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Sound the Bells! American Premieres for Brass – The Bay Brass/ Guest Artists/ Alasdair Neale, Michael Tilson Thomas, Robert Ward, Jeffrey Budin, Bruce Broughton, Paul Welcome & Charles Floyd, conductors – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD 807556, 63:10 *****:

The San Francisco based Bay Brass is an ensemble consisting of players drawn from the city’s symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera organizations, numbering 13 in all and acting as a true cooperative group, sharing parts, conducting, arranging, and even compositional activities. This disc features a series of works premiered here by the ensemble, and conducted–as noted in the heading–by a number of conductors, often in their own music.

The John Williams pieces are just what you would expect from the composer–three short vignettes created for differing occasions, all connected to the city of Boston and its singular events, each quite short, attractive, melodic, and catchy. Williams will certainly go down as one of the finest composers, period, one day – regardless of genre, and these little pieces give an inkling as to why.

The Tilson Thomas piece is a major one, composed initially for the Empire Brass Quintet under the auspices of Rolf Smedvig, and then later expanded to 12 members for the brass of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1996, premiered in the U.S. the next year by the Bay Brass. The work is a marvel, and having heard only a few compositions by the composer/conductor, I was unprepared for its quality. As you might expect, Copland and Bernstein figure prominently, though Thomas offers his own unique take on jazz, blues, and open Americana, presenting us with a stellar piece of great imagination and no little degree of exquisite beauty. This one is a real winner in my book.

Morten Lauridsen is best known–perhaps only known–as a very effective composer of choral music. His O Magnum Mysterium is quite well-known and beautiful, the brass arrangement here being affecting, but not quite as much as choral original. The Fanfare for Brass Sextet is short and interesting, but not really significant in terms of the overall content of this recital.

Elegy for Brass
by Kevin Puts – an up-and-coming and in-demand young composer – gives us a heartfelt and deeply moving piece created in honor of the memory of Dr. Stanton Schwartz, a great supporter of the California Orchestra, where the composer was Composer-in-Residence from 1996-99. Spirals is a multi-metered whirligig of a work by Scott Hiltzik, an eclectic composer and educator whose piece was premiered by these forces in 2005.

The most significant piece on this disc is probably also the longest: Fanfares, Marches, Hymns & Finale by Bruce Broughton, a widely-played composer in many mediums, notably the film industry, and who might be remembered by a certain generation for his superb and highly-idiomatic score to the movie Silverado. This piece is what he calls “self-referential” in that the titles are reflected about the music instead of defining what the music is. No matter–each of the four movements is a real cracker, beautifully realized and very significant in terms of complexity and overall effect. I cannot imagine this not becoming a self-referential composition for the brass ensemble, a standard in the making, composed in 2002.

Audio Engineer Shawn Murphy’s surround sound on this album is exemplary–fully charged through each speaker, and gloriously capturing the corporate and individual characteristics of each instrument, recorded at Skywalker Sound. The performances simply cannot be imagined any better, no matter who might attempt them.

— Steven Ritter