Brass Brighten New Music Horizon at the La Jolla Athenaeum

At long last, brass players had their day in court at Friday’s (April 21) San Diego New Music concert at the La Jolla Athenaeum. New music concerts at the Athenaeum have traditionally been dominated by guitar, string, and woodwind players, but this time around, a hearty quintet of brass players—aided by a pianist and contrabass player—gave their splashy and powerful take on contemporary music to an appreciative audience.

Chalk up this programming to the concert’s curator, trombonist Eric Starr, who made certain the low brass were well represented. Two solo works stood out: Sofia Gubaidulina’s moving “Lamento” for tuba and piano and Timothy McCormack’s raucous “Heavy Matter” for solo trombone.

A thorn in the flesh of Socialist Realism when she composed in the Soviet Union, Russian composer Gubaidulina boldly fuses spirituality and prickly modernism—not surprisingly her favorite composers are J.S. Bach and Webern. In her “Lamento” from 1977, the tuba offers probing shards of melody supported by dense sonic clouds from the piano’s lowest range. She often has the pianist hold down the sustain pedal to both blur its deep, rich timbres and lets the strings resonate with the tuba’s equally rich low notes. At times I heard faint echoes of Orthodox chant in this amazing combination.

I cannot recall hearing a solo tubist with the finesse and nuance of Luke Storm, who created such sonic beauty with the composer’s winning but unpredictable thematic vocabulary. Pianist Tina Chong proved a sympathetic cohort, teasing great swaths of complex arpeggiated sounds from her instrument without overwhelming the tuba.

At the other end of the spectrum, McCormack’s randy etude of extended techniques for trombone, “Heavy Matter,” brought more than a dose of levity into the new music equation, a feat that amused the Athenaeum audience greatly. Long lines that exploded with shrieks and intermittent vocalizations, at times supported by circular breathing, along with slippery guttural staccato rasps inherent to the instrument gave the sonic impression of a Ferrari with a faulty muffler being put through its paces on a test track. For bravado and endurance, Starr earned hearty applause.

Charles Wuorinen’s “Trio for Bass Instruments” brought together Storm, Starr and San Diego Symphony contrabassist Jory Herman (no relation) in a densely contrapuntal and meticulously structured chamber work that lasted only 6 minutes but seemed much longer. Storm and Starr (with these names, they need to form a duo!) gave Wuorinen’s cocky, angular themes their requisite panache, while Herman crafted long, steely tones that unified the ensemble. At times, Wuorinen’s Trio called to mind Stravinsky’s jaunty march from his early stage piece “L’histoire du soldat,” only larded with Wuorinen’s more prickly harmonic language.

American composer David Sampson’s rhapsodic, single movement brass quintet “Morning Music” aptly anchored the concert. An adventurous, superbly constructed and thematically ebullient quintet for two trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba provided that sense of journey and welcome arrival audiences expect from chamber music, regardless of style or era. In a mere 12 minutes, Sampson took us on his journey of densely overlapping themes that bloomed into lively fughettas, interspersed with quiet respites of silvery sustained chords colored with a variety of mutes.

Trumpeters John Wilds and Rachel Allen carried off their contrapuntal volleys with confident, bright articulations, occasionally doubling on flugelhorn for more soothing melodic forays. And Starr, Storm, and horn player Danielle Kuhlmann delivered the requisite muscle and point to make Sampson’s quintet soar.

Starr opened the program with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” accompanied by pianist Chong. Originally written for violin and piano, the composer has provided arrangements for numerous other solo instruments, including trombone. Although Starr’s steady, deftly modulated trombone timbre fit the composer’s minimalist aesthetic well, it lacked the timbral nuance a violinist or cellist can bring to long, slowly moving melodic arcs. Chong’s elegantly etched and evenly paced arpeggios could not have been improved upon, however.

As for John Cage’s iconic “4’33”,” Starr’s lugubrious tempo stretched this work to 5” and then some. His pitch was unexpectedly sharp in several places, and I thought his improvised cadenza at the end was unwarranted. As accompanist, Chong was not always with the soloist—it was clearly under rehearsed on a program that was otherwise a model of professional performance. But I admit that any opportunity to hear this stunning, virtuoso work performed in public deserves a certain amount of credit!

San Diego New Music program

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