Texas Tech University trumpet professor Andrew Stetson in a terrific program of four recently composed works. Each is scored for different forces. James Stephenson’s Concerto for Hope (2015) is a 3-movement, 21-minute work with orchestra. Written for trumpet virtuoso Ryan Anthony, who is battling cancer, the piece nicely balances virtuosity and lyricism, heroism and introspection, despair and optimism. Texas Tech’s student orchestra gives it a terrific reading.
I greatly enjoy Mark Hagerty’s 4-movement, 19-minute None of the Above for trumpet and piano, “a sardonic take on traditional questionnaires and exams that tend to force respondents and answers into narrow, predefined categories”. After an angular and energetic I (‘None of the Above’), II (‘B, C, and D’) is based on those three notes. ‘Other (Explain)’ combines ancient compositional techniques with a modern scale. The fascinating work ends quietly with the often bitonal
‘All of the Above’, where a quasi-improvised trumpet melody is heard over a repeated piano chord progression. Pianist Becca Zeisler plays beautifully.
Justin Casinghino’s …and so then I threw the stone is a 12-minute study for trumpet and electronics, the accompaniment generated via software by the trumpet’s phrases. Inspired by the story of David and Goliath, the work essentially depicts action (trumpet) that causes consequences (electronics). There are moments where it sounds as if there are about 100 Andrew Stetsons playing unison rhythms on different pitches.
The album ends with Michael Mikulka’s 3-movement, 13-minute concerto for trumpet and wind ensemble. I (‘Aggressive’) has an epic quality; a sultry II resembles Gershwin’s laid-back blues; and III is witty and buoyant. Fine work by the Texas Tech Symphonic Band.
Andrew Stetson is a fine trumpet player with all the skills needed for these excellent works.
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.
This brilliantly played recital of works for trumpet with various accompanying forces opens with the Concerto for Hope by noted American composer James Stephenson. Stephenson has carved out an impressive niche for himself as one of the top leading composers for concertos and other works for brass and woodwinds. I have given rave reviews to any number of CDs that contained his music, which is both enjoyable to perform and listen to, but also substantive and original. This is also certainly the case is his Third Trumpet Concerto, which was written for Ryan Anthony, principal trumpeter with the Dallas SO and former member of Canadian Brass. The title of the concerto derives from the fact that it musically depicts Anthony’s unexpected diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a terminal cancer of the bone marrow. The trumpeter’s determination, along with undoubted skill of his doctors, has enabled him to live with the cancer in remission for some time now.
The three-movement work opens with some ominous rumblings in the orchestra over which soaring melodic lines in the winds are heard. After a fairly extended introduction, the solo trumpet makes a quiet appearance that quickly builds up to a fortissimo climax on a high B. The movement ebbs and flows, inexorably carrying the listener from one climax to the other, but the uneasy accompanimental underpinnings of the trumpet’s soaring melodies are omnipresent until the movement’s concluding whisper. The second movement follows directly on the heels of the first, but the ominous quality of the music is ratcheted up several notches, as is the dissonance (undoubtedly portraying the horror of the diagnosis). Shortly after the two-minute mark in this movement comes a most anguished cry from the soloist, seemingly asking “why me?!” The remainder of the movement features lamenting lines by the trumpet underscored by subtle gestures from the ensemble, and at one point an accompaniment by an off-stage group comprising violin, cello, and brass, a very effective musical depiction of the feelings of loneliness and even abandonment that Anthony must have been feeling during this dark period of his life. Quite a contrast is formed, then, by the upbeat and life-affirming final movement, with a lively and syncopated florid tune in the trumpet undergirded by quickly repeated notes and fast runs in the orchestra. The work is masterful throughout in its construction and effect upon the listener. I don’t believe I’d be required have much in the way of prognosticative power to predict accurately the quick adoption of this concerto into the standard repertory of the trumpet. Stetson really whips the piece off in splendid fashion, adroitly handling the tricky tonguing and other technical and musical challenges demanded of the soloist. Kudos must also be given to the Texas Tech SO under the tightly controlled leadership of conductor Philip Mann for a superlative collaboration in this work.
The remaining three composers are new to me, and judging by the Archive, likely to Fanfare’s readership as well. Mark Haggerty is a trumpeter himself, who also studied voice and composition at Oberlin Conservatory, and then specialized in the latter at Brandeis University. His secure compositional technique earned him early on the Joseph H. Bearns Prize from Columbia University, and it is on good display in the present work as well. The cutely monikered None of the Above contains four movements, an eponymous lively opening movement, followed by a subtle “B, C, and D” (featuring muted trumpet and a repeated sequence of three obscure chords), a rhythmically disjointed “Other (explain),” and the gently calming and somewhat jazz-tinged “All of the Above.” The harmonic language of the suite I would term “non-tonal” rather than “atonal.” The work, a most attractive addition to the trumpet and piano literature, was written for and dedicated to Andrew Stetson and Becca Zeisler, who play it superbly in every musical parameter.
A real change of pace comes in Justin Casinghino’s …And So Then I Threw the Stone, scored for trumpet and electronics. The 12-minute work begins with a series of upward figures in the trumpet which are captured by a microphone and then distorted and modified in interesting ways by the computer. In some places, the trumpet is relatively undistorted in the delays, such that an effect of multiple trumpets performing together is achieved. The work is a lot of fun to listen to (and undoubtedly to play) and presents the auditor with all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. The piece demonstrates a vivid imagination and superb control over the musical elements of the work by its composer. Since the rate of delay is not constant throughout the work, it would seem that continual control of the electronics is required of him. Casinghino is based in Boston, where he serves as a lecturer at Boston University. He is also the Associate Director of the Young Artists’ Composition Program and Director of the Electro-acoustic Composition Workshop of the Tanglewood Institute.
The program concludes with the Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble by Michael Mikulka, who is a hornist as well as a skilled composer. This light-hearted and ingratiating work may fall easily upon the ear, but it is substantive as well, and will not reveal all of its secrets upon a single hearing. Its tonality is established so firmly that I suspect that key signatures are employed in the work. I particularly enjoyed the intricate interplay between soloist and ensemble in this relatively brief (13-minute, three movement) work. A languid and gorgeous interior movement interrupts the busy activity of the opening movement before giving way once again to the fireworks of the closer, creating a powerful impression. Mikulka has had quite a bit of success in competitions and commissions, and is an active member of the musical community in Austin, performing in Density 512 and Lab Orchestra. He is also the author of A Practical Method of Horn Multiphonics and is currently is on the faculty of Southwestern University, where he teaches theory and composition. Conductor Eric Allen and the Texas Tech University Symphonic Band do a yeoman job in bringing this work to life, as does the superlative trumpet playing of the soloist.
This is an all-round winning recital, given the strong performances of equally strong music, and should win Andrew Stetson and his colleagues a lot of new fans. Most highly recommended in every respect.
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.
After the interior ruminations of Chris Gekker’s Moon Marked disc (reviewed elsewhere in this issue), here is a disc that showcases the more familiar aspect of the trumpet: bright, ballsy, virtuoso, glistening. The Moderato indicator for the first movement of James Stephenson’s Concerto for Hope belies an active surface (plenty of notes for the soloist, here the indefatigable Andrew Stetson); but moments of happiness are underpinned by a sense of foreboding. When one reads that the concerto is a commission from trumpeter Ryan Anthony, who has battled multiple myeloma, it starts to fall into place, the feeling that all might not be bright and shiny forever. The central Adagio carries a plaintive line, a portrayal of disbelief and sadness, climaxing in something of an Urschrei from the soloist—certainly, at the very least, a true cry from the heart. The final movement is designated as “Speranza” (hope) and culminates in the use of piccolo trumpet in the shiny key of G Major. It is all quite the journey, and really quite a musical exploration of emotional states for Stephenson to take on. He does so brilliantly and triumphantly, and in Andrew Stetson he has the ideal interpreter, by turns glisteningly virtuosic and emotionally raw. I described an all-Stephenson disc on Cedille as “something of a must-have” in Fanfare 42:1; the present work is a valuable addition to the Stephenson discography.
Dedicated to the present performers, Mark Hagerty’s None of the Above takes the idea of questionnaires in examinations and questionnaires while rejecting such restrictive modes. The title, then, is one of the options often seen in such multiple choice arrays (it is also the title of the first movement, balanced by the finale’s “All of the Above,” and with “B, C or D” and “Other (explain)” as the other movement titles). It is but a short step to take the options B, C, and D and migrate the letters to pitch classes, as Hagerty does here; most interesting musically, though, is the third movement, “Other (explain),” which mixes fauxbourdon with the octatonic scale, while the final “All of the Above” has a pronounced bluesy feel to it.
The composer Justin Casinghino, a pupil of both Foss and Schuller, is credited with the electronics in …And So Then I Threw the Stone, depicting those moments of decision-making and with a title that also refers to the Biblical myth of David and Goliath. Real-time manipulations of the source sounds also imply ripples after the stone has been thrown. It works beautifully, requiring a solid technique (a split note would go a long way here); Stetson delivers the goods. Fairly obviously, headphones work particularly well for this piece, its multiple fanfare references entirely apt to the manner of composition here. This is presented here in a two-track stereo mix. This appears to be the first piece by Casinghino (b. 1978) reviewed by Fanfare (there are no references in the Fanfare Archive); I hope it will not be the last.
Finally, there comes Michael Mikulka’s Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble and a return to Texas Tech University, but to the symphonic band this time, not the orchestra. This is a short (12-minute) extravaganza. The sheer vim of the first movement enables Stetson’s natural effervescence to shine through; even when the music turns cantabile, there are cheeky comments to be had from the accompanying band. Marked “Languid, luxurious, molto rubato,” the slow movement is a moment of pure repose, again blues-influenced, this time near-horizontal in its laid-back demeanor. Stetson’s lines are deliciously quasi-improvised. Although the booklet notes reference Gershwin as regards the second movement, I personally hear just as much of that composer in the deliciously unbuttoned finale (it is as if An American in Paris hovers somewhere in the background).
All four works are world premiere recordings, all set down in fine sound that captures the purity of Stetson’s sound as well as each and every 16th, 32nd, or 64th note of his brilliance. There is a lot of fun here, too. Recommended.
In dark and troubled times, hopefulness can be difficult to come by – but sometimes, if not always, music can be a bridge to a better future. That is certainly the intention of Concerto for Hope by James Stephenson (born 1969). The work is designed to reflect the positive attitude of trumpeter Ryan Anthony, who responded to being diagnosed with a blood cancer, multiple myeloma, by establishing a foundation and creating fundraisers called “Cancer Blows.” Knowing this background helps set the scene for Stephenson’s concerto; knowing that some of the money spent on the MSR Classics disc containing the concerto is donated to Anthony’s foundation may encourage listeners to buy the CD. For most people, though, the main interest here is likely to be hearing Andrew Stetson’s skilled performance in this world première recording, along with his handling of three other world premières. The Stephenson concerto is laid out in the traditional three movements, the third bearing the specific title Speranza, and lies well on the solo instrument. Both the Moderato first movement and the Adagio second are meditative, with the second movement’s extended solo-trumpet focus inviting expressively elegant playing. The finale is more dissonant than the other movements, a slightly disconcerting fact in light of its “hope” title, but it is upbeat enough to make an effective conclusion to the concerto.
None of the Above by Mark Hagerty (born 1953) was written for the performers heard here, Stetson and pianist Becca Zeisler. It is a very different work from Stephenson’s and is a kind of “cause” piece in a different sense. The work’s overall title is also the title of the first of its four movements, most of which is a cacophonous eruption from the two instruments. The second movement, B, C & D, is a meandering piece based on the three tones of its title. The third movement is called Other (explain) and is a sort-of dance that mixes old and new compositional techniques. The finale is called, perhaps inevitably, All of the Above, and is the “cause” heart of the work, aimed at hoped-for acceptance of all people and all attitudes and all sorts of music. It is less interesting than the other movements, though, and sounds a bit like warmed-over Ives. The next work on the disc is called (with ellipsis) …And So Then I Threw the Stone. It is by Justin Casinghino (born 1978), and sounds a bit like warmed-over acoustic-plus-electronic music of all sorts. Lasting 12 minutes, longer than any movement of any of the other works on the CD, it overstays its welcome and does not showcase Stetson’s warmth and musical sensitivity particularly well. The final work offered here, Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble by Michael Mikulka (born 1985), is considerably more interesting. Its three movements together are only slightly longer than Casinghino’s single one, but Mikulka shows considerable skill in writing both for the solo instrument and for the ensemble. Rather old-fashioned lyricism keeps creeping into the concerto, even in its more-pointed sections (the first movement is marked Aggressive). Mikulka overdoes a few effects, especially in the third movement – a finale in which the parts for both trumpet and ensemble are less distinctive than in the first two movements. But the blending of solo and band is effective even here, and this work, along with Stephenson’s concerto, will be especially attractive for audiences interested not only in fine playing but also in well-wrought contemporary trumpet music.
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