John Williams scores transcribed for band. It should have worked! But not quite.
***PLEASE NOTE*** This is an updated review. After re-reading my initial observations and listening once again to this disc, I've decided I was unduly harsh and perhaps overly critical of music director, Jerry Junkin. Thus, these are revised comments below.
I have struggled with this one. There is just something not quite right here and it has taken me some time to put my finger on it. After listening to it three times on 2 different systems, I've come to the conclusion that this is a poorly engineered recording. And I do have some issues with the overall interpretations from director Jerry Junkin as well.
First, a few details about the music on offer here. The transcriptions are better than expected and are actually quite well done. They are not overly simplified and sound to be closely based upon the original orchestrations (and in the original key), as much as possible without the strings, of course. I'm glad to see these transcriptions (available from SheetMusicPlus.com) getting some exposure. Although, I hasten to forewarn high school band directors that they are very difficult to play.
As performances, Mr. Junkin favors refinement over extrovert excitement and involvement. I found most of these readings to be polite and much too careful. This approach suits the lyrical selections very well (Lincoln, JFK and sections of The Force Awakens). But in all the rest, anyone familiar with the original soundtracks or with any of the myriad recordings made by John Williams himself, will find these to be fairly mellow and lacking adrenaline.
But the real problem here is the recording itself. First, the hall acoustic is difficult. Meyerson Symphony Center (home of the Dallas Symphony) has a very reverberant, cavernous, swampy acoustic which was not adequately mitigated or addressed by the recording team. They allow it to reverberate and swamp over the proceedings, which often obscures the woodwinds. But then - incredibly - the reverb at the end of selections with a big climax is swiftly cut off by the engineers. Yes, in 2018, we have a record company which does not allow the acoustic reverberation to decay naturally; it is truncated into silence by a twist of the level knob. Also, I hear an unnatural boost in the microphone levels in some climaxes, presumably to maximize impact. Yes, in 2018, we have a record company "enhancing" the volume level on climaxes. This boost sounds so artificially manipulated, I suspect that during these passages, additional microphones are activated, which are turned off the rest of the time. When it occurs, the sound takes on a digital glare over the acoustic and an edge to the trumpets and cymbals, which is not present elsewhere. This is so very odd, so completely unnecessary and completely baffling why it would be employed.
Microphone placement also sounds to be part of the problem with regard to balance. The brass and percussion overwhelm and overpower the entire ensemble when playing at full tilt (and when boosted by the control room). Then during quieter moments, the woodwinds often sound anemic and seriously underpowered. They sound far away from the nearest microphone and they lose intensity and presence, swallowed up into the mists of the big huge empty hall.
In sum, this was an interesting enterprise and a great idea. Mr. Junkin obtained some expertly crafted transcriptions (by Jay Bocook, Paul Lavender and Stephen Bulla), which, under better circumstances, should have worked very well. The playing itself is mostly excellent. But the rather laid-back, over-refined interpretations are less than satisfactory. And ultimately we are let down by the recording. The weak woodwind contributions are a problem; the percussion is surely too prominently mic'ed; and the acoustic is untamed. Finally, the knob-twiddling from the control room is simply outrageous from a modern recording.
Band directors everywhere will be interested to hear this disc. And with a good deal more tolerance than I have, it is revelatory in the art of band transcriptions. However, from a purely musical standpoint, its faults bring disappointment, especially knowing that this endeavor surely had all the ingredients necessary to be excellent - if only in the right hands.
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