Here is another one of those releases that seems unpromising when it arrives in the mail (Who is Andrew Stetson? Who are these composers?) but that ends up delivering the goods, and then some. Andrew Stetson, you might have guessed from the headnote, is on the faculty at Texas Tech University in Lubbock—isn’t Stetson a good surname for a Texan?—and teaching seems very important to him, judging from his own website. He has performed all over the United States, and now he has released what appears to be his first solo CD of four works not previously recorded.
In this same issue, I review a trumpet CD by Chris Gekker, another musician based in academia. It is interesting to compare the two musicians as well as the two CDs. Not to oversimplify, but while Gekker’s CD is largely introspective, and highlights the clear, singing quality of his tone, Stetson’s is more overtly dramatic and virtuosic. You come away from Rise Above impressed, overall, by his flexibility, agility, and versatility.
Speaking of drama, the title of James Stephenson’s Concerto for Hope might elicit an eye-roll until one reads that it was composed for trumpeter Ryan Anthony of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (and formerly of the Canadian Brass), who had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012 at the age of 43. Three years later, Anthony asked Stephenson to compose a concerto that would “evoke the events that had shaped forever his views on life, the world, and relationships.” The first movement evokes Anthony’s pre-diagnosis life, “with a slight undertone of foreboding.” The mood changes suddenly in the second—initially, the music seems frozen in disbelief—and there is palpable anger later on in the movement. There is a passage in which other musicians play offstage, a representation of how life and music were going on without Anthony. The last movement is marked Speranza, which is the Italian word for “hope.” Conflicting tonalities represent the balance of fate, and fortunately, life and healing won out for Anthony, and the concerto ends explosively. Stephenson also has a background in trumpet performance, and so the concerto is written idiomatically—a real treat, if a difficult one, for any soloist who takes up the challenge. Musically, it is on the corner of John Corigliano Street and John Williams Avenue—Modernistic, yet with its heart on its sleeve, and there are tunes!
Mark Hagerty’s None of the Above is a four-movement suite for trumpet and piano. The title alludes to multiple choice questionnaires that never seem to include the precise choices that describe us! The movements are “None of the Above,” “B, C, or D,” “Other (explain),” and “All of the above,” and Hagerty finds musical equivalents for all of those choices. The music is as clever and evocative as the titles, evincing an intelligent sense of humor.
…And So Then I Threw the Stone by Justin Casinghino is a work for trumpet and electronics. In this case, the electronics are manipulations of the trumpet’s sound, all triggered in real-time using computer software. The composer writes that the work “is inspired by moments of great decision,” and the title apparently is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath. Casinghino’s electronics frequently places the trumpeter in a hall of distorting mirrors—I thought of Lady of Shanghai!—and this work is a good example of how technology can be used to serve a musical and dramatic purpose, rather than used gratuitously.
The final work is Michael Mikulka’s Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble, a very entertaining work in three concise movements—and once again, there are tunes! The first (Aggressive) is a sort of musical trapeze act, the second (Languid, luxurious, molto rubato) is Gershwinesque, and the third (Broadly, with emotion) builds up to a headlong race to the finish. To me, this sounds like a crowd-pleaser—thank you, Dr. Mikulka!
I’ve already praised our soloist, Andrew Stetson, but it does not hurt to do so again—with ease, he plays music that would terrify mortal trumpeters. I would be remiss if I did not also praise the student musicians who play in the first and last works. Clearly, Texas Tech has got a great music program, if its students are playing on this level. So, in every way, this disc is a winner, and I see no reason not to give it a top recommendation.