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Chicago Moves
James Woodward: Gaudete
John Cheetham: Sonata for Brass Quintet
Brian Baxter: A Great Commercial City
Stacy Garrop: Helios
Rob Deemer: Brass
David Sampson: Chicago Moves
Joan Tower: Copperwave

Gaudete Brass (Bill Baxtresser and Ryan Berndt, trumpets; Julia Filson, horn; Paul Von Hoff, trombone; Scott Tegge, tuba
Review By Joe Milicia

 

  Naming themselves with the Latin word for "Rejoice!" the young Chicago brass quintet Gautete Brass offers an entire CD of new American music for its first recording for the Cedille label. All are world premiere recordings, all written specifically for Gaudete, except for the Joan Tower piece, but this is heard for the first time in an arrangement with tuba replacing bass trombone. All the music is engaging, the Gautete are a truly distinguished ensemble, and Cedille's recording is superlative: a splendid release to greet the new year.

James Woodward's 2007 Gaudete, the earliest piece to be commissioned by the Gaudete only three years after their founding is brisk with elements of a fanfare: a perfect 3-minute opening for the program. John Cheetham's three-movement Sonata for Brass Quintet is in a somewhat traditional mold the main theme of the opening Moderato reminded me of a John Williams tune but it's an extremely appealing piece, especially with the sense of forward thrust and sheer pleasure in music-making that the Gaudete project. I must say I liked all three movements equally: the jaunty Moderato, the warmly mellow Andante with its featured trombone, and the more jaggedly syncopated Animato rondo-finale.

Brian Baxter's A Great Commercial City is a 6-minute portrait of Chicago, according to the program notes by Gaudate trombonist Paul Von Hoff. The title quotes a line from a folk song called "El-a-noy" (i.e., the state) and the music itself "loosely" relates to the song, while the three interconnected sections portray Chicago's "boldness, independence, and strength." Without a score I can't begin to suggest just where "boldness" shades over into "independence" and so forth, but I can say that a chorale-like opening leads to a fugal section (independent lines?) and thence to a final section with trills and other outbursts that may connote "strength" but are pretty bold too. Whatever the programmatic implications, this too is a very engaging piece, brilliantly executed.

Stacy Garrop, a Chicago-based composer who has been extremely well represented on various Cedille issues, here offers Helios. As you might guess, it's a portrait of the Greek sun-god, but it differs from Nielsen's Helios Overtureand most other musical sunrises by portraying the flaming chariot-ride only in the dazzling opening half, while the quiet second half represents the sleep of the sun-god as a golden boat carries him around the River of Ocean back to his starting point.

Rob Deemer's Brass could hardly be more succinctly titled, but the real key to the piece is found in the titles of the three movements. "Bell" features bell-like sounds, with more single notes early on, more "peals" later; "Mute" of course features muted instruments; and "Slide" calls for glissandos not only from the trombone along with "mmwah!" effects and other sliding sounds. I hasten to add that the work is nowhere as gimmicky as this description might make it sound: there are subtle musical patterns in all three movements. In the finale I noticed a distorted version of the famous horn theme of Till Eulenspiegel, and doubtless there are other musical jokes embedded.

In the case of the piece that gives its name to the whole CD program, I wish Von Hoff's otherwise good notes gave more of a clue about the composer's programmatic intentions or inspirations. Chicago Moves is in four movements: "Grant Park," "The Spaghetti Bowl," "Loop Lament," and "Lake Shore Drive." The first movement is bustling and energetic, though what it has to do with Grant Park the greenery? the music heard there all summer? I cannot imagine. The second movement, its title presumably alluding to the notorious intersection of freeways just south of the Loop, features muted instruments and quirky rhythmic patterns. The lyric, mournful slow movement could indeed be called a lament, though why it's located in the Loop remains a mystery. As for "Lake Shore Drive," on purely musical terms it's an effective finale, though to this listener nothing about it suggests any stretch of that beautiful but sometimes exasperating drive. Regardless of program, over the course of its 14 minutes the work is a musically satisfying short symphony for brass.

Finally, Joan Tower's 10-minute Copperwave is difficult to characterize in strictly musical terms (at least not without more information from Von Hoff in his notes, or from the composer herself), but it's easy to get absorbed by it and its subtly varied repeating patterns. The title is easier to explain: according to Tower, "copper" alludes not only to brass instruments but to her father, a mining engineer, while the "ideas in this piece move in waves [and] circles." The American Brass Quintet's recording takes the opening slower, more misterioso than the more assertive Gaudete, but it is good to have contrasting versions of this striking piece.

I've found myself wanting to use the word "engaging" over and over in this review, to indicate how both the music itself and the performers draw the listener in, demanding one's complete attention, offering sheer delight in the unfoldings of each piece. Cedile's engineer, Bill Maylone, deserves highest praise for allowing each instrument to be clearly located in space and displaying its unique rich timbre while perfectly blending with every other player.

 

 

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