Fox Valley Symphony, Chris Brubeck make beautiful connections
Feb. 3, 2018
APPLETON - On a cold, snowy night, the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra certainly heated things up at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. To this listener, Saturday's concert was about connecting and reconnecting.
The connections began with Michael Daugherty’s "Route 66." This piece was the musical seed for what has become an annual collaboration between The Building for Kids Children’s Museum, Appleton elementary school students and the Fox Valley Symphony called Big Arts in the Little Apple.
During Saturday’s performance of "Route 66," selected art projects created by Appleton elementary school students were projected on a screen above as the orchestra performed.
This piece depicts the first grand highway to traverse most of the country from Illinois to California. Like the highway, Daugherty uses subtle, gradual changes in harmony, rhythm and texture (called minimalism in the musical world) to mimic the subtle changes in this vast highway.
Several musicians performed beautiful solos including Marty Erickson on tuba (an instrument not often known as a solo instrument) and Mike Henckel on trumpet. Though Daugherty is a classical composer, his use of rhythms in this piece often imply a rock feel and his harmony includes use of pentatonic (5-note) scales. Energetic meter and tonality shifts, handled well by the orchestra, added to excitement of this opening piece.
The two pieces that followed "Route 66" were a reconnection between composer and bass trombone soloist Chris Brubeck, Maestro Brian Groner and the Fox Valley Symphony.
Brubeck and Groner first met in 2003 and their friendship is deep and collaborations many. There were no program notes on Brubeck’s "Fanfare to a Remarkable Friend" so I contacted Mr. Brubeck the day following the concert to get the story behind the piece. "Fanfare" is only a couple years old and was a commission by the Stockton, California Symphony as a musical gift to their conductor, Peter Jaffe, in celebration of his 20th anniversary with the orchestra. Brubeck used the melodic interval of successive ascending fourths to represent the name “Pe-ter Jaf-fe.”
In selecting the repertoire for the Fox Valley Symphony concert, Brubeck suggested that “Bri-an Gro-ner” is a close parallel, thus he suggested the selection of this piece for his friend, Brian. (Rumor has it that Brubeck borrowed this trick of using the syllables of a name as a melodic seed from his father, Dave Brubeck, who was a regular performer in the Fox Valley.)
Though a fanfare usually implies a shorter, attention-getting work, this piece is a substantial work with many challenging and interesting sections. The piece starts with energetic rising and soaring melodic lines followed by a lyrical section. Next and of special interest is an extended fugue section (a melody that is stated by one section and then repeated in sequence by other instruments) that starts with the trombones and then circles through most of the sections of the orchestra followed by a section with funk rhythms. The orchestra handled the numerous technical and style changes masterfully and the response from the audience was enthusiastic.
Chris Brubeck made his appearance as bass trombone soloist on his composition "Prague Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra." The piece challenges the technique of both the bass trombonist and the orchestra. The first movement, "Return of the Prince," has a frequent back and forth between soloist and orchestra with challenging and frequent changing meters, typical of this Brubeck as well as his father. To further challenge the group there are many jazz inflections in this movement. Groner kept the troops together with his confident conducting through the quickly changing styles and meters.
The lyrical second movement, "Song of the Mountains," featured an antiphonal wind trio (flute Linda Nielsen Korducki, bassoon Patricia Holland and horn Bruce Atwell) placed in the third balcony. The trio did a beautiful job inserting frequent musical interactions with the ensemble from 50 feet above. Brubeck performed his lyrical, low, song-like melodic line with finesse and expression. In the middle of the movement there are Latin style inflections, followed by the antiphonal trio returning at the end to draw the movement to a close.
The final movement, "Dance of the Neocons," is a rhythmic challenge from beginning to end. Frequently changing and asymmetric meters (one’s foot doesn’t always tap in a steady beat within the measure) is the rule. The dance starts with rhythms from the percussion instruments, followed by funk and jazz inflections. Brubeck frequently employed the blues scale and related minor pentatonic scale in constructing his melodies. The soloist performed an energetic cadenza followed by the balcony trio returning. This movement is a powerful tour de force in rhythms and melodic energy, well played by both the soloist and the orchestra. The audience greeted it with an immediate standing ovation in appreciation of the piece and the performance.
After intermission the orchestra returned with John Adams' "The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra." In some ways similar to "Route 66," "Chairman Dances" has a minimalist rhythmic pulse with subtle harmonic and rhythmic changes that make this an engaging piece. A foxtrot, which is a smooth, progressive dance, is a good representation of the ebb and flow of dynamics with subtle changes of instrument combinations and colors in this piece.
"Chairman Dances" has a train-like gradual speeding and slowing, ebbing and flowing in intensity and rhythmic energy. The piano and percussion gradually slow as the train pulls to a halt at the end of the piece. I found the hypnotic effect of this piece a good contrast to the energy of "Prague Concerto."
Aaron Copland’s "Billy the Kid Suite" was a fitting wrap to this program of connections. As the program notes stated, with this piece Copland was striving to “say what I had to say in the simplest terms possible” in order to better connect with the music-loving public. Each of the eight continuous sections of the suite paint a musical story of the famous outlaw.
Typical of Copland’s writing, the suite is full of wide, open intervals and soaring melodies. Copland often writes lines with multiple and distinct yet complementary keys sounding at the same time. At times clashing dissonance plays a part, representing the clashes in The Kid’s life. The orchestra did a fine job telling this musical story with many fine solos by several performers including flute, clarinet, horn, oboe and trombone. The highlight was the extended trumpet solo toward the end of the piece, beautifully played by principal trumpet Mike Henkle, who received special acknowledgment from Maestro Groner.
This concert was not your typical performance of Beethoven and Brahms. There were several new and challenging pieces with modern harmonies, myriad complex and changing meters, and solo exposure for many fine musicians including the seldom-featured bass trombone. Under the solid leadership of the baton of Maestro Groner this was an exciting and energetic program that stretched the orchestra and audience alike. The standing ovation at the end was a fine testament to how much the audience enjoyed the evening.