University of North Carolina School of the Arts faculty member Judith Saxton is a virtuoso trumpet player and a superb soloist! In a recital in the Watson Chamber Music Hall, with colleagues Allison Gagnon, piano, and John Beck, percussion, she proved to be powerful yet subtle in a program designed to promote her soon-to-be-released CD devoted to French Pièces de concours, pieces written anew each year as the imposed work for the competitive final performance exam in French conservatories. [This writer undertook four of such exams in the French-influenced Royal Conservatory of Brussels, each with its pièce de concours!]
Also on the program were two trumpet concertos and a half-dozen Vignettes, short whimsical works which were programmed between the larger works, much as a sorbet might be served as a “palate cleanser” between courses in a formal dinner. These works, all by composer Jim Stephenson, were played by Ms. Saxton with the accompaniment of Mr. Beck on a number of different percussion instruments, all pre-positioned on the stage, and each with its own lighting. The first Vignette (from the French for “twig from a grapevine”), subtitled “Dinner with André,” referring to the phenomenal high trumpet player, Maurice André, was a medieval sounding piece played on a very high trumpet and accompanied by the tambourine.
This was followed by a pièce de concours, the Fantaisie en mi bémol (E-flat) by Joseph-Edouard Barat (1882-1963). This pleasant piece, episodic in nature, included both lyrical and technically difficult passages. It was followed by another Stephenson Vignette, “Chasing Igor” [Stravinsky] for trumpet and snare drum and then by a slide presentation introducing the Founder and first President of UNCSA, Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966), and the composer of the most significant work of the evening, the Concerto for Trumpet.
Members of the Giannini Society (a support group for UNCSA) were in attendance and long-time UNCSA faculty members were impressed as they listened to the recorded words of this great man who had facilitated the first state-supported school for the performing arts in the U.S. To bolster the importance of his words, we were treated to an excellent performance of his Concerto for Trumpet, in three movements: Allegro energico, a baroque treatment of classical proportions; Andante sostenuto, most intriguing in its impressionistic modal treatment of the theme – almost Blues-like; and an Allegro last movement with allusions to the intervallic theme of the first movement. We were all grateful to Ms. Saxton for introducing this work to us.
After intermission (appropriately labeled <<Interval>> in deference to the French theme) Mss. Saxon and Gagnon played the Prélude et Ballade by Guillaume Balay (1871-1943), again designed to show off both the lyrical and virtuosic talents of the performers, which were many.
Next Ms. Saxton and Mr. Beck played the most complex of the Vignettes, simply called “Max,” the name of a wildly unpredictable student of tremendous imagination. Played on a rotary valve trumpet and marimba in an irregular 5/8 meter, this was a complex and difficult-to-manage piece, but nonetheless effective from the audience perspective.
Maurice Whitney has composed popular works for saxophone (Samba, Rumba) and the very agreeable Concertino for Trumpet and Band (piano transcription played by Allison Gagnon) in three movements, of which the middle movement, Lento, was most memorable. Starting in a sultry mood, one almost expected to hear Gershwin’s “Summertime” wafting through Watson Hall, but instead we were introduced to the tonal changes brought about by mutes - the cup, straight and Harmon mutes all added a sweetness or nostalgic note to the already warm sound of Ms. Saxton.
Two Vignettes closed the program, the first, “Chuck’s Melody” [Chuck Mangione] played on the mellow flugelhorn, a close relative of the trumpet with a larger conical bore, accompanied by marimba, drum rolls, wood block and triangle. Finally, the excitingly fast and often unison Vignette, “Running with Lionel” [Hampton], basking in a rosy glow ended (almost!) the concert on an upbeat note. An unanticipated encore Vignette was shouted out, “White on White” – a gigantic cymbal crash and loud trumpet blast – ending a great concert with humor!