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The Bay Brass brings a lively program to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music

Composer Nick Benavides
Composer Nick Benavides
from the International Low Brass Trio Web site

Last night’s Faculty Artist Series recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) may have involved the largest number of faculty members in a single concert evening. These consisted of two trumpeters (Dave Burkhart and Adam Luftman), three horn players (Jonathan Ring, Bruce Roberts, and Bob Ward), two trombonists (John Engelkes and Paul Welcomer), and tuba player Peter Wahrhaftig. They appeared as members of (and accounted for more than half the total of) The Bay Brass. Ring also served as a Master of Ceremonies; and for several selections the ensemble was joined by three percussionists (one of whom was Ring’s son) and a bass guitar player.

The title of the concert was Moving Pieces; and the entire program could be taken as an exploration of the different semantic interpretations of “moving.” Most interesting, however, was that the program offered three world premieres. One of these, a jazzy finale for the evening, was by Ring himself. Entitled “Fun in the Sun,” it recalled his exposure to Latin music in Florida, and featured improvisatory licks for both trumpet (Luftman) and trombone (Welcomer).

What made the program particularly unique, however, was the world premiere of the three-movement Bay Suite by SFCM student Nick Benavides, about whom I have previously written as a founding member of the Guerrilla Composers Guild. The music is the reflection of a New Mexico native on features that make San Francisco such a different piece of geography. The first movement, “Beauteous Gate,” evokes the significance of the Golden Gate as the city’s entry point (even before the bridge was built). This was followed by a “portrait” of Angel Island, which had its origins in a choral setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem “A bird came down the walk.” The final movement, entitled simply “The City,” was an energetic depiction of urban chaos.

Six SFCM brass students (pairs of trumpets, horns, and trombones, respectively) joined members of The Bay Brass for the performance of Bay Suite. The result was an engaging blend of lush sonorities often exploring subtle harmonic ambiguities. In discussing the music with the composer, I was not surprised to learn that Gil Evans was one of his inspirations. Evans may still be the most successful arranger to work imaginatively in both classical and jazz genres, blending the two without ever compromising either. If he is inspiring Benavides to explore new paths of expressiveness, then this particular brass venture is a sign of promising things to come.

The other world premiere was composed by Hollywood composer and arranger Rob Mounsey on commission from The Bay Brass. Entitled “Mystery Train,” the music depicted a journey at breakneck pace, structured as nine episodes, each of which passes by before its presence has been identified. It thus presents the view from within a train, rather than an external landscape in which the train is present. More importantly, however, Mounsey described this composition as “thirteen brass instruments playing loud;” and it presented The Bay Brass at their most exuberant.

There was also a premiere, of sorts, of “Chicago, 2012” by Mason Bates. This is the second movement of his Alternative Energy suite, which was composed during Bates’ residency with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO). In that version, it received its first performance in San Francisco when CSO visited Davies Symphony Hall in February of 2012. This brass version (with electronica) was listed as receiving its West Coast premiere. The music seems to have been inspired by the diverse repertoire of noises at Fermilab, whose sounds were sampled for the electronica. In the more reduced setting with The Bay Brass, one could better appreciate the interplay between the rhythms performed by the instruments and those of the sampled sounds than could be apprehended in the larger Davies space.

The program also featured two quartet performances. Gioachino Rossini’s “Le Rendez-vous de Chasse” was performed on four natural horns. For the most part this was a study in what one could do with a single triad, but Rossini had the sense of humor to provide the occasional comic interruption of a different note. On a more elegant side, the four trombonists performed Michael Levin’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s settings of three chansons by Charles d’Orleans. This may have been Debussy’s most elegant example of looking back about five centuries while viewing that age through a decidedly contemporary lens. The trombones were particularly effective in capturing that sense of almost uniform sonority associated with the early French chansons. There was a similarly impressive blend when the full ensemble performed Tom Smee’s arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Opus 30 “Geistliches Lied” (spiritual song, whose opening line is, in English, “Let nothing ever grieve thee”).

Other examples of motion in the program included an antiphonal performance of a canzone by Giovanni Gabrieli in an arrangement by Robert King. On the contemporary side the program was introduced by James Beckel’s “Musica Mobilis,” commissioned for performance at the opening of an exhibit of mobiles by Alexander Calder. There were also the frantic comings and goings of Anthony DiLorenzo’s four movement A Little Russian Circus suite.

Edwin Outwater visited SFCM to serve as guest conductor for this program. He had no trouble working with the ensemble, reveling in both their high spirits and the delightful effects of blending their instrumental sonorities. This was definitely not your usual Faculty Artist Series recital, but it was a real treat.