Melinda Wagner (b 1957) has garnered significant awards (most notably the Pulitzer in 1999), commissions from major orchestras, and positions as composer-in-residence and visiting faculty. The Trombone Concerto (2006) shows she can write a blockbuster. Ofcourse, it helps that the orchestra is the New York Philharmonic and that the soloist is its principal trombone, Joseph Alessi. Both are stupendous in this four-movement, 24-minute work. In I ('Satyr'), Ms Wagner challenges Alessi to conquer both a seemingly insurmountable part and an orchestra that seems to be generating entire galaxies of sound. Although there are a few moments of relative quiet, much of the action runs from intense to frantic. Spectacular sounds abound, and Alessi's cadenza is fantastic. II ('Elemental Things') seems like a slow-motion version of I—that galaxy of sound is unveiled again, but more slowly, with more lyricism, and with some quieter dynamic levels. A brief 'Litany' leads to the lively finale ('Catch').
Four Settings (2004) is scored for soprano with a chamber ensemble of woodwinds, strings, and piano. The texts (included) are by three poets. Robert Desnos wrote 'Last Poem' just before he died in a concentration camp in 1945. It speaks achingly of someone already gone, and of himself about to go, and Wagner's music fits it perfectly. The ending, where the ethereal becomes shrill, is a surprise. The music is suitably flighty in Denise Levertov's
'Wings', eerily calm in Emily Dickinson's 'Safe in their Alabaster Chambers', and tempestuous in Dickinson's 'Wild Nights!—Wild Nights'. Performers are the assured soprano Christine Brandeis, flutist Laura Gilbert, clarinetist Alan Kay, violinist Curtis Macomber, violist Richard O'Neill, cellist Fred Sherry, bassist John Feeney, and pianist Stephen Gosling. Karla Lemon, who died a year after the recording was made, is the conductor. Wagner wrote Wick (2000) for the New York New Music Ensemble, choosing the title because of the word's clipped sound and ous meanings and implications. The 16-minute work is first energetic, then quiet, and then lively again. The fine reading is by flutist Jayn Rosenfeld, clarinetist Jean Kopperud, violinist Linda Quan, cellist Chris Finckel, pianist Stephen Gosling, and percussionist Daniel Druckman. Jeffrey Milarsky conducts. This is terrific.
-Barry Kilpatrick, American Record Guide, Jan/Feb 2012 issue