Among aficionados of brass music, one recording has attained near-legendary status: the unglamorously titled 1968 album “Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli.” It featured brass sections from three of this country’s premier orchestras — the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra — performing dazzling arrangements of works by Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli. “For a lot of us, that was like looking at Mount Rushmore,” said Michael Sachs, principal trumpeter of the Cleveland Orchestra.
About four years ago, Sachs began pursuing the idea of creating a kind of homage to that celebrated release with a similar, updated recording that would showcase today’s elite brass musicians. The result is “Gabrieli,” an album that features the National Brass Ensemble, consisting of 24 brass players and two percussionists from nine orchestras, including three CSO members: principal trumpet Christopher Martin, principal tuba Gene Pokorny and trombonist Michael Mulcahy, as well as Gail Williams, the CSO’s former associate principal horn and now a professor at Northwestern University. “Gabrieli” will be distributed by Naxos, beginning with the second week of October (and also will be available at the Symphony Store before then). To celebrate the release and preview the disc, the National Brass Ensemble will perform Sept. 20 in a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert at Orchestra Hall. Joining the group, which will be making just its second appearance ever, will be special guest Riccardo Muti, the CSO’s music director.
The recording features 16 of Gabrieli’s madrigals and motets arranged for the brass ensemble by Timothy Higgins, principal trombonist of the San Francisco Symphony. “It can seem on paper that it might be monotonous but what Tim did is ingenious,” said Sachs, the project’s artistic director. “He’s done a lot with color variations and some nice stylistic variations, staying reflective of the original material.” Also included is Music for Brass, a five-minute work written for the group by John Williams, best known as the composer of scores for such movies as “Star Wars” and “Lincoln.” “He is really the dean of American brass writing in so many ways,” Sachs said. “All of us love him and really enjoy his music, so I reached out to John, and, in the most gracious manner I could have imagined, he offered to write us a piece.”
In a statement, Williams observed: “Throughout my musical life, I’ve been instructed and inspired by the great brass players that I’ve been privileged to work with and to write for. … The invitation to write a piece for the National Brass Ensemble gave me an opportunity to salute the members of this pre-eminent ensemble, and Music for Brass is offered as a humble tribute to their wizardry. The piece attempts to spotlight, separately and together, the diverse groups forming the ensemble — trumpets, horns, trombones and tubas — and I hope in some small way it might capture some of the brilliant spirit of ‘my friends pictured within.’ “
The Sept. 20 concert will showcase much of the album, including the Williams work and 12 of the Gabrieli selections, plus a bonus — Higgins’ brass arrangements of two opera overtures by Giuseppe Verdi. The overtures will be led by Muti, who is considered one of the world’s foremost interpreters of the Italian composer’s music. Several members of the group will take turns conducting the rest of concert, as they did on the recording.
Over the years, there had been talk in the brass world about attempting a remake of the 1968 recording, but nothing ever came to pass. Those discussions recurred in 2011 and 2012 when Martin and his brother, Michael, a trumpeter in the Boston Symphony, organized back-to-back editions of the first-ever National Brass Symposium in their hometown of Atlanta. Each event drew more than 300 top musicians from across the country. “The chemistry, the camaraderie, the whole vibe was so wonderful and positive and artistically incredible,” Sachs said. He began talking to Christopher Martin and Mulcahy, who would become artistic advisers on the recording along with Higgins, and they agreed that the project needed to be more expansive, representing not just the orchestras on the original albums but other major ensembles as well.
Coincidentally, a few months before the symposium, Sachs had had lunch with David Stull, a tuba specialist who was then dean of the Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music. “Of course, within a few minutes,” he said, “we started talking about our favorite recordings, and we went straight to this ’68 iconic Gabrieli recording with these three groups.” That in turn led to the two brainstorming ways to not just reprise that recording but also break some new ground. The conversation became a perfect prelude for the symposium and the discussions that came out of it. Stull later managed to persuade Joseph Markoff, an Oberlin alumnus and amateur trumpeter, and his wife, Phyllis, to provide the necessary funding, and the project was under way.
Once it was decided that Higgins would provide the Gabrieli arrangements, the next big decision was choosing the personnel for the recording. “We could have easily tapped 50-60 guys who are out there who are phenomenal players,” Sachs said. In the end, he focused on participants in the Brass Symposium and made sure to have a broad representation of orchestras, emphasizing on the three featured on the 1968 recording to guarantee a strong historical tie-in.
“Once we had the funding in place,” Sachs said, “then it was just a matter of timing, and that in and of itself was a gigantic challenge to get all these guys in one place at one time.” Originally, there was talk of adding educational activities along with the recording, but that would have required two weeks, and the group had only one “golden week” in June 2014 when all 26 musicians were available. With the help of Stull, who became president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 2013, they did the recording at Skywalker Sound near Nicasio, Calif., using engineers who formerly worked for Telarc, a once-independent label renowned for the high technical quality of its recordings.
Beyond simply finding virtuosos for the album, Sachs wanted musicians who could work well together and achieve an artistic chemistry, something he believed happened during the week in California. “It was just a terrific, friendly, collaborative environment,” he said, “pretty much more than anything I’ve ever been involved with in my life. It’s still, as I talk about it, incredibly inspiring to me, and I know to everyone who was involved.”
Gail Williams was thrilled to be asked to participate. “You sort of sit there and pinch yourself a whole bunch,” she said. “And you just sit there and smile, because there is just a lush sound. You get that many brass players, and you think, ‘Oh, man, it’s going to be like a competition,’ and it’s not. It’s just pure chamber music.”
During that week, the group also presented a concert at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. “It was such a Rubik’s Cube of schedules to be able get everyone together just for that,” Sachs said. “I figured it was potentially a one-off, although Mick [Mulcahy], Chris and I really thought that it would be great to somehow pull it off and be able to do it again, but I knew it was going to be a long shot.”
That said, when the recording release was set for October, Sachs began wondering if there might be some way, however challenging, to schedule an ensemble concert to mark the event. Because most orchestras have a break in September right before they begin their fall seasons, he began targeting a possible concert date during that month. Sept. 20 emerged as the one viable date, but to make it work, the concert had to be in Chicago, because the CSO’s season begins the week before and its members could not travel. Besides, Sachs said, the orchestra’s rich history of brass musicianship made it an ideal site for one of the National Brass Ensemble’s concerts.
With the Sept. 20 concert in place, the trumpeter is now wondering if it might not be possible to find a few more performance dates for the ensemble, perhaps at Carnegie Hall, at a major American summer music festival or overseas. “That’s something we’re exploring,” Sachs said. “Personally, if I could wave a magic wand and somehow find dates that are free, I’d love to do more concerts with this group, as I know everyone else would like to. It’s just a matter of when we can align schedules. It could be a year from now. It could be four years from now.”
Kyle MacMillan, the former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.