Of dulcet tones and Afghan bones

Other assignments, followed by a vile case of the flu, kept this scribe away from much of this year’s Festival of New American Music. I did manage to catch a couple of events, however, and both of them were outstanding, for different reasons.

A Thursday-evening brass concert by the Bay Brass, inside the Music Department’s cavernous recital hall at California State University at Sacramento, was notable for its utter accessibility. A semicircle of 14 horn players—trumpets, flugelhorns, trombones, French horns and a tuba—was joined by three percussionists on the florid opening number, James Beckel’s Musica Mobilis. Two pieces by John Corigliano followed: Fanfares to Music and Antiphon featured a quintet onstage, with a sextet upstage right, nearly behind some baffles, conversing. Both compositions were derived from a Schubert lied, “An die Musik.” Alexis Alrich’s Six Up featured two brass trios in antiphony; the oddly thrumming composition left a distinct emotional resonance. And Morton Lauridsen’s Fanfare for Brass Sextet was brief but darker than what had preceded it. The round, warm tones of his O Magnum Mysterium were the aural equivalent of a radiant winter hearth. Stockton composer Max Simoncic’s whimsical Tango Elephant followed; it used only lower-register brass to sketch a Piazzollan vision of dancing pachyderms that didn’t require a bandoneon for atmosphere. After a short break, Bruce Broughton’s Fanfares, Marches, Hymns & Finale, conducted by the composer, closed the program; each of the four sections in the piece managed to suggest its namesake without overtly addressing the form. Of the four, Hymns was the most compelling. After a standing ovation, the Bay Brass reprised Broughton’s Fanfare.

The Sunday-night program by Nevada County composer Terry Riley & His All Stars was a different story. The main piece, Protection Vigil #5 (subtitled What Tommy Bartsch taught me about Pythagoras of Samos) functioned both as an elegy to Bartsch, Riley’s Camptonville neighbor who died last month, and as a ritual of music and spoken word designed to summon universal will to bring about peace and healing in the Middle East. Riley played the grand piano and synthesizer and sang, his son Gyan Riley played acoustic and electric guitar, Tracy Silverman played electric violin, and Paul Hanson played bassoon. The composition, which unwound for more than an hour, drew on Indian classical and Central Asian themes. Most haunting was Hanson’s unearthly sounding prayer call on the bassoon, playing off Silverman’s enervating frictions on the violin. Riley’s spoken and sung text was strongly political, which suited the audience fine. An encore of two pieces followed, one familiarly minimalist and the other darkly Gershwin-flavored.