Reflections of the Way Brass Used to Be

Reflected in Brass:
Evelyn Glennie and the Black Dyke Band
RCA Victor Red Seal/BMG Classics

Street Songs:
Evelyn Glennie and the King's Singers
RCA Victor Red Seal/BMG Classics

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie, one of the most versatile instrumentalists of our day, has recorded everything from contemporary Japanese art music to a tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Having had a hand in commissioning over seventy new works for percussion, she is known as a scion of contemporary music. And for all her fabulous virtuosity and unimpeachable musicianship, she remains unshakably committed to entertaining people, as evidenced by her latest CD, Reflected in Brass.

Unusually for Glennie, this album contains only one new piece, a pastiche. Reminiscent of the days when cartoon scores were written by classically trained composers--which, of course, is what made those old Warner Brothers cartoons so musically delightful--Peter Graham's "Cartoon Music" uses trombone slides and "wa-wa" mutes, corny chromatic runs and silly "wrong-note" chords. Even better, it employs numerous theatre-drummer "traps" like birdcalls, popguns and whoopie-whistles.

Of course, behind the fun is serious music-making. Peter Graham's musical arrangements allow the technical accomplishment of the formidable Black Dyke band to shine through, while making skillfully idiomatic use of the solo xylophone. For anyone with kids in school band, the music of the English band tradition may be the stuff to put into their ears, even before the orchestral repertoire. This kind of community music-making--the Black Dyke band was originally associated with a town mill--has long been a mainstay of British musical life. (Remember the factory band in "The Full Monty?") And alongside the "novelty" pieces associated with the stage is some creditable concert music.

James Barnes' "Yorkshire Ballad," a Percy Grainger-ish, folksongy piece, shows off the band's big, round, warm sound, while Glennie does a version of the shopworn "Londonderry Air" that is--in her solo marimba arrangement--sensitive and memorable.

She switches to Vibraphone on an arrangement of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie No. 1," a piano piece made famous by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. As the explosion of mallet-instrument playing outstrips the composition of new music, players continue to adapt material written for other instruments; another track, Carl Hohne's late-Romantic concert-piece "Slavische Fantasie," was adapted from a cornet solo.

The liner notes go beyond informative to fulsome; would the same could be said of another Glennie collaboration, Street Songs. A joint project with the King's Singers, this disc's Spartan notes contain none of the lyrics, making for a real listening challenge, the Singer's exemplary diction notwithstanding. Steve Martland's Street Songs, based on English children's rhymes, are especially tough to decipher.

But they are interesting--especially the rhythmically infectious "Poor Roger." The words, full of the bizarre gallows humor that characterizes children's game-songs, are broken up, repeated, and overlapped as though looked at through a kaleidoscope. Even though the composer's approach seems deliberately obscurantism, it does make both the fun and the sublimated scariness of these ditties starker.

Especially beautiful is Peter Klatzow's "Return of the Moon," a five-movement work with texts about the San, or Bushmen, of southern Africa. The expert marimba writing, and very fine use of the King's Singers unique configuration of voices, produces a mesmerizing effect.

Stanley Glasser's "Lalela Zulu," with Zulu-language lyrics by Lewis Nkosi, makes liberal use of South African choral techniques, such as shouting and various non-pitched vocal effects, woven into the simple harmonic textures which often mask rhythmically charged writing. A half-dozen white Englishmen tackling music inspired by large-choir African singing could be embarrassing, but the effect is altogether convincing and exuberant.

It's difficult to understand the trajectory of the album as a whole, however. The several African pieces, some of which were commissioned for the Singers' South African tour, are sandwiched between the four movements of the title work. This arch-like structure seems to bespeak a larger formal intention, but the whole fails to cohere. The loss of innocence the African peoples experienced with the arrival of Europeans, interspersed with the twisted adult sophistication lurking beneath children's rhymes, may be too abstract a theme to come off musically. But that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of good music here.

Scott Robinson is a frequent reviewer of music for Minnesota Parent.

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