Dragon Rhyme - Jennifer Higdon, Kurt Weill, Chen Yi

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HIGDON Soprano Saxophone Concerto. WEILL Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra. CHEN Dragon Rhyme Glen Adsit, cond; Carrie Koffman (s sax); Anton Miller (vn); Hartt School Wind Ensemble NAXOS 8.572889 (56:44)

The present CD was a particularly welcome arrival from Fanfare central—unlike some reviewers for this magazine, I seldom request particular CDs to review, Pictures at an Exhibition excepted, so I never know what to expect when I open a parcel. I have heard little of Jennifer Higdon’s music to date, but what I have heard has whetted my appetite for more. The disc also includes an old friend, Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Winds, and a completely new and welcome discovery, the music of Chen Yi.

Higdon’s Soprano Saxophone Concerto is an arrangement of her oboe concerto. Given the very similar range of the two instruments, a number of composers (including Hilary Tann in her Shakkei ) have made a single work do double duty for these two instruments. Saxophonists, always looking for new repertory for their instrument, approached Higdon to make this arrangement, which she was glad to do, given her positive estimation of the power and beauty of the saxophone. The opening of the work is characterized by gently flowing lines in the solo part that are underpinned by a beautiful sequence of chords in the ensemble. Not long afterwards, rhythmic activity increases and the colorful writing flowers into full bloom. A subcurrent of modality runs throughout the musical canvas, and the parts of the various instruments, including that of the solo saxophone, intertwine in clever and creative ways. The solo part is virtuosic to a degree, but the virtuosity is never on display for its own sake. I can guess that the work is as rewarding to play as it is to listen to, and Carrie Koffman’s saxophone playing is suave, subtly nuanced, and technically secure in its every gesture.

The Hindemithian Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra of Kurt Weill has received enough performances and recordings to put it at least almost in the standard repertory category. In the LP era, it appeared on a number of labels, including Candide, Westminster, MCA, MHS, French RCA, and DGG, the latter with Nona Lidell and David Atherton, and likely the best known of the bunch, judging by the number of copies that came through my hands during my years as a record dealer. On CD, there are at least 15 currently available versions. Consequently, it is likely that most readers interested in this work already own it, but the present recording is at least as excitingly and brilliantly rendered as any of the several recordings of the work that I’ve previously heard. Violinist Anton Miller plays with accuracy and flair to bring the work off in splendid fashion, and is ably supported by the Hartt School Wind Ensemble under the direction of Glen Adsit. Indeed these performers have brought to my mind a new appreciation for this work of a composer that I find uneven in the quality of his output.

Chen Yi’s Dragon Rhyme is a very recent (2010) work in two movements, commissioned by the National Wind Ensemble Consortium Group and premiered by the forces who present it here. The first movement, “Mysteriously-harmoniously,” evokes an aura of mystery through trills and fluttering in the upper woodwinds, and these continue in various ways throughout the work, sometimes underlying other solo instruments, the brass choir, and so on. The second movement, “Energetically,” is based upon the same material (intervals drawn from those typical of Chinese opera), but uses them in more vivid fashion. The image of a dragon is evoked through layering and dynamic textures, although hearing the piece unaware of its title or connotations, one might well come up with other mental images. Nevertheless, it’s a very exciting and dramatic work, and I would be surprised if Dragon Rhyme does not enter the band repertory. As in the other pieces, Glen Adsit and his forces brilliantly bring the music to life in stunning recorded sound. My only complaint is that the review copy hung up in the last band in both of my CD players, a problem I trust not universal in the production of this otherwise splendid CD. Very highly recommended.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572889

  • UPC: 747313288977

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Kurt Weill

  • Conductor: Glen Adsit

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Hartt School Wind Ensemble

  • Performer: Anton Miller, Carrie Koffman