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For Brass the Bell Tolls

Bay Brass: Sound the Bells!

March 12, 2011

Bay Brass

The conductor Thomas Beecham thought that brass ensembles definitely had their place in the musical firmament — “outdoors and several miles away.” Others would replace the word miles with galaxies when it comes to contemporary music. Both of these prejudices are belied by Sound the Bells!, the latest release from the Bay Brass, an ensemble made up of some of the best musicians in the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, and Opera orchestras. All nine of the release’s compositions are attractive and would offend few Sunday school teachers, yet over half of them were completed since 2000. Further, the playing is more than excellent and the sonics are first rate. Three of the compositions were commissioned especially for the Bay Brass; all are first recordings, including three works by the super-popular John Williams.

Listen To The Music

Michael Tilson Thomas: Street Song (I)

Morten Lauridsen: Fanfare For Brass Sextet

Especially to be commended are the commissioned works. One is by Morton Lauridsen, who has become famous in choral circles for several compositions, including O magnum mysterium. Lauridsen presented the Brass with an arrangement of that piece, plus a one-minute Fanfare for Brass Sextet. Bruce Broughton’s suite, called Fanfares, Marches, Hymns & Finale, is highly satisfying. Scott Hiltzik contributed the joyful, foot-stomping Spirals that concludes the CD. Best of all is Kevin Puts’ Elegy for Brass, written in 2009. I’ve been most impressed by how his output has deepened over the last few years; this work is no exception.

Also on the program are Michael Tilson Thomas’ interestingStreet Song, a three-movement suite assembled and rearranged in 1996 from material going as far back as 1972; plus three fanfares by John Williams, Sound the Bells!, Fanfare for a Festive Occasion, and the Royal Masthead! The latter set of special-occasion pieces will not disappoint anyone familiar with the composer’s Star Wars style, though Darth Vader wannabes may become Scroogelike on hearing their optimism, especially three times in a row.

If the programming of Bay Brass can be in the least bit faulted, it would be with the decision to group the music by composer rather than by mood. The three Williams pieces are too much of a good thing, and perhaps could have been scattered among the other pieces. Also, I found myself feeling relieved, after a number of the initial movements, to finally hear some of them orchestrated with percussion. This provided a welcome variety of timbres. If listeners have the self-control to program their CD players to play different subsets of the offerings each time, the musical pleasures inherent in this impressive release will be even more substantial.

(There is an upcoming CD release party.)

Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area.