The Trumpets Shall Sound: Bach Sinfonia at Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center, October 5, 2013
Any discussion of a concert of Baroque-period trumpets must keep in mind that the instruments themselves can barely be played. They don’t have valves to help find the sound; you have to find the note yourself and pray that it’s the right one. The mouthpiece gives no mercy if you’re not properly squared up — nothing will happen at all. Hearing these instruments live is like watching a NASCAR race; even if all the drivers are performing to the peak of their capabilities, you know someone’s probably going to crash. It’s hard to find people who can play them at all, much less play them well.
So when seven Baroque trumpeters (plus a trombone player, a timpanist, and an organist) took the stage at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring under the auspices of the Bach Sinfonia, it was a rare occasion indeed. And in a program that challenged the players with early trumpet repertoire, Barry Baugess, Joshua Cohen, Stanley Curtis, Joelle Monroe, Rick Murrell, Elisa Koehler, and Douglas Wilson showed that they can tussle with this beast of an instrument and get it to make a rousing and accurate noise. Most of the time.
Of course, even when played well, the instruments are limited to one key and don’t give composers many timbral variations to work with either. They do make some dynamite entrance music, as monarchs throughout the ages have realized, but two hours of fanfares or music that constantly threatens to become a fanfare occasionally became a little tedious, even with the sheer force of the sonorities pealing out from the stage.
Some composers managed to find novel ways of working with these instruments. Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber’s music never fails to be interesting, and his “Sonata A7” for six of the trumpets and Barry Bocaner‘s trombone had a bright, well-articulated antiphonal style (realized somewhat sloppily on Saturday), while the “Sonata Sancti Polycarpi A9” exploited the trumpets’ lower registers to fine effect. Giovanni Buonaventura Viviani actually tried to write an Adagio for solo trumpet in his second sonata for solo trumpet and organ, which Murrell did a fine job caressing into expressiveness. John Stanley’s Suite no. 1 of trumpet voluntaries had tripping rhythms and peppy melodies, which Cohen rendered in style. And the trumpeters traded bars from the balconies in duets by Biber and Romanus Weichlein, giving an additional element of spatial interest to already-interesting close harmonies and chromatics.
Solo pieces for the timpani and organ served as welcome aural breaks from the brass brightness: Michelle Humphreys played Jacques Danican Philidor’s “March for the Kettledrums” with the warm tone and rhythmic vitality that characterized her playing all evening long, and Joseph Gascho dashed off Stanley’s organ voluntary in E minor with ease and flair.
Still, if there are seven trumpeters in attendance, you probably came to hear ’em all a-blazing at once. The concerto for all seven trumpets and timpani that closed the evening has been attributed to Johann Ernst Altenburg, although no one knows its true author. Anyone would want to be associated with its splendorous, expansive writing as it was rendered on Saturday: seven brilliant-sounding trumpets in a small space, textures of the shimmering bright sound shifting harmonically and spatially between banks of trumpets, the timpani driving the action. It was exactly what you want to hear when you come to a concert titled “100 Feet of Brass.”
BACH SINFONIA PRE-CONCERT LECTURES ARE WORTH ATTENDING
Normally I am not too fond of the idea of going to a pre-concert lecture, especially on weekdays when attendance would prevent me from eating dinner betwixt work and music. But the Bach Sinfonia concerts are on Saturdays, meaning there’s time to attend such things with careful planning. So I always try to get there for at least some of the pre-concert discussion, where music director Daniel Abraham engages the performers in discussion of the broader historic context of the works being performed, the instruments being used to perform them, and anything else a body might need to know. Because so much of the Sinfonia’s repertoire is rare or underheard, and because the instruments are so different from the modern ones, I generally learn something that deepens my understanding of the music to come. And that’s part of what period-instrument concerts are about – the opportunity to understand, as best we can from our modern vantage point, what was going on back then. For example, on Sunday I got to hear a story about how trumpet guilds used to beat the tar out of anyone who played the trumpet without the proper authorization.