John Mackey
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Review: Asphalt Cocktail | Dallas Winds | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

For the Band

Dallas Winds delivers, and records, an effective concert of the works of composer John Mackey.

published Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Photo: John Mackey
John Mackey

Dallas — On April 11, The Dallas Winds, under the energetic baton of Artistic Director Jerry Junkin, presented a concert of music by composer John Mackey in Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center. The concert was recorded for release to the public in the near future. Junkin asked for as much quiet as possible so that various coughs, sneezes and throat clearings would not have to be edited out. For the most part, the audience dutifully complied.

Mackey was in attendance and proved to be a clever MC, with many funny quips, even some that were humorously self-depreciating.

The program opened with Asphalt Cocktail, which will be the name of the new CD. This is a musical blast, or as Mackey said in the program notes: “…designed to shout.” It is impression of the “…grit and aggression” he feels living in New York City. It is full of brass, backbeats, mixed meter, big band, clarinet with slides and six percussionists hitting everything in sight. The overall effect is that it is very noisy. (Mackey must live on a very busy street.) However, it is virtuoso piece for the conductor, with its constantly changing meter. Junkin delivered an impressive performance.

Sheltering Sky was up next. This is Mackey in a reflective mood. It is slow-moving and filled with pseudo-folk songs. Mackey didn’t want to quote actual folksongs so he made up some of his own that hint to the real ones. It was very evocative and a pleasant six-minute reprieve from Mackey’s more in-your-face musical voice.

But he was back in is usual form with Antique Violences: Concerto for Trumpet. This piece actually has “violence” in the title. Mackey wrote the four movements based on the trumpet’s role in historical and bloody conflicts. It featured Christopher Martin, the principal trumpet in the New York Philharmonic, as soloist.

The first movement is about the battles of the past and Mackey writes in a harpsichord to date the battles in the Baroque period. The second describes the violence in the home. The third describes mourning (Martin switched to the mellower flugelhorn.) A beautiful sax solo ruminates on grief. He also incorporates a tone reminiscent of “Taps.” The last movement turns that grief into noisy anger.

Martin delivered a remarkably clean performance of all of the difficulties Mackey gave him to play. In the future, it should enter the repertoire because trumpet players will love to play it—if they can.

Martin played a short encore: Malice Toward None by John Williams, written for the film Lincoln. (Martin played it on the film soundtrack.)

The second half had four shorter pieces. The first was High Wire (2012). Mackey described it as a “flashy fanfare,” and that is exactly what it produced.

Hymn to a Blue Hour is more peaceful piece than is usual style. The Frozen Cathedral is dedicated to the memory of the son of John Locke, who led the consortium that funded the commission. Since his son loved Alaska and the Denali National Park, Mackey complied with an icy piece. He does this by creating a below-zero gale that blows through the piece.

There are both pitfalls and pleasures when presenting a performance made up of the work of one composer. The good part is that you can hear a range of pieces, written over a long stretch of time. The downside is that all the shortcomings of a composer’s style are more obvious than a single piece would necessarily reveal.

There is much to admire in Mackey’s music. His pieces have an innate energy and drive. He uses a huge percussion battery with a wide variety of percussion effects, and even some invented instruments. In one piece, a percussionist slammed a filled bucket on a table. All this is creative and effective, yet it doesn’t sound like a percussion concerto. He uses the instruments of the wind ensemble in a highly professional and clever manner. Even in the busiest moments, the individual lines are clear.

He relies on mixed meter to add energy and his bandistration is complex, with lots going on at the same time. He loves to take advantage of the very loud volume that a band can produce. His music is tonal, using variety of styles: from jazz and modernism to the Baroque. Occasionally, he uses dissonance, but not in a convincing manner. Frequently, they sound like wrong notes.

The biggest problem is that there isn’t much negative space. His music never stops to breathe. Only string instruments, which aren’t in a wind band, don’t need to take a breath at the end of phrases. This makes the music sound manufactured, rolling out in a single ceaseless stream that suddenly ends.

There is a well-known story, which might even be true, about Arnold Schoenberg addressing this very problem. Supposedly, he was intently listening to a reading of a student’s string quartet. After a while, he stopped them and said: “This is really an octet. You need four to play the instruments and another four to turn the pages. Where are the pauses to let the music breathe?”

But the bands love to play it and audiences love to hear it. It is all very exciting, fun to hear and as much fun to watch. There is little else that a composition can achieve.

A final note: This concert was recorded for future release, which is a good thing. Live recordings are, in general, more involving and immediate, even with an occasional cough. The sterile perfection of a studio recording is notably different: compiled and heavily edited as they are. All the notes are there but somehow they don’t unite into the piece. Music is an ephemeral art that vanishes the moment it ends. CDs capture these notes, in their brief existence and, forever frozen, there they remain for all time. A live recording also captures the spirit of the notes, as the players directly communicate with the audience.

We’ll look forward to hearing this one. Thanks For Reading

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For the Band
Dallas Winds delivers, and records, an effective concert of the works of composer John Mackey.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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