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The International Low Brass Trio brings three world premieres to St. Dominic’s

The original manuscript of "Waltzing Matilda"
by Christina Macpherson (in her hand), from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

At the end of last month, St. Dominic’s Catholic Church launched a concert series called Arts at St. Dominic’s. The first performance took place on July 25 and featured the Alchemy Trio with guest artist flutist Joshua Romatowski in a relatively short program of chamber music by George Frideric Handel, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Last night the series presented its second concert. The International Low Brass Trio (ILBTrio) prepared a program of seven recent compositions (one an arrangement), including three world premieres.

The performers were ILBTrio founders Jeff Dittmer on horn and Jess Rodda on tuba, joined by guest artist Caroline Juster on trombone. This is a relatively unconventional ensemble; and, as a result, much of the music they perform was written on commission. Nevertheless, it affords opportunities for a variety of different “sonorous pursuits.” Each instrument has its own characteristic set of timbres, making them easily distinguishable when they play as a group. At the same time, however, the overall brass sonorities allow for some unifying blends that one would not encounter, for example, in a wind quintet. All of the composers on the program seemed aware of these affordances, but each approached them in a distinctive way.

The first of the premieres was by local composer Kyle Hovatter and was inspired by Hovatter’s “day job” work as a church organist. The title, “Strength, my fainting heart,” is a line from Lowell Mason’s hymn “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Ironically, this is a Protestant hymn; but Hovatter’s reworking (he calls it “tinkering”) of it did not seem out of place in St. Dominic’s Lady Chapel. (This space was relatively modest, but the entire sanctuary reverberated with ILBTrio’s brass sonorities.) The result was a latter-day approach to the traditional form of the chorale prelude, whose departure from the source was particularly adventurous.

Hovatter’s composition was complemented by a similar reworking of three plainchant themes by the Belgian composer Bernhard Krol. These were collected as a suite entitled Cathedral: in three naves, and each of the three movements found its own way to elaborate its source as interleaving lines of counterpoint. The result was an impressive rethinking of traditional structure through a strikingly contemporary rhetoric.

This same approach to rethinking also emerged in a secular setting. In this case the source was Christina Macpherson’s tune “Waltzing Matilda.” (Rodd is Australian.) Michael Bakrnčev deconstructed the tune by having each note sound as a sustained tone. The melody then emerged through the gradual superposition of those tones, rather than the usual sequential ordering.

Another rethinking of form emerged in the second world premiere, Collin Whitfield’s “Chorale and Fanfare.” In this case the conjunction is very much an operative part of the title, since the chorale and fanfare sections interleave over the course of the piece, rather than being presented as two distinct movements. By the conclusion the two genres have integrated into a distinctively unique texture.

The final world premiere had more of a “pop” style. It was entitled Trois Petites Danses pour Trio de Cuivres Bas (three little dances for low brass trio) by New York composer Erik Branch. The composer’s use of French seemed to evoke dance forms that were popular at Parisian clubs at the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly in the Latin rhythms of the maxixe (a dance form that also appealed to Darius Milhaud). This “micro-suite” had engaging sassy qualities, concluding the recital in such a way as to leave both audience and performers in high spirits.

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