On this intriguing release Andrew Stetson takes full advantage of the trumpet’s surprising emotional range. The trumpet walks on the classical side by day and the jazz side by night, but it is also a clarion military instrument, a celebratory one in marching bands, and yet capable of being lonely and solitary. Stetson draws on the peculiarly American side of the trumpet in works that range from jazz to the haunted mood of Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question, and more than a touch of Hollywood and big bands. There’s a stop along the way for contemporary electronica. The result is an engrossing listening experience from a formidable and imaginative musician.
Emotional highs and lows lie at the heart of James Stephenson’s Trumpet Concerto No. 3. The work was commissioned by Ryan Anthony, principal trumpet of the Dallas Symphony and a former member of the Canadian Brass. Diagnosed with a fatal cancer of the bone marrow, Anthony wrote about his hopes and struggles to Stephenson, who decided to use this biographical information as the arc of his concerto. The three-part structure begins with energetic, lively music that represents the time before the crushing diagnosis; the slow movement depicts the shock, lament, and loneliness of someone who discovers that he has cancer; the finale is about rising hope—a well-founded conclusion given that Anthony, who is still alive and performing, established a foundation to raise awareness of the disease (its fanciful name is Cancer Blows).
Stephenson was a trumpeter himself before focusing on composition, and his bio informs us that his 50 solo brass works have almost all been recorded. Although largely self-taught, he has a gift for instrumentation and has pursued a parallel career as a highly successful arranger. These ingredients coalesce in his Trumpet Concerto No. 3, which is strikingly orchestrated, adroitly written for the trumpet, and chiefly melodic in a popular vein. My reference above to Hollywood refers to the glossy accessibility of Stephenson’s idiom. The strongest movement is the central Adagio, where Stetson movingly communicates the grieving process that Anthony went through after his diagnosis. The two outer movements are cheerful and skillfully composed but not as memorable.
Mark Hagerty was also trained as a trumpeter, and his four-movement suite, None of the Above, exploits the instrument’s ability to sound defiant, aggressive, and raucous in a Modernist vein. The title itself is defiant, since it refers to the option found on tests and questionnaires if a respondent can’t find a suitable answer. In the same vein two movements are named “All of the Above” and “Other (explain).” What Hagerty intends by this is to flout limited, pigeon-hole thinking. To that end each movement tends to be angular, abrupt, punctuated with slides and squeals from the trumpet, and a loose alliance with the piano, which feels free at times to go its own way. There’s a strain of Ivesian obstinacy and dogged unconventionality that makes None of the Above more creative than ornery.
The story of David and Goliath is given musical form, of a sort, in Justin Casinghino’s piece for trumpet and electronics, …And So Then I Threw the Stone. The composer, who also serves as electronics performer, tells us that the piece is about decisive action but also the ripple effect when a stone lands in the water. The software program takes the sounds made by the trumpet, usually single notes in short bursts, and “stretches them through time” in a fading echo effect that dies away and gets entangled with various electronic manipulations. Unlike much electronica, the piece is accessible and engrossing.
Finally, we exit on Michael Mikulka’s upbeat Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble, which is the kind of piece that begs to be loved. The idiom varies between classical and jazz influences, the composer says, but the overall effect is a free-for-all entertainment that allows Stetson to give his virtuosity free rein. The scoring for wind band is colorful, the rhythms mostly syncopated to keep the energy level up. Gershwin, Harry James, and Dizzy Gillespie smile down upon the piece, and so do we.
This almost dizzying array of styles is confronted with flexible, imaginative musicianship by Stetson, who is on the music faculty at Texas Tech University with a rich professional background behind him. His ability to communicate the trumpet’s entire range of tone and emotions is remarkable; he also plays the flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet in this program and seems to have every aspect of trumpet playing at his immediate command. The Texas Tech ensembles and pianist Becca Zeisler play at an impressive level of professionalism, and the two conductors, Philip Mann and Eric Allen, have the skill to extract impeccable stylishness from the student orchestra and band.
With so much to offer, this release has much broader appeal beyond trumpet fanciers. There’s joy in Stetson’s music-making, and it is captivating to hear his technical command and artistry.