It was a chilly February evening, damp, with daylong precipitation, and so only the truly devoted trekked to the resonant confines of Hill Hall at UNC Chapel Hill for a fine and varied program by the Southeastern Chamber Brass on the William S. Newman Scholarship Series. The SECB are Judith Saxton and Amanda Pepping, trumpets, Abigail Pack, horn, Michael Kris, trombone and Tom McCaslin, tuba, faculty from the UNC School of the Arts, Georgia State University, UNC Greensboro, UNC Chapel Hill and East Carolina University, respectively. A curmudgeon (moi?) might wonder how the word “chamber” combines with the sound of five modern brass instruments in full cry, particularly evident in an auditorium with live acoustics and only thirty or so listeners to absorb the sound waves. Be that as it may, it was certainly the case that the SECB presented a program with a variety of challenging modern pieces, no arrangements, and none of the sort of crowd-pleasing crossover repertoire from other genres that tends to be the bane of serious music-making for this type of ensemble. Another plus were the spoken introductions to the works by each member of the ensemble.
The evening began with the Brazen Overture (from 2000) by Libby Larsen, which opened with a quite extended tuba solo, leading into an ostinato in a funky dance rhythm, with some bluesy harmonies. It would be interesting to know more about a possible program for this work, i.e. an extra-musical story, image or idea that shapes the music that is heard, since it evidently falls outside the usual stylistic clichés. Next up was A Fantasy about Purcell’s “Fantasia upon One Note” by the late Elliott Carter, which I would qualify more as an arrangement than a composition – it was hard to hear what if anything Carter added to the Purcell original, and it certainly had nothing in common with other Carter works from this period (the Third String Quartet, for example, also from the early seventies). And, alas, the composition showed how hard it is to maintain the same pitch (B-flat) in tune as it is passed back and forth.
The two most extended works sat on either side of the intermission. Closing the first half was A Brass Menagerie by John Cheetham, very effectively written for brass, opening with a lively unison passage in double-tonguing, leading to repeated statements of a motive familiar from another composer’s work – D-Es-C-H (D. Shostakovich). The remaining movements presented strikingly different moods – lyrical, playful, march-like, brilliant, again making one wonder who or what Cheetham might have been depicting.
Laudes, which came after intermission, is by Jan Bach, a composer who certainly deserves wider recognition. The work was the most extended of the evening and in a challenging idiom, both of which are difficult for brass – simply playing is more fatiguing than for many instruments, and the wealth of harmonics from a brass quintet means that harmonically dense material is difficult for listeners to assimilate, much more so than for strings or piano. That said, the writing reflects Bach’s mastery in writing for winds.
A brief respite came in three little pieces by Ludwig Mauer in an early romantic idiom, and the program ended with a brief (four-movement) Divertimento by Karel Husa, concluding with a “Slovak Dance” in which the phrases strongly reflected the characteristic accent of the Czech and Slovak languages on the first syllable of each word.
The SECB’s program offered playing on a very high level, and the few aficionados who were there rewarded the players with extended and enthusiastic applause. It’s a pity that UNC-CH can’t seem to attract larger audiences to Chapel Hill and Hill Hall for such fine programs.