A sizable crowd gathered on Wednesday night at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for a decidedly unconventional concert of Christmas music by Clarion Brass and its director, William Berry.
It is safe to say that most such concerts are intended to draw the thoughts of the audience from the music to the emotions of the season or perhaps to its iconography: images of a manger, a nutcracker, of Rudolph’s nose, etc. In many, the audience is meant to join in, but no such singalong would have been possible on Wednesday night, for, although the numbers were based on largely familiar material, we were presented with 14 original compositions that transformed the melodies in unexpected and often delightful ways. At this concert, the focus was and remained very much on the music itself, the quality of its performance, and the skill and originality of Berry, its composer.
Clarion Brass, which has performed during the Christmas season for 27 years, is made up of many of the finest brass players in the region, most of whom are regular members of the Spokane Symphony, and Paul Raymond, leader of the symphony’s percussion section, and whose contribution to this concert was indispensable. Leading the ensemble was Robert Spittal, music professor and conductor of the Wind Symphony at Gonzaga University.
Much of the evening’s pleasure derived from the superb playing of the Clarion Brass. A sensitive, discreet foundation was laid down by tubist Leonard Byrne. Upon this was set the creamy warmth and elegant lyricism of the horns, the many colors provided by trombones, and the wide range of emotion excited by the trumpets, which included Berry, himself a professional trumpet player of no mean ability. All the playing was at a uniformly high level, but three standouts were the 1940s, big-band-style jazz riff on “Let It Snow” by trumpeter Eric Moe, the brilliant playing of trumpeter Larry Jess in “Drummer” (aka “The Little Drummer Boy”), and the aching lyricism that horn Kristin Joham imparted to Adolphe Adam’s “Cantique de Noel.”
As fine as the playing was, it depended for its full effect on Berry’s skill and imagination. He plainly is nuts about brass playing, and understands its techniques down to the finest detail. Furthermore, he has an extraordinary aural imagination, which allows him to combine all of the tones and colors produced by brass instruments in striking and original ways.
His skill as a composer is equally remarkable, and we were constantly surprised by new rhythms, as when, in “Winter Wonderland,” he introduces the infectious Cumbia rhythm, thus imparting an atmosphere to this familiar melody we could never have imagined would suit it. Elsewhere, in “Deck the Halls” for example, Berry creates lengthy sections that are wholly new and that carry only a slight suggestion of the subject melody. When the melody does begin to appear, it is as fragments viewed through the prisms of different rhythms and meters, finally emerging only partially and fitfully.
Such witty and inventive composition allows us to hear familiar music with fresh ears, and can strip away layers of dull convention to reveal the vitality and pathos that originally inspired the composers of this music. It can, however sometimes deflect our attention from the meaning of the music, and from the spiritual message it was intended to impart, and toward the wittiness and inventiveness of the composer. While there is certainly much pleasure to be gained from this, it is a rather muted and intellectualized form of pleasure.
We saw this more than once on Wednesday night, as in Berry’s version of “Lo How a Rose,” wherein one of the most affecting and evocative melodies ever written is transformed into a sterile exercise in asymmetric rhythm by the composer’s introduction of disciplined clapping by the players. Again, in “Drummer,” Berry’s setting replaces the stalwart figure of a drummer boy in the army of Christ with the thundering legions of Caesar Augustus. There were other examples in which music that was intended to produce emotions of joy and inspiration rather drew our attention to the skill of the composer. Still, that skill was very great and employed with wit and imagination. For this, and for the dedicated performances these works received, we could only be grateful.
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