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September 14, 1999

Modern ComposersImages: The Music of Robert Sheldon (CD # WFR104)
Exaltation: The Music of James Swearingen (CD # WFR138)
In All Its Glory: The Music of James Swearingen (CD # WFR102)
Of A Distant Star: The Music of Ed Huckeby (CD # WFR103)
The Quest: The Music of David Shaffer (CD # WFR175)
All albums performed by The Washington Winds, Edward Petersen, conductor; Published by Walking Frog Records, 1999.

Did you play in the band in high school? Did your kids play in the band in their school? Did you like that music -- rousing short pieces by composers you never heard of, compositions that studiously involved all sections of the band but didn't require a high level of instrumental virtuosity? If you like the music that you and/or your kids played in high-school band, you will love this new group of albums from Walking Frog Records. Each album features the music of one of the leading contemporary composers of works conceived and composed specifically for high school and junior high school bands. All the works are performed by The Washington Winds, a sometime recording ensemble consisting of professional band musicians from the Washington D.C. area, many of whom are or were members of the many military bands headquartered in the D.C. area.

To say that these works are composed for high-school bands is not a derogation of their musical quality. They aren't particularly subtle as a rule, but they aren't simplistic either. They tend to be highly programmatic, and they tend to keep moving -- so as not to bore young players or moderately appreciative listeners, and they make sparse use of complex rhythmic or harmonic structure. But they can still be fun to listen to.

David Schaffer's album, for example, begins with a highly programmatic five-minute piece called Flight of the Pegasus, after the winged horse that Bellerophone rode to fight Chimaera, the monster with a "fire-breathing goat's head, the forequarters of a lion and the hind part of a dragon." The album liner notes explain that the piece "culminat[es] as our hero plunges from a great height in a victorious assault upon the monstrous creature."

Robert Sheldon's collection includes Lost Colony, taking the story of the lost colony of Roanoke Island as its program. After musically describing the colonists' ship "sailing away [and] leaving the colony and its residents [in] great anxiety," the seven-minute piece ends with the colonists "walk[ing] away...never to be seen again." This is pretty dramatic stuff!

Ohio native James Swearingen ("arguably the most performed contemporary band composer of the last decade," according to the liner notes) based his short Fantasy On An American Classic on the folk song Shenandoah, but also sprinkled in bits of a few other classic American tunes such as America The Beautiful. Though it is easy to do, it is a mistake to dismiss these works as serious music. While not the most profound music being created, these and similar works are the first serious music encountered by millions of youngsters, and they remain great fun to listen to.

You can hear selections from these albums of new band music on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, September 16 at 7:00 PM as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.

--J. Green


The Harbinger