Monday, January 17, 2022

5 Minutes That Will Make You Love the Trumpet

Monday, January 17, 2022

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In the past we’ve chosen the five minutes or so we would play to make our friends fall in love with classical music, piano, opera, cello, Mozart, 21st-century composers, violin, Baroque music, sopranos, Beethoven, flute, string quartets, tenors, Brahms, choral music, percussion, symphonies and Stravinsky.

Now we want to convince those curious friends to love the trumpet. We hope you find lots here to discover and enjoy; leave your favorites in the comments.

The musical term “intrada” suggests a fanfare, music to mark an entrance. This one, written in 1947 by the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, captures the many personalities of the trumpet: noble and bombastic, mischievous and meditative. Hakan Hardenberger seamlessly glides between these moods, driving the energy through the rollicking finale.

Here is my impassioned clarion call to understand the trumpet! See that exclamation point? That’s what a trumpet does. It punctuates emotions. My trumpet teacher Bill Fielder would always ask, “What is the trumpet?” I would ponder for a moment and offer an encyclopedic answer like “A metal instrument with … blah, blah, blah.” To that Mr. Fielder would say, “It is a mirror of your mind.”

Ordinarily, I would invite you to listen to Miles Davis’s “Porgy and Bess,” a classic collaboration between Miles and Gil Evans. This album set the stage for people thinking differently about the orchestra and jazz. But as I write this, yesterday was the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. My song “Funeral Dirge,” from the album “A Tale of God’s Will,” originally composed for the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s first Katrina documentary, “When the Levees Broke,” still haunts me today. Actually, I don’t feel like I composed it. I feel like it was being screamed at me: my personal clarion call to hear and weep with my hometown, New Orleans.

Dead bodies floating. Dead bodies on top of cars. Dead bodies in the grass. Dead bodies in places I knew. Dead bodies in neighborhoods I grew up in. I saw these bodies in the raw footage of Spike’s documentary. One dead body I didn’t see in the video was that of an old neighborhood friend who died trying to help people stay on their roofs while floodwaters raged beneath. I never cried so much, shedding tears for the many bodies I saw, and the many, many more I didn’t see. This dirge is my tribute to those brave, valiant, fallen heroes. God bless those souls from Katrina — and, today, those souls from Ida.

Conventional wisdom holds that Louis Armstrong’s peak came with his pathbreaking recordings of the late 1920s and early ’30s. Don’t believe it! He remained a potent creative force well into the middle of the century, and his 1947 Town Hall performance of “Dear Old Southland” shows how he continued to deepen his understanding of a tune.

This duo rendition, with the pianist Dick Cary, starts out as a stiff-upper-lip confession; the opening trumpet lines suggest a speaker confiding some sadness in a suavely guarded manner. But eventually the attempt to keep up appearances dissolves, as Armstrong sends torrents of welled-up feeling bawling forth. The beaming assurance of his technique — bending notes, reaching for new climaxes — gives this unraveling unmistakable dignity. And the ending’s brief hint of a striding, sunnier future provides one more look at the malleability of a soul.

The best way to get to know an instrument is to write for it. It’s like getting to know somebody well; you learn their strengths, their weaknesses. The trumpet has a very limited range: Writing this four-trumpet piece was like being in prison, because the range is so small; it’s like four people in a little room. But inside those two and a half octaves it can really climb. If you go from an A to a C, it’s like you’re going from the basement to the sky.

Who would have imagined that light touching light is connected to comprehension, that inspiration and creativity are bound together in the heart and soul of a true artist? Hearing Miles Davis’s “Calypso Frelimo” was for me an inspired moment of music as art.

The piece begins at a shockingly intense level. First the trumpet solo, beautifully inspired music with long-and short-changing sonics, bellowing glissando multiphonics interspersed with nuanced micro-sonics: pure melodic development with a creative range matched by emotion, and just the right amount of space and silence perfectly arched across a vast, still environment mysteriously, without effort.

The first time I heard a recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, I was mesmerized by the metamorphosis of the sound of the trumpet to the eloquent, distant timbre of the post horn, emerging from offstage in the third movement. This was Leonard Bernstein’s version with the New York Philharmonic, with John Ware playing the solo, and as a very young trumpeter who had grown up steeped in commercial and Afro-Cuban music, I had never heard such a simple yet poignant melody. It was one of the listening experiences that had the most impact on my early career as a symphony orchestra musician.

Kenny Dorham (1924-72) did not command attention with Gabriel-like power and bravura technique. A favorite of jazz connoisseurs, he seduced listeners with the soulful warmth, colorful wit and understated wisdom of the hippest bon vivant on the scene. Everything about his approach to the trumpet and improvisation was expressive, relaxed and personal. The dappled smears of his crepuscular tone and the flirty bounce he brings to the standard “I Had the Craziest Dream” in 1959 make a beeline for your heart. His improvised phrases, delivered with nonchalant charm, enchant you with clever melodic and rhythmic rhymes and piquant note choices. He’s telling a story, inviting you into his dream — where you not only fall in love with the trumpet, but also the man with the horn.

Every year “Messiah” comes around, and every year, almost at the end, comes the moment to hold your breath. Many performances of Handel’s classic oratorio now take place on period instruments, and the Baroque trumpet is an unwieldy beast: long, straight and lacking the valves that allow players on modern trumpets to hit notes reliably. So while it hopefully doesn’t sound like it, the soaring, angelic, regal solo part that crowns this bass aria is a merciless test of skill, as the player announces the Day of Judgment — and endures his or her own.

In 1958 my father, the conductor Felix Slatkin, commissioned the composer Leo Arnaud to create pieces that would demonstrate the then-new audio format of stereo. Utilizing various military fanfares as well as original tunes, “Bugler’s Dream” included what would become known as “The Olympic Fanfare.” The track was featured on a Capitol Records album called “Charge!” and has been reissued several times.

With trumpets of all sizes and the musicians separated into two different studios, there was simply no better way to show off not only the new technology but also the incredible skill of the 26 players. If you do not love the trumpet after listening to this, I suggest the track that contains the 12 bagpipers.

The trumpet is an length of impossible plumbing — physically demanding and fickle — and playing it involves an act of illusory control. Trumpet players, at their best, give up some part of this deception, and their imperfection lets the listener in on a secret: the musician’s humanity. They strive toward something essential and the failure to reach it shows their true virtuosity. What Ron Miles achieves on “Witness” demands that he go beyond his prodigious technique, and the heart-rending sound that comes from his breaking of the illusion is the trumpet at its most essential: vulnerable, virtuosic and real.

No fewer than 14 trumpets (and 11 other brasses) blaze mightily through the fanfare finale of Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Written in 1926 for the opening of a mass gymnastics festival that was part fitness bonanza, part explosion of Czech national pride, the work was inspired by a military band its composer heard — and whose raw, brilliant sound and determined spirit he sought to capture. An armed forces paean sounds awful, but Janacek created something both local — a portrait of Brno, his hometown — and universal. The music reflects not reactionary jingoism, but wild liberation.

Johnny Coles paints a spectrum of the trumpet’s timbre possibilities at their finest: soft blues, golden butter tones and brazen oranges that reveal a tender underside of the horn. He makes it easy to forget that the trumpet was born as an instrument of fanfare and war. But ultimately it’s the breadth of expression I love most here, the spaces left in order to bring these colors to light. And while Coles’s harmonic contours glide mostly inside the lines, the fleeting moments where the trumpet skates outside — smearing, curving, soaring — bring forward a purple-hued beauty, sounding the blues inside a feminine form.

In this recording, I’m drawn to how the trumpet speaks the message of the song as clearly as the lyrics. In my career I’ve seen firsthand how the compositions of Gabriella Smith, the poetry of Paul Simon and the power of Justin Vernon’s voice can express a wide range of feelings so directly. If you think about music as the communication of complex human emotions from an artist to a listener through sound — and if you think about classical music more broadly in the American tradition — no one does it better than Louis Armstrong. What initially drew me to the trumpet, and keeps on drawing me, is how similar the sound is to the human voice, both in its expressive capabilities and its means of production: breath, vibration, projection.

Alessandro Ignazio Marcello’s Concerto in C minor was originally an oboe concerto, but has since been adapted to be played by other instruments, and one of its more popular recordings features Tine Thing Helseth on piccolo trumpet. The first time I heard this piece, I was in the sixth grade. I didn’t know what a piccolo trumpet was at the time, but I knew that eventually I wanted to get to a point in my career when I would be able to play a piece as rich and interesting as this one.

Leroy Anderson, the master of the light orchestral miniature, recalled that his 1949 piece “A Trumpeter’s Holiday” had its origins backstage during a Boston Pops concert. The great trumpeter Roger Voisin, then principal with the Pops, was complaining that trumpet works tended to be loud, martial, triumphant. Voisin suggested that Anderson try writing something different.

The result was this mellow lullaby. Of course, it was still a trumpet piece, so Anderson couldn’t help letting jazzy bits slip in: The beguiling melody has a slightly jumpy repeated-note figure, even as the orchestra maintains a lulling mood in the background, and a middle section turns restless and syncopated in a moment of mischief.

As a violin-playing child, I was slow to appreciate the trumpet, which seemed, like other brass instruments, temperamental and resistant to expressiveness — especially compared with strings. How wrong I was. Take the Thursday installment of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s seven-day opera cycle “Licht.” The drama of Act II, “Michaels Reise um die Erde” (“Michael’s Journey Around the Earth”), unfolds with the characters represented with instruments, not singing voices. In this excerpt, Michael (portrayed by a trumpet) and Eve (a basset horn) engage in a duet that’s flirtatious, funny and — contrary to what I once naïvely believed — full of humanity.


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