The University of Houston Percussion Ensemble is one of the most widely admired percussion groups in the United States. Albany Records' album Surge is a collection of works that the group's director, Blake Wilkins, commissioned in the early years of the 2000s. Unfortunately, not everything Wilkins collected in this manner shows off his group to its best advantage, but in the meantime, it is not a bad showcase for what this group can do.
Rob Smith's Surge, although it pays some lip service to rock music and its distinct style of drumming, almost sounds in part like something that might play in the background of a newsbreak. Donald Grantham's Houston Strokes has a sort of mid-century sound to it, and observes four-movement symphonic form that further relates it to the aura of 1950s percussion music, even though it has some cute, gleeful moments here and there. Bruce Hamilton's Rapture of Undream reaches even further into the past, back to the 1930s and pieces like John J. Becker's The Abongo, although there is some rock drumming in there, too -- some of it might remind you of being on the parade ground with the football team. At least it's generally exciting in a rhythmic sense; Kevin Erickson's At the Dawn of War is almost calculated to offend somebody, an "In Memoriam 9/11" that to some extent pictorializes the actual event. Even though Japanese composers have written works that represent the A-bomb attack on Hiroshima, not many of us who witnessed the work on television necessarily want to experience it again in musical form (and admittedly, neither did Erickson, but he went ahead anyway.) The very best work on Surge is that by the director, Wilkins, Melos, which approaches the ensemble with a kind of klangfarbenmelodie that unfolds in a mysterious and appealingly atmospheric fashion.
Surge is a very mixed bag, though if you're heavily into percussion, you will want to hear it anyway. The University of Houston Percussion Ensemble is such a terrific group; perhaps in the future the group will get commissions back from composers who are able to park their baggage and write something that answers this ensemble's capabilities.