Little Tin Horns program notes

“The trumpet shall sound …” So begins the famous bass aria and highlight of Handel’s Messiah—perhaps the most widely performed Christmas oratorio. Throughout the ages festivities associated with the December holiday season have featured the joyous sounds of brass ensembles. Today’s concert—a selection of works ranging from classics to pops—celebrates the unique splendor of trumpets, trombones, French horns, and tubas.

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In 1879 Johannes Brahms was already a well-known composer when the University of Breslau wrote that it intended to honor him with a Ph.D. The award, however, came with a caveat: the university expected Brahms to compose a new work fitting for the occasion. Much to the surprise of the University authorities, Brahms, who loathed the public fanfare of celebrity, accepted the challenge. As a musical thank you, he produced a concert overture that was first performed in Breslau on January 4, 1881. The rollicking ten-minute Academic Festival Overture consists of a collection of student drinking songs arranged in four continuous sections – an intricately designed structure which remains in the view of one critic, “one of the most amusing pieces of pure comedy in the whole range of music.” It utilizes one of the largest instrumental ensembles of Brahms’s compositions featuring in addition to the usual strings and reeds, four horns (two in C and two in E), three C trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba. Due to its excitement and humor, the work has remained a staple of today’s concert hall repertoire.

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Richard Georg Strauss was a contemporary of Brahms, and another leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. He is best known for his operas, lieder, and tone poems, but his output of works for solo instruments with orchestra was also rather extensive. One of the jewels of this latter genre is his Horn Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op.11, which Strauss began composing in 1882 when he was only 18 years old. Perhaps inspired by the flawless technique of his horn-playing father, Franz Joseph Strauss, Richard developed an early love for the instrument and a keen ear for its effective use. He cast the concerto in the traditional three movements, but following Mendelssohn’s example in his E-minor Violin Concerto, he linked together the Allegro and Andante movements. Also like Mendelssohn, Strauss wasted no time introducing the soloist: one chord from the orchestra and the horn jumps in with an energetic fanfare. All three movements are unified by varied manipulation of this opening fanfare, and the finale is a robust Allegro full of hunting calls so typical of horn writing. Strauss specified in the score that the concerto should be played on a Waldhorn, i.e. a valveless natural horn, but the work is virtually unplayable on that instrument. It is written in the key of E-flat, but almost all hornists (including our soloist today) play it on a valved double horn in F/B-flat even though it makes the fingering a bit more complicated. Often referred to as “the greatest horn concerto written in modern times,” it is fiendishly difficult for the performer, and it is interesting to note that although the elder Strauss read through the concerto at home with Richard accompanying him on the piano, he never played it in public, complaining that there were too many high notes and that the work exhausted him.

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The Canadian Brass is a brass quintet founded in 1970 consisting of two trumpets, trombone, French horn, and tuba. Now in its fifth decade the group (known for their unique performance attire of formal black suits with white running shoes) has played in concert halls all over the world. They have commissioned, performed and recorded hundreds of transcriptions and original works for brass quintet. A Canadian Brass Christmas, as arranged here by Luther Henderson and adapted for orchestra by Calvin Custer, is a medley of “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “The Huron Carol,” and “Here We Come A-Wassailing”—four of the quintet’s favorites woven into a unique holiday tapestry.

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Thomas Hinds’s arrangement, Music for Hannukah (subtitled Two Folk Songs and a Hymn) celebrates the Jewish Festival of Lights. The two folk songs are “Hannukah, O Hannukah” and “Who Can Retell.” The hymn is “Rock of Ages,” known in Hebrew as “Maoz Tzur.” Hinds is an active composer of symphonic and theater music, and for the past twenty-nine years he has been the Music Director and Conductor of the Montgomery (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra.

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As a contrast to these familiar works, the Holyoke Civic Symphony is honored to present the world premiere of The Three Ships Variations by local composer and music critic Clifton J. Noble, Jr. Noble writes that the arrangement

takes the seventeenth century British carol “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” on a rollicking sail through several keys and characters and visits all of the “families” of the orchestra. Most of the variations are boisterous and devil-may-care, salty and danceable, particularly a persistent hoedown that’s only missing a concertina to qualify as a heel-kicking sea-chantey, but the central variation takes as its inspiration “our savior Christ and his lady” and lulls the lilting tune into a long-metered lullaby with which Mary might (had she taken Jesus aboard ship) have soothed her son from the rocking of the waves.

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Jingle Bells is one of the best-known and commonly-sung winter songs in the world, but it may come as a surprise to learn that it was written in 1857 by a Massachusetts native, James Lord Pierpont, to commemorate the popular sleigh races held in Medford during the mid-1800s. Originally copyrighted with the name, “One Horse Open Sleigh” the song has since passed into the public domain. In the twentieth century it has been recorded and performed by an amazing variety of musical artists including Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, The Chipmunks, Judy Collins, Nat King Cole, Perry Como, Placido Domingo, and Spike Jones. Carmen Dragon, the arranger of Jingle Bells Fantasie, was a mid-twentieth century American conductor and composer who worked in radio, film, and television in addition to conducting the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra and making recordings. In 1964 he received an Emmy for his orchestral arrangement of America the Beautiful.

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Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, another popular Christmas song, was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie and was first sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. It became an instant hit with orders for 200,000 copies of sheet music the next day and more than 400,000 copies sold by Christmas. This arrangement for orchestra was made by Bob Cerulli, a graduate of Curtis Institute of Music who is presently Principal Bass for the Greater Trenton Symphony and Delaware Valley Philharmonic Orchestras.

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American composer and arranger Leroy Anderson wrote many familiar, light concert pieces that are audience-pleasers for their hummable melodies, infectious rhythms and striking effects. Today the orchestra plays one of his best known works, Sleigh Ride, which he composed in 1946 after being inspired by a long heat wave. The lyrics, about a person who would like to ride in a sleigh on a winter’s day with another person, were written by Mitchell Parish. This colorful piece has been a holiday favorite ever since it was first recorded in 1949, and the neighing of the horse pulling the sleigh as rendered by first trumpeter, Daniel Melbourne, is a fitting end for our concert featuring “Little Tin Horns.”

— Jane Rausch

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