By Jenny Neyman
Picture “Fantasia,” the animated Disney film with cartoon ballet set to classical masterworks. Odds are Mickey Mouse and his troublesome enchanted brooms come to mind. And also that Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” remains lodged in memory banks, in part because of the highly recognizably nimble, dulcet and saccharine melody, and in equal part because of the oddity of the awkward, lumbering and ungainly beasts cast to twirl, swish and leap along to it. Ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators have never seemed so graceful, or so befitting of tutus.
Now picture an orchestra. Of all the sections, brass instruments are the least likely to be thought akin to lithe, nimble ballerinas. But just like the fantastical hippos in ribbons and toe shoes, the usually weighty brass can grace center stage, as well, displaying their versatility to be more than just the support system for the usually showier strings and woodwinds.
“People don’t think of brass instruments in this kind of format. I think we’re so often thought of as the people in the back of the orchestra, and we’re just the loud ones, and we provide the power. And that’s true, that’s very frequently our role. So this is just a whole different type of playing for us. It’s nice to not be a supporting player and to be one of the shining stars — not that I think any of us need to be a shining star, but we’re all on equal footing in a trio, so I think that makes it really appealing to play,” said Christopher Sweeney, associate professor of music and chair of the Music Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Sweeney, a trombone player, Linn Weeda, trumpet, and Cheryl Pierce, horn, make up the Chugach Brass trio, which will perform in Soldotna on Saturday, Feb. 16. This will be the trio’s third performance on the central Kenai Peninsula in the group’s seven years playing together, yet promises to be another new experience for audiences.
It can’t help but be different. Since a brass trio is a relatively unusual ensemble, music written for that grouping is often not well known in the popular chamber music lexicon, so it’s as much of a treasure hunt for the musicians as it is a new discovery for audiences.
“I like an adventurous audience who can handle not hearing Mozart all the time, because that’s just not what you’re going to get with a brass trio, for the most part,” Sweeney said.
What are you going to get? Sometimes even Sweeney doesn’t know, and he’s the one who picks most the music.
“I have this very dignified answer for how music is chosen, but it’s really by me just going, ‘That sounds like a cool title,’” Sweeney said.
Music for brass trio has only been around since about the 1920s — making it a mere toddler in the scope of musical history. In a sense that’s surprising, since early versions of brass instruments are some of the oldest in existence. But those early instruments had limited range and character, since valves — allowing expanded access to the harmonic scale — were only invented just after the start of the 19th century.
Trios could just transcribe music meant for different instrumentations, but that’s laborious and often doesn’t quite translate to strengths and weaknesses of brass instruments.
“You’re a brass player and you’re stuck up there playing a piece for strings, and it’s like, ‘OK, that’s nice, but they don’t have to breathe,’” Sweeney said.
When Sweeney is able to find music written for brass trio, he’s often never heard it before, so he doesn’t have much on which to base his choices. Even more difficult is finding music for bass trio with piano, as Chugach Brass is joined by Dean Epperson on a few pieces.
“It’s hard to find even recorded examples a lot of times, so I’m like, ‘Well, that seems like a cool title,’ and I’ll just order it. And you know what? I have a pretty good batting average that way. I think of everything we have in this concert, most of the things that I was responsible for purchasing was because I liked the title, and I’ve done pretty well. I’m quite proud of myself because of that,” Sweeney said.
This might sound capricious, but as any voracious reader knows, you actually can judge a book by its cover, at least enough to gauge whether it’s going to be of a genera, style and format that’s interesting to you.
The trio’s first piece was one that immediately caught Sweeney’s attention by title alone — “Three Anachronisms” written in 1991 by Bruce Thompson for his son, a horn player.
“Hmm, I’m intrigued,” Sweeney said.
Ending the program is another title-based selection, “Recreation” for brass trio and piano, by Pierre Gabaye.
“Definitely I liked the title, and it’s French and I tend to like French music,” Sweeney said. “It’s just really pleasant. It’s very French and it’s a lot of fun. The second movement is this kind of slow, bluesy thing. I think of the third movement as being like honky-tonk piano, for some reason, but the French interpretation of what honky-tonk piano would sound like. It’s just got nice humor and it’s fun to listen to.”
Also on the program is Robert Sanders’ “Trio for Brass Instruments,” and Henry Wolking’s “Americana,” based on traditional cultural music. The first movement evokes a Native American flute song, the second is variations on “Bluebells of Scotland” — which, despite the name, actually is an American tune — and the third is a samba.
The musicians also will be playing solos, along with Epperson, a Homer High School graduate who teaches private piano lessons in Anchorage and is an adjunct faculty member at UAA.
Weeda, assistant music director and principal trumpet of the Anchorage Symphony and Anchorage Opera, music director of the Anchorage Youth Symphony and teacher at UAA, is playing a piece by Richard Peaslee for trumpet and flugelhorn. Pierce, principal horn with the Anchorage Opera, assistant principal horn with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra and adjunct professor of horn at UAA, is performing a more classic solo by Camille Saint-Saens. Sweeney is performing a more modern piece, by Donald White.
“When we do solos we try to do very different things. So Linn’s, for lack of a better term, is kind of moody, a little mellower, a very smooth and very pretty 20th-century piece. Then Cheryl is doing a very classic-sounding Romantic piece, and mine is kind of the weirder, 20th-century, very rhythmic piece of music,” Sweeney said.
There also are examples of the other well from which Chugach Brass draws music — originality. They’ll be playing a Bach fugue arranged for brass trio by Weeda, and “Aleutian Sketches,” written for Chugach Brass and piano by Philip Munger, an Alaska composer.
“The final movement is about the Volcano Woman story, the origin theory of the Aleutian tribe. And it contains a Russian Orthodox hymn. It’s really nice, it’s really well crafted and people seem to like it,” Sweeney said.
Chugach Brass will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors, available in advance at Already Read Books and Country Liquor in Kenai, River City Books in Soldotna and at the door.
“We love coming down and playing (on the central peninsula). The audiences have been fantastic. So I hope people come and enjoy. I think there’s a good variety, with a little something for everybody. It should be a great concert,” Sweeney said.