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Eastern Music Festival's third concert featured faculty brass players (with more special guest faculty later on) showcasing a variety of pieces from as early as the mid-1600's all the way into the 20th century, all connected by the thread of emotionally-charged, dexterous works for trumpet, trombone, horn, euphonium, and tuba. In this third year of the annual brass concert, held in the gorgeously intricate First Presbyterian Church sanctuary, EMF announced its new euphonium and tuba student program as part of the festival. Students in these areas are now offered the chance to take lessons and develop their skills at these instruments that are less ubiquitous to the chamber and festival orchestra in their own specialized two-week camp with Demondrae Thurman, euphonium, and Aaron Tindall, tuba.
With surprisingly little fanfare – pun intended – the concert began by showcasing the core brass faculty in three sonatas by Georg Daniel Speer, a late Baroque composer and prose writer. Chris Gekker and Judith Saxton. trumpets, trombonist Thurman, James Justin Kent, alto trombone, and Michael Kris, bass trombone, performed Sonata Nos. 1, 6, and 5, respectively, filling the soaring hall with festive sonority, marred only by some slightly disjointed timing among the inner parts. This was quickly settled as the performers adjusted to the space.
Next, the trumpet faculty was replaced by a quartet of trombones, as Thurman, Kris, and Kent, joined by Aaron Wright, performed Beethoven's three Equali, all of which were originally premiered at the composer's funeral and gravesite dedication ceremony in 1827 and 1828. These more reverent pieces flirt with the balance between dissonance and resonance, loud and soft, somber and reflective. The trombonists played with rich tonality and equal blend of sound that sounded nearly organ-like, honoring the idea of the equale, a piece specifically written for a set of similar instruments, or consort.
Most of the players utilized the depth of the space with excellent command of rubato and silence, especially at the ends of sets of pieces like the Speer and Beethoven, wherein the audience recognized the pregnant pauses before applauding heavily. These moments of pause allowed the performers' dark sounds fully to reverberate off of the stones and wooden beams, becoming a part of the rich color of the space itself.
From the rear of the chamber, next, came the sounds of a solo trumpet fanfare. Gekker, Saxton, and Jeffrey Kaye, trumpets, gradually combined, each beginning from a different location until they met on stage in three-part Fanfare for St. Edmunsbury by Benjamin Britten. The three disparate trumpet lines, bright and cheery, create a joyful chaos that finally culminates in loud, powerful chords, hinting at the strength of the trumpets' voices as instruments but not overpowering with it.
The trumpeters remained on stage for Elliott Carter's Canon for Three, an ethereal, 12-tone Stravinsky homage, that was similarly equal in the strength of its parts but even more dissonant. Its brevity certainly contributes to its loveliness, as it presents a striking sound but does not revel in dissonance for too uncomfortably long.
The trombone consort – Kent, Wright, and Kris – returned for two more Equali, this time by Anton Bruckner. Their somber, chorale-like requiem sounds showcased the players' sensitive rubatos and phrasing as well as highlighting the stronger volumes and more powerful timbres of their instrument. To close the first half, the horn faculty got to make an appearance; Kevin Reid, Joy Branagan, Kelly Hofman, and Chris Caudill entered to perform Jacques François Gallay's Grand Quatour, a beautifully refined melodic work that was an absolute treat and joy to hear. The exuberant closing especially showed off dexterous handling of a difficult instrument, and the cohesive unit of performers working together.
Gekker, on flugel horn this time, was joined by Thurman, on euphonium, and Tindall, tuba, to begin the second act with Alan Hovhannes' Two Fantasias. These contemporary works feature Eastern-inspired melodies, with atmospheric, wandering lines in slow yet constant motion. The pieces allowed the players to be more exploratory in their instruments' ranges and phrase structures and offered beautiful opportunities for solo lines in each instrument. Who doesn't love a sweet, high tuba melody or a delightfully creepy, sparse harmony?
As a bonus, Gekker introduced a piece by one of Thurman's former students, which Thurman and Tindall had performed at convocation for their students. "Rose, Remember Your Thorns" by Lauren Brianna Weir, is a setting of the traditional "The Last Rose of Summer." Thurman opened the flowing melody in contemplative, plaintive style, passing the melody over to Tindall. They then transitioned into a new key and a driving, minor setting of the melody in which Tindall got to power into some lovely low notes.
After a brief transition, the brass faculty moved into a chamber orchestra setting, joined by two harpists – Anna Kate Mackle and Morgan Short* – and percussionists John Shaw and Eric Schweikert, all under the baton of EMF music director Gerard Schwarz. Elegy in Memory of Maurice Ravel, the only work of this scale performed at this concert, is another contemporary composition, with pointillistic, random-sounding parts, bouncing between discordant fanfares, harp plucks, and xylophone strikes. It was harmoniously disjointed in all the best ways, offering sharp contrast between plaintive, muted trumpet solos that sounded like they were coming from offstage, and strident, full-ensemble fortissimos.
Maestro Schwarz remained for the rest of the program, directing the brass players, who now receded to the two choir lofts to play the last two works antiphonally (in two separate choirs, performing both separately and jointly, across the room from each other). Salamone Rossi's "Adon Olam," a setting of a Hebrew religious text, was sonorous and homogenous in its blend between the two choirs, and left the impression of being wrapped in a warm blanket of brass sound.
To close, the choirs remained upstairs, performing three of Giovanni Gabrielli's Canzoni.The two choirs functioned as strong, separate units, balancing each other's volume and timbre and differing only in instrumentation: one choir had two trumpets, a tenor and a bass trombone, while the other was made up of trumpet, horn, euphonium, and tuba. These works were chock full of dexterous running lines, deft call and response moments, and regal, celebratory phrases full of power.
This diverse musical program was, in all, polished and full of passionate artistry by experts who seem to derive great joy from playing chamber music. These faculty members exemplify the brass "family" as a cohesive, easily-blending musical unit, and also a tight-knit community whose members can work together to make delightfully striking harmonic art. This brass concert is a treat and easily one of the highlights of EMF's packed summer season.
*"Morgan Short (harp fellow), from Roanoke, VA., is a sophomore at the UNC School of the Arts. In 2018, she was an EMF Concerto Competition winner and won the Rosen-Schaffel Competition at An Appalachian Summer Festival."