Looking Glass Brass

Friday, September 11, 2009

Great Beginnings for the Looking Glass Brass!

by Mary Jane Lang

Friends, this was a very special evening! There is a new brass quintet in Brevard, NC, called the Looking Glass Brass. The reason for the name is that one of the prime scenic attractions near Brevard is the Looking Glass Falls.

The concert was sponsored by the Beulah McMinn Zachary Memorial Foundation which underwrites the maintenance and special activities of the Schantz organ at the First United Methodist Church of Brevard. It was a beautiful setting and the brass quintet attracted a full house. They even ran out of programs and had to print more at the last minute! This bodes well for the future of this quintet. They are really fabulous musicians in their own rights and as a result this group has a very nice tonal blend that belies the relatively short time they have been together. It was a treat to hear the Church organ both in some solos and with the quintet. The organist is Timothy Shepard, Organist and Director of Music at this Church, interim director of the Hendersonville Chorale, and a published composer. He is the founder and sole proprietor of AzaleaCircle.com, an internet publishing company of sacred music.

More about the Looking Glass Brass -- five musicians who have spent their careers teaching and playing professionally. They are individually and collectively accomplished in many musical styles: classical, baroque, jazz, religious, patriotic, marches, dixieland, ragtime, etc. Please refer to their website, http://www.lookingglassbrass.com. The members of this quintet are trumpeters Casey Coppenbarger, Emerson Head, French Hornist Carol Weinhofer, Trombonist Linda Rienette Davis, and Tubist Richard Sieber. Casey Coppenbarger and organist Timothy Shepard were the MCs for the evening, and they had interesting anecdotes about the music, composers, styles, instruments used, etc. Sometimes announcers talk too much; in this case that did not happen, and their explanations were enlightening and helped the audience to really understand what was happening.

The program was a collage of various musical styles. They began with a contemporary composition by Eric Ewazen, "A Western Fanfare," commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Music Academy of the West. It was the type of piece that is a great introduction to a concert, leaving you wanting to hear more. The second piece intrigued me especially, with my woodwind and string background. It was an arrangement by John Humphries of the J. S. Bach Suite in B Minor for Flute and Strings, a very famous flute piece which I have played in my past. I was wondering if they were going to keep the key of B minor; sure enough, not! They transposed it down to F# minor. To my ears that key did not have the same sparkle or character as the original key, but that was the arrangement and not the fault of the musicians who made the best of the notes in front of them. Everyone in the group had virtuosic passages in turn and pulled them off with flare, making them sound easy!

Next was the Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D by J. S. Bach. The German violinist August Wilhelmj (21 September 1845, Usingen – 22 January 1908, London) arranged the theme as the popular "Air for the G String" in the key of C for solo violin and string orchestra accompaniment. What the brass quintet did in performance was really stylistically great because the two trumpeters switched to their flugelhorns in an effort to sound more mellow in the soothing style of this piece. They succeeded, and this performance, in spite of changing the key (G major) to fit the ranges of the brass instruments better, was one of the most beautiful performances of this piece I have ever heard. I cannot help but think of the famous flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione, one of whose hits is "It Feels So Good," featuring a flugelhorn solo. This proves that the flugelhorn can fit in a lot of stylistic places and it is hoped that this quintet can often use the resources of this seldom-played instrument. Next, the Canzona Bergamasca by Samuel Scheidt, arranged for brass quintet by Conrad De Jong, was in a fugal style, canonic with echoes of themes played loudly and then softly. This was followed by another J. S. Bach piece for organ solo in C after a J. S. Bach arrangement for organ from one of the Vivaldi Concertos for Strings. This was very effective on the organ and a brilliant solo which exploited the wonderful capabilities of this fine organ.

Now for a change in musical style, the brass quintet next played Three Chansons (Songs) by Claude Debussy arranged by Bill Holcombe. They were just lovely, entitled "Lord, Lovely Hast Thou Made My Dear," "Whene'er the Tambourine I Hear," and "Cold Winter, Villain That Thou Art." Considering that two out of the five brass players in the quintet are from Wisconsin (brrrr!) and moved down here, I wonder why they were attracted to this piece. hmm . . . Back to the music -- Benedetto Marcello is a baroque composer whose work is not performed enough, and I hope that there are more arrangements of his music for brass. This one added the organ to good effect. Transcribed by Robert King, "The Heavens Are Telling," by Marcello was the perfect piece to end the first half of the concert, with the organ and brass in "conversation" with each other, sometimes the brass theme in unison followed by the harmonies of the organ. It was grand.

After the Intermission a special song was played, "America the Beautiful," by Samuel Augustus Ward, arranged for brass by Arthur Frackenpohl. This was dedicated to those who perished on 9/11/01. It was first played by the quintet, then the audience joined in singing what has become our alternate National Anthem. Richard Strauss was next in an arrangement of his Solemn Processional for brass quintet and organ, arranged by Albert Zabel. This sounded like Richard Wagner. The trombone and horn were prominent in this piece, and the thoughtful mood was artfully portrayed by all these experienced and able musicians. Then Casey, who was announcing the pieces, said, in effect, that this solemnity was quite enough, so they were going to change character, and they did. Wilke Renwick wrote a very happy and jazzy sounding Dance (in G), which was especially effective because it was a welcome respite from the rather dark German expressionism present in the Strauss composition. They followed that with a rag (not written by Scott Joplin, would you believe!). This was the Adirondack Brass Rag (in F) written by Arthur Frackenpohl, who Casey pointed out was a well-known composer among brass players and aficionados.

By this time the ensemble probably needed a rest, so Mr. Shepard played the much-loved Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings in the original key of Bb minor. It was a surprisingly effective arrangement for organ and came off well. It was the first time I had heard this piece other than played by a string quartet or orchestra. By the way, this piece which stands alone very well is the middle movement of a full string quartet by Barber; the other two movements are much different in mood and sound somewhat in the style of Prokofiev's early compositions. The popular Slavonic Dance No. 8 followed, originally composed in G minor for orchestra by Antonin Dvorak, arranged in F minor for brass quintet by Paul Hanna. This was a very warm, spirited performance, and again the players were faithful to the musical style. You can tell the players loved this piece and projected that love in their performance. To end this concert they all came together with the organ once more to perform the Festive Postlude on "Old 100th" by Louis Bourgeois, arranged by Bruce Stevenson. The MC, Casey, said in his closing remarks that this piece was originally supposed to be an encore, and that they had no other encores prepared. I really do not think they were expecting such a large audience. The evening was filled with the spirit of love and encouragement from that audience and a genuine appreciation of the individual and collective musicianship, stylistic integrity and sincerity of performance.

This concert will long live as a very special evening in a city blessed with many such concerts. The Looking Glass Brass has a great future, and it is a blessing to the players and audience alike that they came together to form this ensemble, exploring and sharing the rich literature for the brass quintet.