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REVIEW: Brass!!
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Compooser's Voice


November 9, 2014
Review by Jack Crager

The title of the November 9 Composer’s Voice Concert — cited verbatim above — says it all. This is a celebration of brass instrumentation, an unusual feature in the chamber-oriented CV series, with a twist: Comfort meets cacophony. That is, conventional brass sounds, combined with highly adventurous compositions, make for an afternoon of dynamic surprises.

Christopher Bill

Trombonist Christopher Bill is first on the bill, starting with his own piece, “Celestial Mountains.” It’s an apt title, given the cavernous echoes he’ll produce — with a little help from electronics. Bill blows a series of notes that play back in a recorded loop, then adds harmony lines which are also looped, and the third time around creates triads. While these loops plays he solos over the top (and bottom) of this bluesy cadence. He breaks the loops to start a new pattern based on staccato blasts, then solos over this new loop, adding additional parts to create a rising miasma of sound like a Dixieland brass band…and then dials the mix down into a more subdued section, ending in long, fat low chords. It’s a marvelous combo of parts coaxed from a single instrument.

Bill continues the experimentation with George Forder’s “Music for One Instrument,” which he prefaces by noting that the piece “questions conventions.” That it does. It begins with a series of blips and sliding grace notes, with a striking loud-soft dynamic and a combination of irregular written parts and improvised lines. Part-way in, the piece calls for a muting effect from plastic bags filled with air, most commonly used as packing material in boxes, which creates fluttering, flattened blasts that give way to a series of mysterious chords to end the tune.

In Bill’s final piece, Richard Liverano’s “…all we endured since we parted,” he returns to using the electronic loops — but this time the return notes sound different from the lead ones, as if a second trombonist has taken off on his own plane, sometimes in symbiosis and other times in dissonance. In the final section, a series of short notes grow into a meandering melody line that ends on lonely notes, fading into electronic white noise, and Bill takes his bows.

Purchase Brass Ensemble

Having heard a solo trombonist who sounds like an ensemble, we shift to an actual group: the Purchase Brass Ensemble, from Purchase College, State University of New York, conducted by Peter Reit. They start with Greg Bartholomew’s playfully titled “Grand Imperial Promenade & Whimsy.” The cacophony of the warm-up indicates that the group — six trumpets, four French horns, three trombones, two tubas, and four percussionists — will take full advantage of Jan Hus Church’s round-sound acoustics. But the piece itself starts quietly, with contemplative exchanges between the three horn sections. This progress into a faster refrain led by the trumpets, answered by the calmer tones from trombones and tubas, mediated by harmonies from the French horns, with a series of call-and-responses between the high- and low-register voices that alternately provokes and soothes. The momentum suddenly builds in a flurry of crescendo and ends on a rich, bright chord.

The next piece, Shigeru Kan-no’s “St Clemens-St Stphen-O Dimention-Tone Police,” begins more ominously, with low rumbling brass augmented by timpani, shifting into minor-chord splatters accented by trumpet blasts and muted trombone phrases, the tension punctuated by the timpani’s rolls and fills; the notes pop right and left like a soundtrack to a fitful dream. This builds to a strident, unresolved, yet resonant ending.

The aforementioned Christopher Bill offers the next composition, “Bar Clandistino,” which traverses more conventional terrain. It begins with a series of orderly sounding major chords and reassuring variations, with tuba phrases that are echoed and expounded upon by the other voices like concentric circles in a pond; it shifts into a march-tempo exchange complete with hand-claps and swing-band grooves. Then matters settle back into slower chord shifts with trumpet-led soaring melodies, returning to the opening motif and resolving in a nice, end-of-movie closing.

Just when it seems that major chords are in vogue, the band commences with Kevin Timothy Austin’s “…if roots remain uncut and firm…” whose title hints at its discord. Its mysterious opening tones slide and blast into a slow build-up of tension hanging on the edge of resolution, finally flowering for a moment and then reverting back to dissonance, as if parts of a plant are trying in vain to sprout forth. The final section features low tuba rumbles joined by a cacophony of high chords that lead to an ending as mysterious as the piece’s beginning.

The Purchase Brass Ensemble closes the afternoon with the aptly titled “Fanfare and Frivolity,” by Gary Powell Nash. This begins with regal brass harmonies underpinned by three-part drum cadences and the occasional gong-bang, with call-and-response exchanges fit for a Queen’s court. This progresses into a more free-form section with each horn section heading in its own direction, creating a round-robin momentum pushed forward by the snare drums, until all parts synch back up for a climactic final flourish. As a blend of conventional brass dynamism with avant-garde undertones, it’s a fitting finale to the afternoon’s offerings.

You can find more as well as see and hear some of the performances at the following link: http://www.ComposersVoice.com/media/

Jack Crager

Jack Crager


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