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Miracle of the Nodal Vent

May 20, 2008

When a concert is titled "Sound the Trumpet," and features music of Bach and Handel, listeners naturally expect to get their ears blasted off with the Second "Brandenburg" and the Royal Fireworks Music. But nary a kettledrum was in sight as the American Bach Soloists and natural-trumpeter John Thiessen showed the more lyrical side of the trumpet in Saturday's concert at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, repeated Sunday in San Francisco and Monday in Davis.
Thiessen's sound was clear and sweet, full of heart-stopping high D's (he didn't miss one all night) and agile passagework. He is our nation's only full-time professional playing the natural trumpet, so the chance to hear and see him up close in a small hall is not to be missed. But in this concert, he was a member of the ensemble rather than a dominating solo presence. For example, in a concerto by Johann Friedrich Fasch (1688-1758), there was a long passage for trumpet and oboe in parallel thirds, in which they blended so well that it became difficult to tell which voice was which.

Thiessen performed in two other works, a solo concerto by Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) and a seldom-played 1733 version of Handel's Water Music, which included two movements that were not part of the familiar version of the suite usually played today. Thiessen plays a copy of a 1748 German instrument. Unlike violins, 18th-century brass instruments deteriorate with frequent playing (as the humidity interacts with impurities in the brass) and can be toxic to the player's health.

The originals had serious design limitations as well: They could play the notes of the tonic chord (doh-mi-sol) well enough, one more note (re) only slightly out of tune, two more notes (fa and la) very much out of tune, and the other notes not at all. How, then, did Handel and his trumpeters deal with the out-of-tune notes? They grinned and bore it, minimizing the use of the false notes and confining them to short notes in rapid, scalar passages.
Best of Both Worlds
What we hear today, whenever we hear a natural trumpet, is a miracle of the modern instrument-maker's art: notes made possible by nodal vents. By opening a small hole at an appropriate point (node), the tubing is shortened, and the notes from a different chord are produced. The player covers the holes with his fingers, and, like an oboist, opens them when their notes are needed. Thus, today's natural trumpet is the best of both worlds. Its small bell and the hand-hammered tubing produce a sound that can blend with a chamber ensemble, while the nodal vents give it the perfect intonation to which we are accustomed.

Thiessen's fingers were flying throughout the program, and the result was superb. But what a pity it is that this expedient, which was well within the ambit of 18th-century technology, was not discovered until the 1950s.

The other pieces on the program (which alternated with the trumpet works to keep us from getting tired of the key of D, and to give Thiessen a rest from high-register clarino playing) were similarly instructive regarding the exigencies of period instruments. In Telemann's violin concerto called "The Frogs," soloist Carla Moore played the bariolage effects (the same note played on both open and stopped strings to imitate the sound of frogs) with verve and a sense of humor, making the unpromising principal theme (a single note) into an aesthetic challenge met and mastered.

The Sixth "Brandenburg" Concerto treated the audience, which is used to ABS' superior ensemble skills, the result of many years of playing together, to the remarkable sight of cellist Joanna Blendulf determinedly and correctly bowing everything exactly backward from the two gamba players beside her.

Violists Katherine Kyme and Aaron Westman shone through the one-to-a-part ensemble. The delicate accompaniment of the gambas allowed them to sing, instead of merely struggling to be heard. This piece can often sound muddy, due to the low tessitura (the violas are the highest voices). A slightly slower-than-usual tempo in the contrapuntal sections helped the audience to hear the intricate passagework clearly.

The program ended with a second, less famous, piece of "water music" — that of Telemann, written for the seaport city of Hamburg in 1723. ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas' short introductory comments pointed out the work's elements of tone painting, using slow rising scales and long, sustained notes in the oboes to represent the ocean. Later, the bass instruments contributed their share to the nautical effect with fast runs, rhythmic leaps, and lusty off-beats to depict the dances of die lustigen Bots Leute (the merry mariners). It is a piece that deserves to be heard more often.

Beverly Wilcox, a natural hornist, is a graduate student in music history at UC Davis.