They spoke about it

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Some abilities, once acquired, are never lost. Riding a bike is usually cited, and it is generally true that once you learn, you will always know how.

Playing a brass instrument is not like riding a bike. Learning to vibrate your lips into a tube is difficult enough. Doing that to produce ethereal beauty requires decades. The only reason to even try is an addiction to the fulfilment it brings, especially amongst fellow sufferers.

The Canadian National Brass Project is this affliction’s critical-care ward. These prominent members of orchestras across Canada and the US spend thousands of hours at it every year. Then, in summer, they travel great distances to again put their chops to the wheel, as they did when they made their beautiful debut recording in 2017, and now, with their second, Constellations, recorded in the summer of 2018.

Lohengrin: Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral (1850) by Richard Wagner arranged for brass by Jay Friedman

The unquestioning devotion of these musicians for their art could be compared to, say, a bride who agrees to marry a mysterious knight and never ask him his name. Unlike Elsa’s marriage in Lohengrin, this arrangement of the Procession to the Cathedral delivers enduring happiness.

O Magnum Mysterium (1587) and Sancta Maria (1597) by Giovanni Gabrieli arranged for brass by Timothy Higgins

Giovanni Gabrieli’s O Magnum Mysterium (1587) and Sancta Maria (1597) were intended for the famous acoustic of St. Mark’s in Venice, where Gabrieli was director of music. Both pieces were conceived for voices alone, but if Gabrieli had the opportunity to experience the buttery warmth of the CNBP, we know he’d be delighted.

Sanctus by Ola Gjeilo arranged for brass by Taz Eddy

The Sanctus by the Norwegian composer Ola Gjeilo began life on a plastic keyboard in a dorm room at the Royal College of Music. From there it progressed to choral performances, and, with Canadian trumpeter Taz Eddy’s arrangement, reached matriculation.

The Planets (1916) by Gustav Holst arranged for brass by Angus Armstrong

Holst’s The Planets (1916) was conceived for an enormous symphony orchestra. Angus Armstrong’s arrangement pares down the forces to just 25 (very, very good) brass and percussion with no loss in colour.

Sensemayá (1937) by Silvestre Revueltas arranged for brass by Bruce Roberts

Revueltas’ 1937 masterpiece Sensemayá tells the story of a ritual sacrifice to a snake-god equally prone to spreading pestilence as health. This tour- de-force performance by the CNBP is utterly convincing.

1812 Overture, Op. 49 (1880) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky arranged for brass by Robert Fraser

And Tchaikovsky translated Napoleon’s disastrous 1812 defeat into something approaching poetry (although, by his own admission, it was “very noisy”). Robert Fraser’s arrangement of the 1812 Overture honours that poetry, while bringing out the real artillery.

And there you are–a “constellation” of seven pieces performed by 25 devoted artists, the brass- playing affliction’s most incurable, spectacular cases. What they do may seem impossible, but for them, it’s just like riding a bike.

© Tom Allen, author, broadcaster, musician

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Canadian National Brass Project
AN 2 8924 Constellations CNBP
AN 2 8924 Constellations CNBP

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