Every now and then a recording comes along that is so unexpectedly rewarding that you simply want to share it with everyone you know. Such a recording is Sound the Bells! – American Premieres for Brass, a collection of nine concert works performed by The Bay Brass, a group formed in 1995 made up of musicians from the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Opera orchestras. The main draw for film music fans will be the names John Williams and Bruce Broughton on the bill.
Williams opens the album with three short fanfares. The 1993 title fanfare “Sound the Bells!” will be familiar to Williams fans who already own his American Journey – Winter Olympics 2002 album. Inspired by the enormous temple bells of Japan, the piece was composed in honor of the wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako Owada. The trademark Williams sound can be found in the rousing 4/4 tempo, the chordal harmonies and use of percussion. The staid majesty of “Fanfare for a Festive Occasion,” written in 1980, is reminiscent of Williams’ brass work on SUPERMAN, especially in the theme for the arrival on Krypton. “Aloft! To the Royal Masthead” was composed in 1992 to celebrate the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Written for the visiting Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the fanfare features the brass in their higher registers, galloping along in triplet rhythms.
Broughton’s four-movement Fanfares, Marches, Hymns & Finale was commissioned by The Bay Brass in 2002. The piece is a 20-minute short symphony that incorporates more percussion than most of the other pieces on the disc. Each of the four movements takes a genre from the title of the piece. The syncopated rhythms give the Fanfares a jazz quality and keep the ear slightly off balance. Chromatic runs, muted trumpets and syncopation characterize the off-center marches of the second movement. Xylophone trills and gentle timpani punctuations underscore the yearning French horn hymn duet. Furious sixteenth notes and martial percussion propel the piece to its dramatic finale.
Michael Tilson Thomas is best known for his long, successful tenure as the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. But Thomas proves to be quite an accomplished composer as well. The three continuous movements of Street Song (1988), originally written for brass quintet, bear some of the hallmarks of his friend Leonard Bernstein, especially in the syncopation and jazzy, atonal harmonies of the piece’s dance-like third movement. But the highlight of this delightful piece is the haunting second movement. With its flatted, bent notes and trombone glissandi, the bluesy, folk harmonies are characterized by tension and release, suspension and cadence.
Originally written for string quartet, Kevin Puts’ sets his lovely Elegy on a bed of quiet sustained notes that gently pulse underneath. Scott Hiltzik’s Spirals closes the album on an energetic note, combining syncopation and hand clapping in a melange of mixed meters. A calm center gives the piece some respite before returning to the joyful energy of the opening section.
The highlight of the album, Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, began life as a choral piece. Originally written in 1994, the piece, which celebrates the birth of Christ and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, has become a staple of the choral repertoire and is one of the top bestsellers at legendary music publisher Theodore Presser. This 2001 adaptation for brass ensemble is every bit the equal of its choral counterpart, and in many ways surpasses that piece. Without the text, the ear can dispense with the religious overtones and concentrate on the sublime harmonies of the piece. The climax (3:57) has a spine-tingling power that would sound screechy in the human voice. Heartbreaking in its use of appoggiatura, suspension and relaxation, the hymn-like structure of the piece, and the composer’s obvious deep faith, results in music of unparalleled beauty.
Throughout the album, the talented musicians of The Bay Brass play with precision, superb musicianship and heartbreaking beauty of tone. And as a devotee of”more is more” in concert music (hence my love for Mahler and Strauss), I was quite simply blown away by the subtle colors and timbres that these composers created in the seemingly infinite variety of instrumental combinations. The CD will be released on March 8. Go to the Harmonia Mundi website to hear more audio clips and to order.
SOUND THE BELLS! is a phenomenal recording. Buy it not just for the Williams and Broughton, but for a superb collection of amazing music–for brass or otherwise.