Low Brass Quartet Sings From Depths In Novel Concerto

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After Windy City performances of Jennifer Higdon’s new Low Brass Concerto, the quartet of Chicago Symphony principal players will take it on tour with their orchestra and music director  Riccardo Muti. (Photos by Todd Rosenberg)

By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO – American composer Jennifer Higdon has twelve new best friends in the musicians’ realm. Her Low Brass Concerto puts an unusual quartet of instruments front and center – two trombones, bass trombone, and tuba – in a commission by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, joined by co-commissioners the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

That’s four new champions in each city of this rolling premiere, beginning with Chicago trombones Jay Friedman and Michael Mulcahy, bass trombone Charles Vernon, and tuba Gene Pokorny – veterans who joined the Symphony as early as 1962 and no later than 1989 for a total of 157 years (!) of service among them.

Chicago’s low brass: Jay Friedman, Gene Pokorny, Michael Mulcahy, Charles Vernon.

This confident foursome, who introduced the work on Feb. 1 at Orchestra Hall under the baton of music director Riccardo Muti, will take the shiny new showpiece on tour with the Chicago Symphony to Carnegie Hall (Feb. 9), Naples, Fla. (Feb. 12), West Palm Beach, Fla. (Feb. 14), and Chapel Hill, N.C. (Feb. 16).

Philadelphia Orchestra performances begin Feb. 22, with Baltimore dates soon to be announced. Even for a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Grammy-winning, prolific composer like Higdon, that’s fanfare on a prodigious scale.

Prolific Higdon is also composing concertos for harp and for tuba.

Indeed, who would not be intrigued? Higdon has composed a fleet of concertos, with more on the way this season — one for harp and another for tuba. She has written for other unusual combos, too, notably a piece called Concerto 4-3, for two violins and a double bass, with a river of bluegrass running through it.

Lest clowning be inferred by this latest adventure, the Low Brass Concerto is gimmick-free (“no dancing hippos,” she wrote, in describing the players’ specific request). Indeed, it showcased the seriousness of purpose of these remarkably accomplished players, who together constitute the often overlooked foundation of orchestral sound. [Higdon talks more about how this concerto came about in a video, below.]

The new work is filled with broadly lyrical, neo-romantic musical ideas that channel aspects of church-like solemnity and ceremonial pageant – pleasant nods to the roles that brass instruments have shouldered over centuries. It also enjoys some all-out spurts of syncopated American spunk to take the piece home.

The concerto opened with a whispering blend in the low register: four soloists meandering quietly along loose scales at unusual intervals, evoking the effect of medieval modes. These ideas were soon echoed by similar four-voice choirs of woodwinds, strings, even horns. Although the soloists and their big, shiny instruments were right there on view, the initial impression was counterintuitive, as if the sound were coming from monks humming wordless melismas in a hidden vestibule, their individual voices less discernible than the shifting blends.

New location, new acoustical reality: Front and center, surrounded by strings.

What at first seemed a distinctive effect did point to some acoustical challenges that emerged in the course of the seventeen-minute work: Of its four continuous segments, it was only in the two jazzy, high-energy thrusts that the foursome crisply punched through. At other times the individual solo voices and concertante groupings were muffled in the din.

Perhaps partly to blame was acoustical confusion of those resounding brass voices charting their course at close intervals, along with their attendant ringing overtones and lingering decays. There was also Higdon’s own preference for sweeping contrapuntal gestures that brought to mind a flock of birds: many individual flight patterns inside flexing formations. However broadly pleasing these fluid textures with their myriad threads, the aggregate density was obscuring.

I was struck that I could hear the same four soloists more distinctly on the concert’s second half, once they had retreated to their customary seats against the back wall to perform Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes.  There, the quartet benefited from the stage’s megaphone effect; their sound was more forward, and more clearly etched against the orchestral texture, than when the players sat directly in front of Muti, close to the stage’s lip.

Perfect for Muti’s purpose, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine sings Chausson.

The concert included a rare, fabulously orchestrated work of lyric poetry that will appear on several of the upcoming tour concerts: Chausson’s shimmering, nostalgic Poème de l’amour et de la mer with French mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine. This hypnotic singer will join the orchestra at Carnegie Hall and in West Palm Beach and Chapel Hill. Muti showcased her as born to sing this exquisite, rarely performed late 19th-century song cycle, a half hour of remembered ecstasy.

Muti is now committed to remain with the Chicago Symphony through August 2022.

The Chausson is also a perfect vehicle for the Chicago Symphony at this stage in its history, schooled as it is to an exceptional level of lyricism and elegance in eight seasons under Muti. (The maestro’s announcement in late January, that he will extend his commitment to the orchestra for two additional years, through August 2022, was greeted by the musicians with whoops and hollers.)

Lithe and forceful at 76, Muti is never better than with singers he somehow always seems to find at the perfect moment for the purpose: Margaine made her debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago’s Lyric Opera last season, and she’s clearly at the top of her game, though still largely new to the U.S.  She took on sultry roles in New York (Carmen) and Chicago (Dulcinée). Muti brought out something else in her entirely: poetic introspection paired with fragile sensibility.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications. 

Date posted: February 5, 2018

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