and play some things that were sophisticated and called for all our concentration. As rewarding as it all was, we never came within a continent to the Ohio State University Wind Symphony, who under director Russel C. Mikkelson give us some superlative performances of 20th and 21st century works on Network (Naxos 8.573446). They not only sound great, they have chosen a program that keeps you energized and interested.

Four varied but somehow mutually reinforcing works flow smoothly on the program. The sequence is bookended by two cutting-edge 21st century works, in between which we get to hear some nicely done classics by no means common to wind band repertoire. One is a wind band arrangement of one of Mahler's Ruckert Songs, Um Mitternacht (At Midnight), with mezzo-soprano Katherine Rohrer nicely prevailing. Along with this we get a  suite from Benjamin Britten's rather rare incidental music "The Sword in the Stone" (1939), which was performed as part of the BBC radio play dramatization of T. H. White's story broadcast on the "Children's Hour." It shows us the somewhat playful, beautifully descriptive side of the composer we get so nicely in Britten's opera scores as well.

The beginning of the program concentrates on the title work "Network," a dramatic opus by the Pulitzer Prize winning Keven Puts. It was composed in 1997 and revised in 2003. It is all based on a "frantic eight-voice canon," that in various full or partial forms repeats itself throughout the work. The addition of sharps and flats at various points becomes a way to vary the music in color and sound, and the composer uses these changes to let the music evolve and shift like clouds on a windy day. It is bracing music, played brilliantly.

Steven Bryant's ambitious "Concerto for Wind Ensemble" (2007-2010) concludes the program with an involved, 35 minute work with multiple shifting moods and modes. The composer's overall intention was to "depict virtuosity" and that he certainly does, with a myriad of heroically inspired passages in vivid orchestration, embodying both difficulty and transcendance.

So that's the story with this release. It comprises some brilliant performances of works beautiful to hear in the wind band context, music that holds its own with anything out there, covering a vast span of time from the late romantic to the post-modern, and doing so with a non-compromising accessibility that should appeal to music lovers of all stripes.

An impressive outing. Very recommended.

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