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ISSUE 119 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/14/2006

Concert burns down house

By Joe Mignano
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 14, 2006

The St. Olaf Band has been friend to many living, up-and-coming composers under the baton of conductor Timothy Mahr, and its spring concert last Sunday was a vibrant testament to how fruitful premiering new music can be.

After a bland opener and a pleasant adaptation of Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," the show-stealer of the afternoon was the premiere of recently tenured Assistant Professor of Music Justin Merritt's "Inferno," a musical portrayal of hell based on the Inferno of Dante's Divine Comedy.

On one level, "Inferno" was essentially what everyone was expecting: a movie score. The audience was treated to a satisfyingly arcane, scary but entertaining Dantean romp through hell (complete with slave-boat style drumming, male incantations and flourishing brass hits) accompanied by a slideshow projected behind the band displaying an assortment of mildly creepy, hellish illustrations. But what will last in this reviewer's memory is the fresh, raw energy this totalist composer poured into his work.

The piece was most effective when Merritt let go of conventions and let his carefully assembled palettes of infernal noise blast over the audience, as in the "Furies at the Gates" and "City of Coffins" segments. It was clear that Merritt worked very hard to surpass the boundaries of traditional band sound, and that uniqueness made its best impressions in Merritt's sweeping Pendereckian textures combined with driving metrical gestures.

The real fireworks, however, came in the work's most impressive section, "River of Boiling Blood," which featured a virtuosic, polyrhythmic timpani quartet for percussionists on opposite ends of the stage, which encapsulated the work's delectable energy.

At best, "Inferno" is a smart, accessible thriller of a showpiece for the concert band repertoire. At its worst, it is a gloriously indulgent fantasy movie battle scene cue with balls. Either way, it was an unforgettable performance.

Following a lovely but shaky performance of Mozart's "Serenade No. 10 in B-flat (III)," the band premiered a clarinet concerto entitled "Desert Roads" by David Maslanka. Retiring professor of music and conductor of the St. Olaf Philharmonia Jo Ann Polley provided the solo of this contemplative work.

In contrast to "Inferno," Maslanka played off the traditional sonorities of the wind band to intimately color his conservative harmonies, often couched in brilliantly orchestrated timbral backdrops, especially in the delicate first movement. Maslanka's choice to gradually reduce the third movement to a romantic song between piano and clarinet was also very moving.

While the piece glowed warmly with the striking melodic subtlety that one expects from Maslanka, it ultimately did not dig quite as deep as his usual edgy fare, never really garnering the audience's full attention.

On that note, the program's only significant weakness was its length. By the end of the Maslanka piece both the audience and performers were noticeably fatigued, making the zany finale an exhausted limp to the finish.

In all, however, this extremely ambitious program paid off, introducing at least one new hit to the band world.

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