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Friday, December 14, 2018

Brass Facts

From the Holiday Vault Dept.: Christmastime is here, by golly; disapproval would be folly ... so here’s a review I wrote of a brass quintet’s holiday concert in Schenectady, from the time when a city daily newspaper actually would commission a review about such an event.


“WE HAVE OUR LITTLE BLUE BRASS BOOKS,” said Carleton Clay, one of the Catskill Brass’s two trumpets, “which every brass ensemble has to have at Christmas. So we’ll see if we can take your requests.”

Carleton Clay (a more recent view)
This brass quintet managed to work a holiday sing-along into a program of seasonal music that otherwise ran a gamut from Michael Praetorius to Leroy Anderson, performed Sunday night at the First United Methodist Church.

It provided a spectacular setting for the ensemble, enhancing the noble sound of instruments. Along with the music was some insight into the nature of those instruments, as genial Clay pointed out the differences hidden among a similar-seeming family.

Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was a stirring beginning, in an arrangement by a member of the Canadian Brass. In response, the Catskill’s own Ben Aldridge transcribed another number from the oratorio, “And the Glory of the Lord,” a fitting companion piece.

Aldridge and Clay went from trumpets to the mellow conical-bore cornet and fluegelhorn for two settings of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” which also took Donald Robertson from trombone to euphonium. And the difference in sound was remarkable, a darker color very appropriate to the Brahms choral prelude that constituted one of those settings.

The Catskill Brass, which also includes Julia Hasbrouck Clay on French horn and Charles England on tuba, is best known to area concertgoers as a unit of the Catskill Conservatory, which champions contemporary music in a summer series in the Oneonta area and, locally, in Rensselaerville.

They didn’t get much more contemporary than 1961 in this concert, with Canadian composer Morley Calvert’s “Suite from the Monteregian Hills,” a delightful four-movement work that is both amusing and a challenge to the performers, who settled into it with ease.

A suite from Praetorius’s “Terpsichore” offered a variety of combinations of the instruments in a Renaissance groove that has become as indigenous to the season as the sound of brass and chorus. But the traditional songs have their place, too; Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” had an added percussion section_sleigh bells tied to Clay’s knee, temple blocks struck by Robertson and a whip cracked by England. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (with a couple of days omitted) had humorous fillips to illustrate the vicissitudes of that gift-giving saga.

And then the sing-along. An advantage of doing so in a church is that the lyrics to the less-well-known second verses are in the hymnals, and an obliging audience called out each successive number as the selections were chosen and sung.

Brass quintets – an entity only about 40 years old, says Clay – have triumphed over the misconception that an all-brass program would be wearyingly similar-sounding. Programming and performance on the Catskill Brass caliber are the best example of such success.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 15 December 1987

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