Holiday Brass

Who’s who

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a composer of massive technical gifts and also a great explorer of music’s power to convey emotion. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was originally composed for strings but is just as appealing in the delightful brass arrangement by SFS Principal Trombone Timothy Higgins heard in this concert. The opening Allegro offers a magnificent example of what might be called “musical choreography,” in which the musical material is tossed from one instrumental group to another like a sonic volleyball.

In his lifetime, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) enjoyed renown as a composer, as a violin virtuoso, and as a bit of a character. To most listeners today, Vivaldi is the composer of the delightful and picturesque Four Seasons and, both surprisingly and undeservedly, the object of very little curiosity beyond that. But the Seasons are only four of Vivaldi’s 221 violin concertos, and that is not even half of his total concerto catalogue. (To this you need to add more than 100 sonatas and miscellaneous instrumental works and a host of vocal works, including upwards of forty operas). Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, Opus 3, no.9, RV.920 is a superb example of his ability to incorporate effortless flair in a compact structure. Here we hear the Concerto in an arrangement for solo trumpet and brass ensemble.

Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1555-1612), organist at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, composed a wealth of music for brass with call-and-response effects. Call it early stereo. In the Byzantine-influenced interior of Saint Mark’s, brass choirs stationed at different points around its vast spaces would sound out and answer each other, and as they did this the music, echoes, and resonant interior created a rich and exalting sound.

Franz Biebl (1906-2001) was a German composer of choral music who also headed choral programming at Bavarian State Radio. His Ave Maria was written in 1964 for a firemen’s chorus and “discovered” by the Cornell Glee Club on a German tour in 1970. The work’s fame was cemented in a beautiful early recording by the Bay Area men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer. Biebl intersperses chant-like verses describing the Annunciation with luxurious double choir statements of the familiar Ave Maria text (“Hail Mary, full of grace . . . “). With its indelible melody and silky chord changes, Ave Maria works equally well for voices or brass choir.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) began his career as a firebrand, writing spiky, in-your-face music. He spent many years in the West before succumbing to the lure of his homeland, and in 1929 he returned to live in the Soviet Union. The works he produced after taking up residence there generally have softer edges and more lyrical shapes than his earlier music. Prokofiev’s score for the 1933 film Lieutenant Kijé is affectionate stylistic pastiche, the point of takeoff here being the public music—military marches, sentimental popular songs, and so forth—of the era of Tsar Paul I (1796-1801). A distant cornet softly summons our attention, and to a jolly fife-and-drum music the future lieutenant is born. A moist Romance, a pompous wedding procession, a jingling evocation of troikas bearing their well-bundled travelers through the snow, and music for Kijé’s death and burial evoke for us the way stations of the mythical officer’s life. Toward the end there is much reminiscence, and the music comes to a close with the same distant call with which it began.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is among our most durable composers, an artist who possessed an amazing well of melody and brilliant powers of orchestration. His style is subjective and emotional, often touched with melancholy. His ballet The Nutcracker, which has become a holiday favorite, was first seen (and heard) in December 1892. The story is an adaptation by the elder Alexandre Dumas of a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the King of Mice. Over the years Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker has been reworked in numerous arrangements, including Duke Ellington’s delightful version for jazz orchestra, a slightly less tasteful heavy metal version by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and of course several versions for brass ensemble.

Émile Waldteufel (1837-1915) was in many ways the French counterpart to Johann Strauss, Jr., composing close to 300 dance pieces over his long career. Following studies at the Paris Conservatory, his first big break came when he was appointed court pianist to Napoleon III in 1865. Another windfall came in 1874 when he met the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). A publishing contract and regular performances in England followed and Waldteufel was on his way. The famous The Skaters’ Waltz (Les patineurs, 1882) is a charming bit of tone painting. The scene: An ice covered lake replete with swirling and jumping ice skaters.

Leroy Anderson (1908-75) composed engaging tunes such as “The Syncopated Clock” and such oddities as “The Typewriter,” whose orchestration calls for a manual keyboard probably found most readily today in your grandmother’s attic. If you like tunes that work their way into your memory and stay there, Leroy Anderson is your man.

Vince Guaraldi (1928-76) was a native San Franciscan best known to audiences worldwide for the music he provided for more than a dozen Peanuts television specials, beginning with 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi was an enthusiastic and eclectic collaborator—he recorded a concert with the choir of Grace Cathedral and also played with the Grateful Dead on occasion—but it is his work with his jazz trio that has endured. His playing was consistently lyrical, blending both the whimsical and the bittersweet—in short, the perfect musical voice for the world of Charlie Brown.

—From notes by James M. Keller, Michael Steinberg, and Steven Ziegler

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Steven Ziegler is Managing Editor of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.

(November 2017)