St. Louis’ top brass blows Strauss away

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By Joe Shearer, Photo Editor

On Nov. 12, campus was as desolate as any other quiet Saturday evening, but at the heart of it, in the Strauss Performing Arts building, five men, each old enough to be my grandfather, brought a ruckus livelier than any peak hour here in Maverickland.

With sounds being emitted from horns, sea shells and even a garden hose, roughly 80 people were charmed by the decades-old St. Louis Brass Quintet in a dazzling performance commissioned by UNO’s College of Communication, Fine Arts and Media and the Midwest Brass Society. The ensemble traveled melodically through time during their set, covering a wide range of styles from different eras of brass history.

St. Louis Brass, or SLB, kicked things off with a few pieces of 17th century Western Europe dance music from German composer Michael Praetorius. Allan Dean of SLB noted that this was some of the earliest examples of modern brass music. The tunes had a trotting, whimsical feel that took my imagination on a medieval horseback ride across a European landscape.

After the warm-up, the group performed new works that they had commissioned. The first was an arrangement from 20th century American composer Dana Wilson titled “Daylight at Midnight.” A direct contrast to the previous tune, “Daylight” started off with each member playing sporadic notes with their horns muted in different ways. It started off somewhat silly with the mutes, but quickly transformed into a mischievous melody that had an ominous tone. The music reminded me of evil men plotting terrible things in a fine film score. After a second mute-filled passage and return to the thundering melody, the piece reached a towering climax that builds and builds and suddenly stops with silence.

To lighten things up and do something a little different, the group performed a piece from former SLB member Anthony Plog. Plog wrote musical accompaniment to four of Aesop’s fables. Different band members took turns on a microphone, vibrantly reading their selected stories as the rest of the group performed a musical backdrop. Tuba player Daniel Perantoni delighted the audience with a silly dance during his reading of “The Monkey King.”

To close out the first part of their set before intermission, the band performed their version of “St. Louis Blues,” complete with lyrics. Principal horn player Thomas Bacon hollered the verses through a cheer megaphone while the rest of the group chimed “The Monkey King.”

To close out the first part of their set before intermission, the band performed their version of “St. Louis Blues,” complete with lyrics. Principal horn player Thomas Bacon hollered the verses through a cheer megaphone while the rest of the group chimed in at certain points. With lines like “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down/Because it makes me feel like I’m on my last go round,” perhaps it was SLB’s way of saying that they wish they could party all night.

The party was far from over. Upon their return to the stage, SLB performed a multi-faceted composition by Mozart-inspired Francis Schwartz aptly titled “Wolfgang’s Frolics.” Airy and light, my mind definitely frolicked and sometimes galloped as SLB progressed through the song’s passages. In a wink to Mozart’s humorous side, the piece involved the group, as well as the audience, cooing gentle “ah” and popping “pa pa pa” sounds.

Pushing the limits of expected genres, the band next paid tribute to legendary Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla and the style of Tango that he fashioned, nuevo tango.  We were treated to two time-tested compositions, “Adios Nonino” and “Libertango.” “Nonino,” an ode to Piazzolla’s late father, began with a busy, marching rhythm. Quickly, though, the room went quiet, and the group came back in with a sublime and soft melody that was so absolutely gorgeous it was impossible to not well up with emotion. “Adios Nonino” is considered to be one of Piazzolla’s most popular pieces and has been performed by many over the years. SLB’s all-brass version was superb and one of the biggest highlights of the show. “Libertango” quickly brought spirits up with its gracefully seductive rhythm and melody. The tango portion of SLB’s show, to be simple, swept me off my feet.

Hilarious, yet highly informative, SLB next went through a brief history of the evolution of brass instruments. Though not made of metal, the seashell was the precursor to horns becoming a widely used instrument. Using shells of varying sizes, the band played a quick version of “Happy Birthday.” Only so many notes can be achieved on a certain size of shell, so each member tooted a note or two in sequential order to form the song’s melody. The silliness of it generated quite a few laughs. Early, valve-free trumpets were next on display and were then followed by early versions of the principal horn. Another act of comedy was bestowed upon us as Thomas Bacon whipped out an unfamiliar tune played on a length of plastic hose with a funnel at the end. It sounded surprisingly well for coming out of what most people would honestly recognize as a beer bong. Lastly, before the obvious introduction of modern, valved horns, the group showed us an SLB staple: a trombone that had been bent straight, making it impossible to be handled by one person. One man held the front end while another walked forward and backward with the slide to obtain desired notes. It was a bit rough, but was a unique sight to witness. The group ended the educational portion with a short version of “The Billboard March,” where most of the previously showcased instruments were all incorporated, even the garden hose.

The night concluded with a medley that was a tribute to Louis Armstrong. “Tribute to Pops” featured segues between the likes of “Hello Dolly,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Mack the Knife” and more. Not much needs to be explained here. SLB cruised through these classics that were written or made famous by Armstrong and was a merry ending to an extremely pleasant night of music.

The sights, the sounds, the culture, the laughs – all of it was an amazing experience, and most of it was unexpected. I, of course, knew that I was going to witness fine musicianship, but I wasn’t aware that I’d be getting my pants entertained off of me too! I had a chance to talk with Jason Johnson, instructor of trumpet at UNO, during intermission and we shared similar sentiments on St. Louis Brass’ act.

“There’s such a difference between a performer and an entertainer,” Johnson said. “You don’t always get to see someone who is so good at being both of those things.”

Being in the first row, I was up close and personal with these brass masters. I never realized exactly how much saliva is required to perform, but I was definitely made aware as each member’s horn was dripping like a sink. I guess when you’re playing such mouthwatering tunes, you’re going to get a little wet!

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