July 10, 2019

Unique Brass Ensemble Comes to Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts Series

By Nancy Plum

Of the trumpet, French horn, and trombone, the most familiar is likely the trumpet, thanks to a repertory of 17th and 18th-century music featuring the instrument. The French horn is also well known though a number of concerti over several centuries. The trombone, however, is rarely featured in orchestral settings, and is a pleasure for audiences to hear and see close up. Princeton University Summer Chamber Concerts brought these three instruments together last Tuesday night at Richardson Auditorium with a performance by the New York Brass Arts Trio. Definitely an ensemble for the 21st century, the Brass Arts Trio is comprised of trumpeter Joe Burgstaller, French horn player David Jolley, and trombonist Haim Avitsur, who came together in this performance to demonstrate the power of their instruments within the finesse of ensemble playing.

Burgstaller, Jolley, and Avitsur are not only expert performers, but also imaginative arrangers; almost all of the pieces on Tuesday night’s program were arranged by one of them. The Trio presented works spanning three centuries, beginning with David Jolley’s arrangements of three sinfonias of Johann Sebastian Bach. In these short pieces, the three brass instruments were able to achieve appropriate lightness in melodic lines, as well as dynamic contrasts. Burgstaller found numerous opportunities for ornamentation in music tailor-made for a bright trumpet sound.

Burgstaller played on several types of trumpets during the concert, including trumpet in C, piccolo trumpet and the 19th-century flugelhorn. He employed the most variety of instrumentation in Jolley’s arrangement of selections from Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, in which he alternated between C and piccolo trumpets. Throughout Stravinsky’s Suite, Burgstaller’s playing was well complemented by sliding trombone passages and crisp rhythms from French horn.

The Brass Arts Trio’s most adventurous piece Tuesday night was Jolley’s arrangement of Richard Strauss’ 1895 tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, a one-movement work rich in lush orchestration in its original form. Strauss himself arranged the symphonic poem for five instruments in shortened form, and it was this version which was closest to the adaptation played by the Trio. Till Eulenspiegel, which chronicles the misadventures and pranks of a German peasant folk hero, extensively features the horn, and Jolly played consistently cleanly throughout the work, with running lines tripping right along. Extended trills from both horn and trombone demonstrated the technical difficulty of this arrangement, and all players brought out well the main character’s “merry pranks” with saucy and lively playing. The ensemble came together well for dynamic swells and forte sections, and the close of the piece in particular showed a great deal of stamina from all players.

Burgstaller and Avitsur successfully tried their hands at piano accompaniment with Burgstaller’s arrangement of Three Children’s Songs of American jazz keyboardist and composer Chick Corea. A pioneer in jazz fusion, Corea composed a set of 20 “children’s songs” in the 1970s to mirror the Mikrokosmos series of piano miniatures by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. Burgstaller chose to arrange three of these works for two brass instruments and an impressionistic piano accompaniment contrasting Bartók’s more rhythmic keyboard style. Both Burgstaller and Avitsur proved themselves capable pianists, with sonorities among keyboard and brass instruments working well. The first “Song” played, featuring an extended trombone solo, was haunting in character, as Avitsur showed just how much physical space a trombonist needs to play in all the instrument’s positions. Jolley took the lead in the second “Song,” playing smoothly through all registers. Burgstaller introduced the flugelhorn to the musical palette in the closing “Song,” playing with a rich, bell-like tone.

Arelatively new ensemble, the New York Brass Arts Trio seemed to perform for the imagination and entertainment of its members as much as introducing innovative arrangements of classical and jazz works to the audience. Joe Burgstaller, David Jolley, and Haim Avitsur all have solid performing credits on their own, and their collective ensemble is quickly gaining a well-deserved reputation to take the brass trio into new realms of musicality and performance.