23 January 2012


Brassy says it all: glorious, rich, rounded, sonorous. One of the tutors for the Brass ensemble at the Australian Youth Orchestra’s Music camp, I think it was Nick Byrne, said they were seeking to develop an ensemble sensibility on and off stage. This sounds about right. Thinking back, I remember some playing that stunned me, some rapid fire lines from a tuba, but it was the rich sonority of the collected brass that floored me. They didn’t need more. Just to luxuriate in this rotundity is blissful. The concert started with a fanfare (how could it not?) and I just sat back in wonder as the simple majesty of it all. This was all the ensemble, both tutors and students (30 brass players, with occasional supplementation by 4 percussionists), on for the first and last tunes. It was big and beautiful and bountiful. But there was also a range of smaller ensembles, with that sine-curve clarity of trumpet, billowing depth of tuba, the earthier tones of horns and the trombones somewhere in between.

The opening fanfare was Dukas’ Fanfare from La Peri. Quite short, but powerful and full. Then Elena Kats-Chernin’s Stabat Mater for Brass. Starting with a steady stream of quavers then into a fog-horn deep tuba accompanied by percussion. Bell like tones accompanied by real bells. I heard mostly a descending 4-chord, 4-bar accompaniment with intuitive and unforced melody. K-C is wonderfully accessible and her popularity is easy to understand. Then Gabrielli’s take on sacred music, the Sonata pian e forte. This is mediaeval sacred music taking me back to a region I know well. It was written for the famed cathedral of San Marco in Venice, with its “substantial echo and delay”, originally with two brass choirs located on two balconies. It’s an antiphonal, which means responsive singing from two choirs, here, choirs of brass. Interestingly, this was one of the first pieces written with notated dynamics. I heard it as perfectly formed classical brass tone; two choirs (one of four trombones; one of three trumpets and one trombone) responding to eachother with segments of a few bars; steady crochets and quavers that were absolutely square in time; occasionally revelling in a fanfare. Next was Grieg’s Death of Åse transposed to a more brass-friendly key. This was a wonderfully tremulous and deeply tragic funeral march. It’s a famous melody and richly evocative in this instrumentation. Then selections from JS Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no.1 arranged by Melbournite Ben Mansted and kept in the original brass-challenging key. What’s not to love in these flowing, perfectly balanced, contrapuntal lines that glow with dignity. I learned a new instrument here - the rotary valve piccolo trumpet. There were two of them and they played a major role in the Brandenburg with their piercing high pitched snippets of melody. Lovely! Most of the works were fairly short, but the Bach and the following modern piece, Rautavaara’s Requiem for our times, were longer. Einojuhani Rautavaara is a living Finnish composer who won competitions under Sibelius and studied in the US with the likes of Aaron Copland. His Requiem was in four movements. There was early fanfare with considerable dissonance; busy trumpet and trombone tonguing with percussion accompaniment; belligerent horns against trumpets and synchronised hits by deep brass and percussion; distant trumpets and graphic, filmic melody. Then to end, a euphonium melody over trumpets. Suffice to say it was rich in techniques and tonalities; sometimes smooth and sometimes powerful and outspoken. But for me, not such a favourite. Item 7 was a strangely modern, illustrative piece, Daugherty’s Motown metal. I had expected this to refer to Motown, the music label, but this was obviously a paean to Detroit, motor city. Now this was very different again! It started with the sounds of an accelerating manual car from several trombones, then a fast rising arpeggio that moved through the band as it was echoed by different instruments. This was brash industrial Americana, celebrating the rise and recent decay of this notable city. I found it fascinating and adventurous music that was widely informed outside the classical repertoire. (On a personal note, the comparison of Rautavaara’s Scandinavian rumination with Daugherty’s American bluster just confirms my musical preferences.) The end was another all-in brass masterwork, Richard Strauss’ Feierlicher Einzug. It’s another fanfare, a solemn procession that was originally written for 17 trumpets: huge, slow, loud, mournful but dignified. Dignified: as brass can so successfully be.

So, a wonderful outing of inspired and blissfully sonorous music and one that I look forward fondly to revisiting. Various combinations of brass players from the Australian Youth Orchestra performed Dukas’ Fanfare from La Peri, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Stabat Mater, Gabrielli’s Sonata pian e forte, Grieg’s Death of Åse, selections from JS Bach’s Brandenburg concerto no.1, Rautavaara’s Requiem for our times, Daugherty’s Motown metal and Richard Strauss’ Feierlicher Einzug.

This is CJBlog post no. 750.

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