National Brass Ensemble, 2015. (source:

CD review: “Gabrieli” showcases all-star brass

Karl Henning | 8 JUL 2020

[Publisher’s note: Although is was originally released in 2015, EarRelevant recently received a copy of this album and we thought it most worthy of our readers’ consideration here in 2020. We have also embedded below an engaging video about its creation.]

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensembles (especially choirs and wind ensembles, made up of musicians who are trained to exhale with both expertise and gusto) are grappling with the question of how and when to resume making music together, when it will be possible, and what restrictions public health concerns may require. The day will come when we can resume our collective artistry. In the meanwhile, this 2015 compact disc release, “Gabrieli,” by the National Brass Ensemble is not simply a joy to listen to, but a logistical inspiration.

“Gabrieli” National Brass Ensemble Release: October 9, 2015 Format: Audio CD Hybrid SACD - DSD Label: Oberlin Music

National Brass Ensemble
Release: October 9, 2015
Format: Audio CD Hybrid SACD – DSD
Label: Oberlin Music

To summarize the liner notes by Michael Sachs, principal trumpet of The Cleveland Orchestra: 26 musicians from the top nine orchestras in seven states were somehow brought together to play and record this program as the National Brass Ensemble—players from The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Los Angeles Philharmonic, The San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, Detroit Symphony, The Cleveland Orchestra, The New York Philharmonic and The San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras. Not sure I’d volunteer as the admin to juggle those schedules.

The geographic span is even a bit wider, which is another index of how warm a social network these personable professionals form. For the Atlanta area brass community, it is meaningful that three of the players — trumpeters Chris Martin and Thomas Hooten, and timpanist Paul Yancich — are former members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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The Ensemble also appears to function as something of a decentralized collective, with the members sharing out conducting duties, for example.

There was therefore ample will to make a way, and they found a week in June of 2014 when everyone was available, and a smithy of crack brass players flocked to Skywalker Sound Stage, in a galaxy near us, where their golden tone would enjoy the further advantage of Geo. Lucas’s state-of-the-art recording studio.

The bonhomie among the musicians, and their enthusiasm for a project which appears largely a labor of musical love are notable, and their ability to organize, rehearse and realize such an excellent recording is marvelous. Most fitting for a celebration of a Venetian composer, this lovingly hand-machined ensemble’s smooth aerodynamic lines, its inexhaustible reserves of power and superb elegance are worthy of Enzo Ferrari.

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Tim Higgins, principal trombone of The San Francisco Symphony, arranged 16 selections from Giovanni Gabrieli’s Sacræ Symphoniæ of 1597 from out-of-print scores in original notation and without modern instrumentation, provided by the Wiener Musikverein’s archive director, Dr Otto Biba.

At the risk of recapping Music 101: In 1585, Giovanni Gabrieli was appointed organist at the Basilica di San Marco in the Most Serene Republic of Venice (La serenissima to her friends) Two of the hallmarks of Gabrieli’s style are polychoral writing, scoring the music for subgroups who would sing/play from different stations within the Basilica, so that there is a spatial element to the music, the sound coming to the listener from different directions. And the contrast between (and—a musical novelty at the time, specification in the score instructing the musicians to sing or play loud or soft, as in the signature example of the “Sonata Pian e Forte” (Track 14).

The pieces selected for this program were composed for from one to four choirs, sometimes of unequal size — again, for spatial-textural variety. One playful decision has the Canzon per Sonar No. 2 (track 16) as a sort of “tri-city” affair, with Choir A played by members of the Chicago Symphony, Choir B by Clevelanders, and Choir C by Philadelphians. More than half of the selections are “canzoni per sonare” (Songs to be played) which are generally fanfarish in character. These are complimented nicely with a number of sacred anthems which would have been sung, with the addition (or at times) substitution of instruments to or for voices, some of these, such as the Christmas anthem “O Magnum Misterium” (O Great Mystery), the Psalm “Exaudi me Domine” (Hear Me, Lord) and a Magnificat in 12 parts.

Video: The making of “Gabrieli” (Youtube)

An intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the National Brass Ensemble’s “Gabrieli” recording,featuring interviews with America’s top orchestral brass players and composer John Williams.

Click the “expand” button in lower right corner to enlarge (recommended)

To digress briefly, I want to speak in praise of the release’s presentation: My heart is, in a quiet way, grateful both for the simplicity of the CD’s title, “Gabrieli,” and for the straightforward cover art (the many participating musicians in concert dress and with their instruments.)

In conclusion, to give credit where it is due: The disc’s program ends with an infectious, brilliant bit of writing by a non-contemporary of the titular Venetian. I cannot say that, in the past, I had ever heard any concert piece composed by John Wlliams which I felt that I wanted to hear again. This, notwithstanding the fact that he has undeniably earned his enormous success as a composer of film music. Certainly his many iconic musical contributions to American cinema do not need retailing here. The piece which Williams wrote for this project, “Music for Brass” is not merely the best concert music of his which I have heard, but unqualifiedly excellent music. Clearly this invitation inspired him to give of his best, and John Williams at his best is admirable as well as enjoyable.  ■

Karl Henning is a composer, clarinetist and writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. Henning has also written reviews for MusicWeb International, and