Review: ASO brass play a joyfully optimistic holiday concert

Mark Gresham | 21 DEC 2020

This COVID-19 pandemic has not only nearly eradicated live concerts for the last three quarters of the 2020 calendar year, it has greatly limited the ways in which musicians gather to produce virtual concerts. This especially impacts those presented by orchestras, primarily because of the total number of musicians present on the stage, in addition to the issues of distancing, masking and other safety protocols.

Those who play strings, percussion, keyboards or harp can easily wear masks and play; masks do exist for players of most wind instruments (the flute being a notable exception), but the real issue issue for for them is that they are aerophones which require the human expulsion of air in order to play them — breath being a primary means of propagating the coronavirus. Singers and wind players are thus placed at a disadvantage. Plexigras shields are placed on stage between wind players.

The canon of traditional Western orchestral repertoire, and the musicians required to play it, typically is built around the string section. At its largest the strings comprise the greatest number of instrumental musicians on stage, even with a massive orchestral works like Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 3.

Because of this, it is natural under these pandemic conditions where the mandate is for the total musicians onstage to be less that half of a typical full orchestra – much less the numbers needed for Mahler’s Third, that the first thoughts for programming to go to works for smaller, but still typically strings centered works; maybe in some instances with timpani, woodwinds in pairs and a few brass – the idea being working from the core strings outward until the limit for musicians onstage is reached. What that does is tend to leave out the possibility of a full brass sections, especially the lower brass.

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For a major orchestra with a full roster of musicians, it poses the question of what to do to utilize those players more fully, and more substantially. The answer is a big brass ensemble which can deliver that exhilarating sound of the full orchestral brass and still remain below the legal limit of musicians onstage. And there is repertoire aplenty from chamber groupings on up, including both works originally and arrangements. It gives the full complement of the brass section a real opportunity to shine and be recognized by the public.

And what easier programming target for that than a Holiday/Christmas concert?

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra took advantage of that opportunity to feature its entire brass section, plus percussion, with its most recent Behind the Stage virtual concert led by ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou (himself a trombonist). Premiered as live stream on Thursday evening, the video is available on demand through Sunday night on the ASO’s virtual stage.

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The program was fairly evenly balanced between arrangements based on traditional Christmas carols, sometimes quite elaborated, and what might be called more “classical” works transcribed for brass. Let credit go where credit is due in this program: not so much to the original sources, but to the expert arrangers whose names will likely not be recognized by the average concertgoer, but which were made available to the ASO by the Atlanta Brass Society, of which ASO principal tuba Michael Moore is president.

In a gesture of intersectional appreciation and support, the concert was introduced by ASO associate principal violist Paul Murphy and principal flute Christina Smith as hosts (who are also husband and wife in real life), and the concert was dedicated to ASO director of choruses Norman Mackenzie and the ASO Chorus, who normally bear a major share of the orchestra’s holiday season concerts, but have suspended their operations during the pandemic for reasons of safety.

Let;s touch on the carols and their arrangers first:

The concert opened with fanfarish 18th-century carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” as arranged by Roger Harvey, co-principal trombone of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who also arranged the mash-up Fantasy de Noel and Coventry Carol heard later in the concert.

(source: video frame capture / ASO)

Another carol of similar hymn traditional, James Montgomery’s “Angels From The Realms Of Glory,” was heard in an arrangement by Jeff D. Anderson, a Nashville based arranger/composer who is deeply involved in video and the country music industry. Anderson’s arrangement invokes images of gladiators marching across the cinema screen as much as hordes oi angels descending from the heavens. A very familiar “fanfares and flourishes” approach to use of brass. Anderson also created the arrangement of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” that would conclude the program.

An impressive, rather sophisticated “Fum Fain Fun” was arranged Emmy-winning film composer Anthony DiLorenzo, who also also did the arrangement of “Joy To The World” – a carol that is far too often still mis-attributed to to George Frideric Handel. It is in fact by 18th-century American composer, publisher and music educator Lowell Mason. The only two connections to Handel is that the first four notes are the same as the first four notes of “Lift up your heads, O ye gates” from Messiah and (the more relevant connection) is that Mason fraudulently attached Handel’s name onto the tune to sell more of the hymnals he edited.; (I have more negative things to say about Mason, but will save that for another day.)

Another wrongly-attributed carol was “The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy,” which is in fact a calypso folk-carol from the West Indies that was first mentioned in 1945 by Edric Connor, singer, folklorist and actor born in Trinidad and Tobago and who emigrated to the U.K. In 1944. it was not written by Stephen Hatfield (b. 1956), as suggested by the video, although Hatfield has created a popular arrangement of the carol for treble voices.

The arrangement for brass heard in this concert was created by by Aaron Weitekamp (a close associate of Jeff Anderson, mentioned above), based in Loweell, Massachusetts. How much Weitekamp may have been influenced by Hatfield’s arrangement is an entirely different speculation. There are numerous versions out there, and the early ones by Harry Belafonte and The Weavers did much to popularize the carol over a half decade ago.

ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou.

ASO associate conductor Jerry Hou. (source: video capture / ASO)

And of course what is a brass concert without the British brass traditions? In this case Gustav Holst’s Christmas Day: A [Choral] Fantasy On Old Carols, Op. 109 which includes (“Good Christian Men Rejoice,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” “Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly” and “The First Nowell”), originally for chorus accompanied by orchestra or organ, but in this performance arranged for brass by Douglas Haislip, principal trumpet/arranger/manager of the 11-piece Solid Brass ensemble, for which this arrangement was created, among his diverse professional engagements.

Turning to the more “classical” non-carol fare:

The second work on the program was the delightful “Gagliarda” from Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 1 by Ottorino Respighi, arranged by trumpeter Phil Snedecor, currently an associate professor at the Hartt School of music in Hartford, Connecticut. A gagliarda (or galliard) was a form of Renaissance dance music popular across Europe in the 16th century, typically an “after dance” which followed and mimicked a another dance in 4/4/ meter such as a pavane.

The distinctive six-beat phrase of a galliard can still be heard in familiar civic songs such as “God Save the Queen,” (“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”) – except they tend to lack the cheerful, light-footed feeling of the dance as they thud along when sung by the modern public at large. (How much better it would be for everyone were theese songs to capture that dancing spirit!) In any case, the galliard as musical form remained popular in the renaissance long after interest in the dance itself subsided.

(source: video frame capture / ASO)

When programming top-grade music for brass ensemble, you ignore 16th-century composer Giovanni Gabrieli at your peril. The Canzon Duodeeimi Toni Canzom, composed in 1597, was a path breaker toward what would soon become the Baroque concerto style. Transcriptions for modern brass instruments are regarded as the “gold standard” for brass ensemble repertoire.

Another Phil Snedecor arrangement was the challenging “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen” from the Christmas Oratorio of Johann Sebastian Bach – exciting, fully mature Baroque.

Originally for a cappella choir, “O Magnum Mysterium” by American composer Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943) has become so popular that it has been arranged for a number of ensembles, including this one for brass band by arranged for brass band by Phillip Littlemore, which he created for the San Francisco Bay area Brass. It was one of the high points of the concert, displaying the kind of cantabile playing that truly distinguishes American school of brass performance style.

It was a joyous, jubilant virtual concert, and the Atlanta Symphony would be wise to not limit such brass concerts to the Holiday season or its music. Atlanta has a significant and loyal brass community, and history of brass ensemble performance. It would be a great to have another serious, festive concert by the ASO brass and percussion sometime in the spring, were that possible to add onto the already published schedule of orchestral concerts. But I can only throw the idea out there. Would the ASO be willing to explore it? I would hope so. ■