Brass Bash blends styles of the ages

The Williams Brass Ensemble took to the stage in Chapin Hall on Saturday night to perform in Brass Bash ’11, this year’s installment of the annual concert. Although the audience was sparse and the ensemble comprised of just a handful of students, the atmosphere in Chapin quickly came to resemble that of a true concert hall, and performers Jacob Walls ’11, Tom Sikes ’11, Noah Wentzel ’13, Byron Perpetua ’14, Christina Knapp ’13, Joy Jing ’13 and Allen Davis ’14 did not fail to deliver.
Knapp opened the night with a sobering and sincere rendition of Benjamin Britten’s “Prologue” from Serenade on the alphorn, an instrument that, especially for first-time listeners, is intimidating and majestic. Knapp’s brief solo certainly arrested the attention of the small audience in Chapin; the alphorn’s tendency to allow one note to continue resounding as another is played made Knapp’s performance an appropriate crowd-pleaser for the concert’s beginning number.
Following Knapp’s opener, Brass Ensemble members Walls and Wentzel, as well as Director Thomas Bergeron, played Howard Hansen’s University of Rochester Fanfare on their trumpets. The two students and their director executed perfect harmony and sounded almost as one united instrument.
The ensemble then journeyed back in time with Guillaume de Machaut’s Hoquetus David, a piece that Bergeron dubbed “one of the earliest known written pieces for brass – sort of.” The score, Bergeron explained, was in fact written originally for the cornetto, an early wind instrument that was the precursor to the trumpet.
This 14th century piece was composed “during a time when the rules of music as we know of today … were still starting to be developed and defined, so composers had a lot more freedom,” Bergeron said.
The director took some of his own artistic liberties with the piece as well. For the performance, he asked Walls and Perpetua to compose additional material to accompany the piece. “It will be interesting to see if you can tell which material is brand new and which material is from the 14th century,” Bergeron added.
Trust me, the blend was so smooth that it was impossible to discern a difference between new and old. The piece began with an upbeat tempo and then descended into melancholy, adopting a worried tone that rendered the score appropriate to be used as suspense music in the background of an impassioned dramatic action film.
The last two pieces in the first half of the concert included Johann Sebastian Bach’s Nubn Komm der Keiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Heathens), arranged by Bergeron “so the trumpets get the most fun part,” as well as a trio composed by Ludwig van Beethoven when he was just a teenager. Although the score was originally written for just three woodwind instruments, Bergeron explained that a brass rendition of the piece would require more instrumentalists; the ensemble played with five because “brass players need rest,” Bergeron said. However, the ensemble’s sole trombonist, Davis, saw none of this rest. He powered through the piece with endurance well beyond his meager freshman years.
When Davis and the others finally did earn their break, so did the audience, and intermission ensued. The band played on in the second half of the roughly hour-long concert, opening anew with Wentzel, Sikes, Walls and Perpetua playing Alberto Ginastera’s Fanfare on the trumpet. Theirs was a frenzied, excited rendition that alternated between exuberant, free-flowing chords and suspenseful pregnant pauses.
One particularly notable post-intermission performance was Knapp’s, again on the alphorn. She rendered a traditional piece played by Swiss alpine herdsmen in the 18th century. Bergeron noted that, as there are no valves on the alphorn, “she’s just playing the natural harmonics” of the instrument. Knapp began with a solemn solo and then was joined by members of the Brass Ensemble. Throughout the piece, she continued to repeat the same beautiful, simple, pastoral refrain that was fitting to the instrument’s original purpose.
Jumping forward in time, the ensemble moved on to play a modern piece, O Vos Omnes, by Rob Silversmith ’11, who adapted the piece from text sung by the Roman Catholic Church during Holy Week. Silversmith and Chaz Lee ’11 joined the ensemble with baritone accompaniment. Both singers and instrumentalists did the gravity of the piece justice. Their vocals resembled a proclamation, and the ensemble would seemingly respond in echoing Silversmith’s and Lee’s resolute tones. The score was soothing, but the only off-putting aspect of this piece – and perhaps about this concert as a whole – was that it ended so abruptly.