The deep, chthonic rumble of the tuba; the round, mellow call of the French horn; the ancient, nearly animal charisma of the trombone; and, over it all, the declamations of two clarion trumpets.
There’s nothing like a good brass quintet, especially when the five instruments tuck into the carols and chorales of the Christmas season.
The Grand Teton Music Festival offers just such an experience with its December edition of “GTMF on Location,” the second installment of its five-part digital chamber music series.
Festival darlings Barbara Butler and Tage Larsen (trumpets), Gail Williams (horn), Michael Mulcahy (trombone) and Eugene Pokorny (tuba), came together over Thanksgiving week for a reunion that Mulcahy called “joyous” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic canceling GTMF’s 2019 season. Over that week they prepared works by J.S. Bach and John Harbison as well as some other solstice-appropriate fanfares and fantasies, culminating in two long afternoons of recording and videoing live performances in Alice Millar Chapel, on the campus of Northwestern University, where three of the five teach.
The hourlong recital goes live Thursday on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
“There is no more quintessential a holiday musical experience than brass and carols,” Emma Kail, executive director of the festival, wrote in an email to the News&Guide, “so it’s such a delight we can have both with this concert.”
Kail, whose musical past includes advance study and performance as an orchestral trumpet player, recounted how she “absolutely idolized all of this musicians in this concert.”
“Barbara is just an extraordinary piccolo trumpet player,” she said. “I remember hearing her play and demonstrate in classes as a student and just being in awe of her mastery of the instrument.”
And aside from being some of the best brass players in the country, as teachers Williams, Butler and Mulcahy “have really shaped the brass sections of orchestras across the country,” Kail said. “Their students are everywhere, including in our GTMF family.”
Like so many musicians, classical and otherwise, Williams had few opportunities to make music in 2020. So when she found herself in Alice Millar Chapel with some of her oldest section-mates, professional colleagues and friends, “I almost sat there and cried,” she said. “To be able to perform and record, even to just rehearse, it makes you really appreciate that music. And it can be anything, but to play ‘The Art of the Fugue’ by Bach — boy, does that put things into perspective.”
Written during the last years of the great German composer’s life, “The Art of the Fugue” has been called the culmination of all of the master’s study and experimentation with melody, harmony and polyphony.
Bach did not write “The Art of the Fugue” for any particular instrumentation, and so it has over the centuries seen dozens if not hundreds of arrangements for a wide variety of ensembles. The festival quintet will perform six movements from the 18 pieces Bach completed before his death as arranged by longtime LA Philharmonic trombonist Ralph Sauer.
Mulcahy called the work “very challenging, very intricate and emotionally, incredibly deep.”
“It is an interesting challenge,” he said, “because at all times there is something of compelling interest going on — sometimes a player plays alone, then a second voice comes in, then you have the main theme by two instruments and a third voice comes in. … I mean, you can’t believe the innovation of this guy. That’s why I say, for many reasons, musicians need to play some Bach every day.”
American John Harbison, who will turn 82 years old on Dec. 20, is the other main contributor to Thursday’s concert, with Two Chorale Preludes for Advent — “these brilliant miniatures,” as Mulcahy called them — and a fantasy on “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“It’s a cute, fun tune,” he said the fantasy. “He did such a witty version of it — and he even goes into a fugue himself. … It’s very exciting, very fast, very virtuosic.”
An arrangement of Gustav Holst’s 1906 setting of poet Christina Rossetti’s poem “In the Bleak Midwinter” comes from trombonist Tim Huggins, a former student of Mulcahy’s and now principal trombonist with the San Francisco Symphony.
“I could feel the chills playing this,” Mulcahy said of the warming, comforting chorale. “That special silence when the snow’s on the ground — that’s the kind of energy it has.”
Performing it in Alice Millar Chapel, a glorious space with spectacular stained glass all around it, only deepened the experience, he said.
The group goes out with some old chestnuts — carols most everyone will be able to sing along to.
While Mulcahy hasn’t seen the final edited version of the performance, “I’m pretty confident it’ll be a feast for the eyes,” he said.
“GTMF on Location” digital concerts go online at 7 p.m. the second Thursday of each month through March and remain up for repeated viewing. For information about the series, visit GTMF.org. ￼