Brassy Serendipity

Every now and again a performance comes along that takes you by surprise with its brilliance, or its warmth, or its quirkiness, and makes you realize you’ve just witnessed something special. In the case of the New York Brass Arts Trio performance Oct. 15 at the Berger Center in Oakmont, all three of those surprises were in abundant supply.

These three guys – Joe Burgstaller (trumpet), David Jolley (horn), Haim Avitsur (trombone) – have been performing together only since 2009, but they sound like they've been collaborating forever. Already as one overheard their warm-ups backstage it was evident that the aforementioned “something special” was in the offing. Such grace, such range, such flexibility. Get ready, I told myself.

The Berger auditorium hosted a near-capacity crowd of 200 and witnessed the opening of the Music at Oakmont series’ 25th season. The Trio performed a rich variety of selections, the pre-intermission half devoted to more classical/romantic works (Bach, Beethoven, R. Strauss), and the second to 20th-century offerings. All the pieces had been arranged by one of the three soloists.

They launched straight into the music, immediately letting the audience know what wondrous feats were in store. Wondrous feats via three short Bach Sinfonias? Yes indeed. From the first through the last, the three gave abundant evidence of their technical and emotional mastery, whether trading quick triplet-based 3/4 fugal material in the first number, or handing lyrical, melismatic passages back and forth in the transparent, haunting second, or racing around with 16th-note runs in the rambunctious third. The effect was simply stunning, and they were only getting warmed up.

Mr. Burgstaller proceeded to warm up the audience as well with the afternoon’s first verbal remarks, immediately establishing the trio’s good-vibe, insouciant MO. He announced, for example, a new CD contest the group was launching this afternoon: “Pay $15, win a CD.” The trumpeter worked some musically relevant info into his patter as well, informing us that the Bach selections we’d just heard had originally been written for the piano (thus paying homage to Mr. Jolley’s deft trio arrangement), then letting us know that the Beethoven trio to follow, despite its relatively mature Opus number (87) was actually written before Op. 1, but only published 12 years later.

The first of the piece’s four movements, Allegro, sounded pretty much like you’d expect the young Beethoven to sound: a fanfarish short intro, short and simple themes backed by slurred arpeggios, slick articulated runs in the trumpet and horn parts. Mr. Burgstaller, eschewing the conventional silent nod and indulgent half-smile normally engendered by audience exuberance between movements of a multi-movement piece, encouraged the audience to applaud, alleging that’s what people did back in the composer’s day, so “go for it” if the music so warrants! The second movement (marked Adagio, though not that slow) was smooth, consonant, and pensive with its lyrical melody caressed by sensitive trumpet ornaments.

Trombonist Avitsur took the mic before the Allegro molto, Scherzo third movement to chide his trumpet-playing compatriot for how Joe always speeds up the coda (to see if he can trip Haim up with the fast-note-packed trombone part). The movement itself is a delicate, tongue-in-cheek minuet – and sure enough, Mr. Avitsur couldn’t quite fit in all the notes. If the group has a weakness, I’d have to locate it in Mr. Avitsur’s passagework, where he falls prey to the nature of the trombone slide, which makes it devilishly difficult to locate fast, articulated notes precisely. The Beethoven concluded with a Presto movement featuring brilliant trumpet 16th-sextuplet passagework and celestial high-range melodies in the horn part.

The final number of the first half was Mr. Jolley’s arrangement of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. The arranger regaled the audience with tales of how hard it was to compress an orchestral work written for some 100 instruments into three brass parts, and held up his sheet music to show how very full of ink it had turned out. Crazy, hard, super-fun to play, but “could it work?” he asked rhetorically, for he knew full well that it could and would. What a delight. It opens with the familiar “Till” theme stated by the horn, augmented by trumpet and T-bone riffs; soon all three are in on the burlesque act. Outrageous double-tongued riffs, arpeggios, strange leaps, dynamic contrasts – can anyone actually double-tongue that fast and that softly? Soon we heard a nice spoof on Strauss’ slow Waldhorn duet, replete with half-valved glisses by trumpet and horn. Then an in-your-face clamorous sequence of rhythmically unison quarter notes in all three parts, an insistent assault on the audience’s sensibilities. Frequent lane swerves linked motif to motif, the main “Till” theme recurring again and again in the horn. The overall effect was very Poulenc-like, prefiguring the wily Frenchman by a few decades, and absolutely virtuosic.

Post-intermission, the group opened with Mr. Burgstaller’s medley arrangement of Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino” and “Libertango.” Mr. Burgstaller, who had been playing a C trumpet throughout the first half, switched here to a Bb, its more overtone-rich timbre perhaps better suited to the 20th century’s expansiveness. He and Mr. Avitsur also resorted to wrapping their respective bells with tinfoil (!) in place of any of the standard mutes. Mr. Jolley did not follow suit. It’s hard to imagine how he could have, given the size of his bell.

Thus rigged, the piece opened with a series of flutter-tongued blats and glissandi that sounded predictably tinny. Then the tinfoil was discarded for a cluster of two-plus-octave, half-valved upward riffs, a burlesque effect whose humor contrasted markedly with the hints of foreboding melancholy so characteristic of Piazzolla’s music and of the tango essence that inspires it. Evita-like lyrical passages then alternated with discordant technical brilliance, all undergirded by passagework redolent of the composer’s beloved bandoneon instrument. The familiar Libertango was spiced up by piccolo trumpet derring-do courtesy of the redoubtable Mr. Burgstaller.

More thrills were in store, in the form of selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a rendition of saxophonist Lee Konitz’ Duets, and Three Children’s Songs by the jazz pianist Chick Corea. Sadly, a schedule conflict made this reviewer miss these last three numbers. But Music at Oakmont stalwart John Lounsbery assisted in this review with the following remarks: “The Corea pieces were terrific. A flugelhorn was employed. Porgy was semi-improvised, also nice…. I can't add much except they kept up the high level of artistry.”

No surprise there! This group is artistry incarnate. If you missed the concert, I suggest a visit to Joe Burgstaller’s website ( where you can listen in on several of the numbers reviewed above. Here’s betting you’ll share my sense of serendipity. Whenever these three return to the Bay Area, I’ll certainly be there to hear them again.

Philip Beard, Classical Sonoma
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