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Sun Valley Music Festival Gets Down to Brass Tacks
Sun Valley Music Festival fans look on as Alasdair Neale directs 21 brass and percussion musicians in Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
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Thursday, March 23, 2023


PHOTOS BY NILS RIBI/Sun Valley Music Festival

Bet you never expected to see earplugs handed out at a Sun Valley Music Festival concert!

That’s what happened this past week as volunteers with the Music Festival ushered patrons into The Argyros for three Winter Festival concerts.

It left some of the attendees a little unnerved, especially those sitting around tables of four right next to the stage. But, when all was said and done, everyone left with smiles on their faces and without earplugs in their ears.

Past Winter Festivals have surprised audiences with Gregorian chants, string performances from the balcony and even an operatic-singing Julia Child mixing up a cake mix in her kitchen.

The Sun Valley Music Festival got down to brass tacks this past time as it showcased its trumpets, tubas, trombones and flugelhorns, along with its percussion players.

The audience got a chance to see these musicians up close and personal in the intimate environment of The Argyros when, normally, they’re hidden out of view behind the strings section.

The concert kicked off with surround sound as brass musicians played Gabrieli’s “Canzona per Sonare No. 2 for Brass Ensemble” from the stage and the balcony, following that up with such selections as  Skidmore’s “Ritual Music” for percussion, Shaw’s “Quipperies” for horns and Verdi’s “Overture to Nabucco.”

“Thanks to the amazing constellation system at The Argyros, we are bringing St. Mark’s Cathedral to Ketchum,” Artistic Director Alasdair said, referring to The Argyros’ state-of-the-art sound system that can  transform The Argyros into a variety of environments from a cathedral to a concert hall.

The night before the Winter Festival four brass players entertained a near-capacity audience at the Community Library--even as snow poured outside--as they described how they had taken up their instruments.

Peter Wahrhaftig, principal tuba player with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, told how playing the tuba takes five times as much air as the horn. “It’s somewhat challenging at this elevation,” he added. “String players never have to worry about breathing.”

Wahrhaftig said that his tuba weighs 35 pounds. It’s “awkward and delicate.” And, yes, he gets a pre-boarding pass when flying so he can strap it into the seat next to him.

“I’m always disappointed when the flight attendants don’t offer my tuba a snack,” he said.

Andrew McCandless, principal trumpet player with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, said that he owns 13 trumpets but that a fellow musician has more than 30. Among his own: the piccolo trumpet and the flugelhorn, which makes a beautiful mellow sound and is used to kick off Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

The shorter the instrument, the higher the pitch, he added.

The brass instruments are nothing more than amplifiers, said William Ver Meulen, principal horn player with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. “They were initially signaling instruments, along with drums. Horns were used to communicate at great distances by warring tribes. The Polynesians even blew on conch shells,” he said.

VerMeulen called his horn “a spaghetti horn,” given the18 feet of tubing that loops around and over itself. He showed how the mouth piece centralizes the vibrating breath he blows into it. Sixteen notes are available while some are missing so he adds or subtracts tubing to get what he wants.

In Mozart’s day musicians stuck their hands into the bell to get the missing notes. In fact, Mahler wrote a piece for “stuffed horn.” Now, musicians have cones and other items to stick in trumpets and other instruments to soften the sound.

Gordon Wolfe, principal trombone player with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, showed how he slides slide to seven different positions to get the notes he wants on his instrument, whose name means “large trumpet.” He took off his bell to show what early trombone looked like without.

Playing trombones without the bell gives them a soft quality, he said. So much so that trombones were paired with violins and harpsichords in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.

The 21 musicians who performed during the Winter Festival concluded their performance with Mussorgsky’s 35-minute “Pictures at an Exhibition,” painting a picture in music of a promenade, a gnome, an old castle, gardens, a ballet of the unhatched chicks, a witch named Baba-Yaga and, finally, “The Great Gate of Kyiv.”

The brass is tested to the hilt when asked to perform the piece, said Neale: “It shows the variety of sounds you can get from brass instruments.”

VerMeulen, who put his fist in his horn at times while performing, concurred:

“We’re playing fiddle parts, clarinet parts… The good thing is we can spell each other when we need to breathe so it’s not a collective gasp. But this is only for professionals. Don’t try this at home!”


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