Brass septet produces haunting and enjoyable chamber music at the MFC

Septura Brass Septet: An American in Paris
(Chamber Music New Zealand)

Ravel: Ma mére l’Oye (Mother Goose)
Debussy: Preludes
Gershwin: Three Piano Preludes; Songbook; An American in Paris

Michael Fowler Centre

Tuesday 30 April, 7:30 pm, 2019

Three trumpets, three trombones, one a bass trombone, and a tuba is not the usual combination for a chamber music concert, but seven principal brass players of London Symphony orchestras got together to demonstrate that brass is capable of producing chamber music. Horns, such an integral part of the brass section of an orchestra, were missing. They might have added a mellower sound to the ensemble, but obviously this was not what these players had in mind. Simon Cox and Matthew Knight, the two artistic directors of the group arranged the music for them. Their guiding principle was that the music should sound as if it was originally written for brass.

The audience was challenged to leave their preconceived ideas of what the music should sound like at the door and listen with fresh ears. The pieces in this programme are well known and familiar, but played by a brass ensemble they all sounded new.

Ravel and Gershwin knew each other and held each other in high esteem; they were both influenced by Debussy. It was this relationship that was the theme that held these works together.

The Mother Goose Suite, arranged from the piano duet rather than the orchestral version sounded colourful. It had a depth that cannot be attained on the piano. The special effects were enhanced by the innovate use of mutes. The beautiful rich sound of the brass was specially effective in the chorale sounding last movement, The Fairy Garden.

The Debussy Preludes for solo piano are lovely miniatures and played by the brass they attained a different, richer sound. The rich brass chords, the underlying bass of the trombones and tuba underscored the well-known melody of the Girl with the flaxen hair played on the trumpet. The trombones produced the humorous sound effects appropriate for the Minstrels. The Sunken Cathedral had beautiful bell like sounds produced with layer upon layer of brass sound. This was a different Debussy.

The second half of the programme was devoted to the music of Gershwin, arrangement of the Three Piano Preludes, short little pieces from the Songbook and the major work, An  American in Paris. Gershwin created a colourful world of his own which encapsulated the jazz age, the frivolity of the 1920s, and these pieces sounded particularly appropriate for a brass ensemble. It was an era after the First World War in which people believed that life was short, people had to make the most of it, live it up, seek happiness in gaiety, but underlying it all there was a touch of melancholy. This was captured by the joyful yet sensitive performance.

Britain has a great tradition of brass music, but this concert was a world away from the usual sound of brass bands. This group had a flexibility that tested the limits of the players’ ability and together they produced a sonority seldom heard. They shed new light on familiar music; one came away from the concert with the haunting sound of beautiful brass playing. It was a concert with a difference, but very enjoyable.


Interesting if unorthodox Festival programme of music for organ and brass at St Mary of the Angels

New Zealand Festival 2018: Chamber Music Series

“Fields of Poppies”
Paul Rosoman (organ)
and Monarch Brass Collective: Mike Kirgan, Mark Carter, Barrett Hocking (trumpets), David Bremner, Matthew Allison, Shannon Pittaway (trombones), Andrew Jarvis (tuba), Lenny Sakofsky (percussion)

Music by Schubert, Stanford, Widor, J C Kerll, Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bach, Vierne

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Tuesday 13 March, 6 pm

Having attended the previous chamber music concert in St Mary of the Angels which seemed to have an audience of only about 60 or 70, I was rather astonished to find that what was a predominantly organ recital was a full house (or should that be una chiesa piena?).

I have been heard to express a certain weariness at the four-year-long obsession with remembering the horrors of World War I; and the prospect of further intensification in November and perhaps long after, is perhaps not looked forward to.

Anyway, there were interesting features here: a chance to hear Maxwell Fernie’s organ played again after the church’s restoration and strengthening; the combining of organ and orchestral brass instruments, including a composer like Gabrieli; and a couple of French organ works from around the turn of the 2oth century (Widor and Vierne) – as a unredeemed francophile, I am susceptible.

The military setting was actually a very successful feature, with the crackling of a side drum (Sakofsky?) preceding the trumpet’s sounding of The Last Post (Michael Kirgan?): slow and poignant.

It was followed by an arrangement for organ and brass instruments by David Dobson of Schubert’s nonet for wind instruments, Eine kleine Trauermusik, written when he was 16 (already No 79 in the Deutsch catalogue!). I didn’t know it, but in this arrangement it certainly made a splendid sound in the church.

Stanford and Widor
Then came what I felt a less successful, and much longer work, the second organ sonata (in G minor, op 151) by Charles Villiers Stanford (the habitual use of his first names suggests that he’s still unknown to most people). Written in 1917 and dedicated to Widor (who was 7 years Stanford’s senior) and to France; its three movements depicted aspects of the war (Rheims, a solemn march and Verdun). However, its length was hardly justified by its portentousness and lack of any real humane feeling. Use of La Marseillaise was a feature but that hardly rescued it from its repetitiveness and distinctly second rating. However, the performance was bold and served to display both the organ’s clarity and colours, and the splendid acoustics of the church.

It was naturally a nice idea to follow the Stanford sonata with a Widor piece, also written during the war and actually composed for organ and the brass instruments engaged here. It displayed some of the same characteristics as the Stanford and one could sense an almost coming together of the two composers’ styles, from which Widor might have been the more disadvantaged. In spite of his famous toccata, Widor was not really a composer of flamboyant, heroic music.

The 16th and 17th centuries
Though the Thirty Years War (1628-48) set the German-speaking lands and some of their neighbours back a century in terms of cultural development (compare what was going on in 17th century France and England, even taking account of the Civil War; and look for Book Week star AC Grayling’s The Age of Genius: the Seventeenth Century), it seemed to have inspired music.

During and after the war music depicting battles was not uncommon; the example most familiar to me is by J C Kerll’s contemporary, Biber. Here, in Kerll’s ‘Imperial Battle’, brass was again as important as the organ in a piece that was processional and triumphant rather than reflecting the horrors of war. Yet the organ was adroitly integrated in the imperious clamour, and there was enough suggestion of a somewhat neglected Bach predecessor to make one curious about other Kerll compositions.

Then the brass players disappeared from the organ loft and reappeared making their way to the sanctuary where they played the following three works – by Giovanni Gabrieli, Brahms and Mendelssohn.

One expects to find prominent brass offerings in the splendid Venetian music of the Gabrieli, written to exploit with voices, organ and brass, the splendid acoustic of St Mark’s, Venice. Monarch Brass Collective chose one of the numerous pieces for brass in the Sacrae Sympnoniae, and the players’ impact with the Exultavit cor meum in Domino (C 53), in the even finer acoustics of the post-restoration church was very impressive.

Nineteenth century Germany
Brahms’s Geistliches Lied, Op 30, is an early work, written in 1856 but not performed till 1865. The programme notes remark that it was composed for chorus and organ, and so it was surprising to find it performed by the brass, without organ as far as I could tell from my restricted view of the organ loft. (I also had a restricted view of the screen suspended over the sanctuary showing Rosoman’s hands and feet at the organ, as well as the brass players and roaming around the splendid vaulting and stained glass. It was a good initiative.)

The brass ensemble remained in front of the altar to perform Mendelssohn’s second organ sonata; here I confess, I was perhaps even more surprised and perhaps a little disappointed to hear a brass arrangement of one of Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas instead of the real thing. Not that I have ever been especially enamoured of his organ works, but I’m always ready to be invited to reconsider: not this time though. I was not the only one to find the lack of specific information in the programme a little confusing; here there was no mention of its rearrangement for brass, or details of its movements which allowed applause after each break between movements.

The arrangement for entirely different instruments rather obliterated Mendelssohn’s fingerprints, causing one to wonder whether it was indeed, Mendelssohn.

A Bach Chorale Prelude
For the following Bach piece, the brass collective, accompanied by the rattle of side drum, retreated again to the organ loft where they joined with the organ in the Chorale Prelude ‘Aus tiefer Not’ which was drawn from his cantata of the same name, BWV 38; the former is considered a more interesting piece, indeed, one of the most admired of his chorale preludes. The addition of brass was not as alienating from one’s awareness of Bach’s genius as it had been with Mendelssohn, and it came off well.

Finale in France
The concert ended with a piece by Vierne, also with a connection with war. 1921 marked the centenary of Napoleon’s death and this was a commission for the commemorative service at Notre Dame Cathedral. It was very appropriate for this concert, as it returned to the character of Widor’s piece in employing the same instrumental forces and adopting a comparable triumphant, celebratory character. Its finale was particularly effecting: as the brass died away the organ took up a great concluding fugue, and brass rejoined with a certain un-Viernish triumphalism and grandeur.

Though I have had several minor criticisms of the programme booklet and of the musical arrangements, the concert broadly achieved its aims in attracting a big audience to interesting and worthwhile music that would have been unfamiliar to most. And that’s always a good thing.

NZSO Soloists – becoming as sounding brass

BRASS SPLENDOUR from the NZSO Soloists

ELGAR (arr. Wick) – Severn Suite Op.87 / GRIEG (arr. Emerson) – Funeral March in memory of Rikard Nordraak

HANDEL (arr.Maunder) – Music for the Royal Fireworks / GABRIELI – Sacrae Symphoniae: Canzon 10

BRUCKNER (arr.Rose) – 2 Motets / R.STRAUSS (arr. Maunder)- Festmusik der Stadt Wien

NZSO players:

Michael Kirgan, Cheryl Hollinger, Mark Carter, Thomas Moyer (trumpets)

Peter Sharman, David Moonan (horns)  / David Bremner, Peter Maunder (trombones)

Andrew Jarvis (tuba) / Bruce McKinnon, Leonard Sakofsky, Thomas Guldborg (percussion) / Laurence Reese (timpani)

Guest players:

Andrew Bain (horn, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) / Elizabeth Simpson (horn, Ottawa National Arts Centre Orchestra)

Tom Coyle (trombone, Queensland Symphony Orchestra) / Scott Kinmont (trombone, Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

Town Hall, Wellington

Thursday 28th July, 2011

The irony of former Principal Horn Ed Allen’s retirement from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra virtually on the eve of the Orchestral Brass Soloists’ Tour wasn’t lost on the writer of a section of the concert program, the part entitled “Musical Chairs”. Replacing Ed Allen for the four-concert tour was Andrew Bain, (sporting the title “Guest Principal Horn”), in fact Principal Horn of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But there’s more – compounding the musical “exchange rate” were three other “guest musicians” featured on the “Brass Splendour” tour – the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Tom Doyle sat in for NZSO Principal Bass Trombone Graeme Browne (on leave), while Canadian Elizabeth Simpson (from the National Arts Centre Orchestra of Ottawa) swapped places with NZSO Sub-Principal Horn Heather Thompson, who’s enjoying a Canadian summer playing Fourth Horn with the Ottawa NACO. As well, Sydney Symphony Orchestra Associate Principal Trombone Scott Kinmont was invited to join the tour. I’m put in mind of what comedian and raconteur Michael Flanders once said, introducing a performance of his and Donald Swann’s show “At The Drop of A Hat” – “Right! – double bookings sorted out, are they?” However, despite these changes having been rung, the ensemble looked and sounded confident and stylish as its members filed onto the Wellington Town Hall stage and began the concert.

Elgar’s Severn Suite was first up, an arrangement for brass ensemble by Dennis Wick. The original brass band version, sketched out by Elgar and orchestrated by one Henry Geehl (over which result there was trouble between arranger and composer) was dedicated to George Bernard Shaw, who declared that the music “would ensure my immortality when all my plays are dead and damned and forgotten”. Amusingly, Shaw suggested to Elgar that he ought to use bandsmen’s language in the score instead of the usual Italian: – “For instance, remember that a Minuet is a dance and not a bloody hymn; or, steady up for artillery attack; or now – like Hell!” Shaw claimed his suggestions would help some of the modest beginner players.

Perhaps this ensemble’s members had read Shaw’s advice to Elgar as well – because they tore into the opening “Worcester Castle” almost unceremoniously, leaving behind any notions of Elgarian “nobilmente” in favor of urgency and energy – too much so, for me, though plenty of others would have found it exciting. I thought the lack of pomp and grandeur at the beginning made an insufficient tempo contrast with the following “Tournament” which was where the true excitement needed to happen. As it was, the drum-taps beginning the “Tournament” episode didn’t have the sense of pent-up expectation they ought to have generated, largely because a lot of rhythmic impetus had already been spent by the playing throughout the opening. I wondered whether this was a factor in the noticeable proportion of mis-hit notes we heard early on, the players certainly taking some time to “warm up”. As well, I wondered whether for this particular work the ensemble actually needed the guiding hand of a conductor, someone who could have helped bring out the “swagger” of the off-beat rhythms, so difficult for an undirected group to bring off. In fact, at one point during the “Minuet”, I did notice trombonist David Bremner (I think it was) making conducting gestures, lending the group a pre-arranged hand, no doubt. By the time the opening music had returned (still a shade too fast for me – Elgar’s music has to have, I think, a certain “stride” in which both energy and solid girth have a part to play, with every footfall cogently advancing the argument in its own way) the playing had settled and the attack and intonation were more secure.

Things came together wonderfully for the players’ heartfelt rendition of a Grieg rarity, Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak. (Nordraak and Grieg were fellow-composers, the former inspiring the latter to make as his life’s work the cause of Norwegian music). Giving the music time for the tones to amply fill both physical and temporal spaces, the ensemble literally rose to the occasion in delivering a full-blooded,percussion-supported climax to a sequence that began with such wonderfully hushed, expectant melancholy at the outset. The players brought out the different instruments’ timbres, in particular making much of the contrasts in softer passages between trumpets and horns, and enjoyed the major key change in the “Trio” section of the music, Grieg interrupting the more cheerful, if piquant mood with a great horn outburst at the music’s heart, extremely forthright, but both brazen and noble by turns. This being a new work for me, I was impressed at the range, depth and darkness of emotion wrought by the composer, and thrilled and moved by the performance.

Trombonist Peter Maunder certainly had been busy for this concert, rearranging a lot of music for this particular ensemble, including Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (the programme’s playing order said Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien would follow the Grieg, but the Strauss and Handel items were swapped around). So it was Handel in Peter Maunder’s skilful realization, the playing here seeming to me influenced in style and sharp focus by the “authentic” school of Baroque performance – admirable in terms of clean, lean lines and sharply-defined rhythms, but somehow lacking a real sense of “occasion”. It’ll be considered heresy of me to say so, but I’ve always loved Hamilton Harty’s full-orchestra arrangements of this music, simply because they always sound so grand and ceremonial. On the other hand, I’ve also dearly loved for years my old Pye recording of Charles Mackerras’ “ultra-authentic” recreation of one of those first London performances of this music, with every available wind player in London at the time seemingly brought into the fray. Neither of these examples have much to do on paper with what we heard in concert, except that, expert though the playing was, I simply wanted, I think, more out-and-out performance flair and panache (again, a conductor might have helped) – more grandeur in places, and energy in others, more abandonment on the part of the percussion, more space in and around the music (almost anything goes with Baroque realizations, judging by how readily the composers borrowed their own and each others’ music for whatever purpose which suited).

As if putting my thoughts and feelings into “demonstration mode” the first item after the interval provided all the “frisson” of spectacle one associates with ceremonial brass, one of Giovanni Garbrieli’s joyous Sacrae Symphoniae, the Canzon 10. With the players exploiting the antiphonal potentialities of the playing-space by standing in two rows at the top of each half of the “organ gallery”, the Hall was, literally, saturated with resplendently produced sounds, readily evoking old-world ritual and sensibility – we in the audience loved it (because of my relative unfamiliarity with much of Gabrieli’s music I felt at one with those caught up by Sir Thomas Beecham’s well-known remark pertaining to English audiences, who “don’t know much about music, but like the noise it makes”). More unfamiliar music of a beguiling aspect was to follow, unscheduled as per program, but readily welcomed by an intrigued audience – two of Anton Bruckner’s Motets, played by four trombones – in a way, the antithesis of the Gabrieli we had just heard, but at the same time the beautiful solemnity of the sounds (gorgeous playing) presenting the perfect foil for the Italian’s fulsome brilliance.

Exuberance and excitability marked the opening of Richard Strauss’s Festmusik der Stadt Wien (another splendid arrangement for the ensemble by Peter Maunder), the music then characteristically going on to a more nostalgic vein, with evocative modulations (nice trumpet work in thirds and sixths – definitely the former, the latter being a keen listener’s guess!) the sound of an “Imperial Vienna” provenance. With the players really hitting their straps by this stage of the evening, there was page after page of “on-to-it” music-making, the whole casting a refulgent glow, leading up to a grand Straussian build-up and a vigorous coda, filled with virtuoso writing for the instrumental combinations, before the music touched our hearts with parting-shot nostalgic promptings of imaginings of a world forever disappeared. What we expected to have been a rousing finish to an evening was then delightfully augmented by “something completely different” – firstly, the spectacle of Lenny Sakofsky being pushed to centre-stage, sitting amidst a drum-kit configuration of “splendiferous magnitude” (in fact it seemed as though he might at any moment have kick-started the monster with a roar and a cloud of blue smoke and disappeared up the aisle and out the Town Hall doors!), and then the mellifluous strains of Duke Ellington’s Do nothing’ till you hear from me, the players “swinging” with what seemed to me like total identification with the idiom.

Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Trombones in the Cathedral

From Gabrieli and Bach to Sousa and Dave Dobbin

Bonanza: Trombone Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Tuesday 27 January

I should have known what to expect from the evening concert from the trombone quartet Bonanza – the name a creaky sort of pun. Though they’ve been around for 12 years, I had never heard them. I’m humbled.

To call their performance an illustrated historical survey of the trombone, would give no hint of what the evening was actually like. The reason for choosing the cathedral as the venue was at once obvious, for as the lights dimmed on this wet night without the sun gleaming through the west-facing stained glass, a spine-tingling canzona in 17th century Venetian style sounded from behind and the players became visible moving slowly up the side aisles. It was a sonata by Johann Schein, one of the three great German late Renaissance composers born almost exactly a century before Bach (the others were Scheidt and Schütz)..:

The effect was sheer delight; the audience’s wide smiles were audible. When they gained the dais, the four players took turns to enlighten us about their instruments noting their origin as ‘the romantically entitled sackbut’, played an arrangement of a brass Canzona by the great Venetian composer of at St Mark’s, Giovanni Gabrieli, while accounting for the survival of trombonists through the great Venetian plague if 1630 on account of their robust health.

The players embellished each piece with amusing pseudo-musicology. They wore period costume complete with white wigs, masks and embroidered tunics, which got modified as the decades rolled by. There followed a splendid arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, infinitely more successful than the famous Stokowski orchestration in its sheer brilliance.

Various reinterpretations of musical history followed as they discussed Mozart and the trombone parts in the ‘Tuba Mirum’ of the Requiem and in The Magic Flute. The trombone’s emergence in symphonic music – in the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony – and the torments of trombonists who sit silent through its first three movements led to a revision of the scoring of the first movement for trombone quartet.

Activities prescribed during the decadent 19th century for underemployed trombonists during such periods of idleness were revealed: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping. The players pointed to the greater professionalism of modern trombonists who now pursue more intellectual activities: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping.

Bruckner was the next candidate for biographical revision, with an account of his involvement in the re-interment of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s remains in the Central Cemetery in Vienna in 1888, leading to his lovely motet ‘Locus Iste’ – who needs singers? Surprisingly, their account neither of Royal Garden Blues, nor of the Washington Post March quite fulfilled one’s expectations of full-blooded New Orleans or arm-swinging Sousa.

But the subtle arrangement of ‘I Got Rhythm’ made the grade. And the concert ended with David Bremner’s arrangement of a New Zealand classic – Dave Dobbin’s ‘Slice of Heaven’, a certain dignity in the stylish, high-spirited performance. As encore they played a well-known piece by Meredith Willson, noting that they were 72 trombones short.

If you haven’t heard Bonanza, get a grip and seek them out even if it demands a serious detour ; they are brilliant entertainers as well as damn good musicians.