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Brass Tactics

From Bach to the Beatles, Canadian Brass jumps around the genres while sticking to a classical approach.


Then again, even the name Canadian Brass is a bit misleading. "There is only one actual Canadian in the band," says trumpeter Joe Burgstaller. "But the group is based in Toronto and the founding members were all in Canadian orchestras. We're mostly not home anyway."

Burgstaller is one of the quintet's second-generation members, leaving behind a busy solo career to join the Canadian Brass in June 2001. Playing at the Carpenter Center will be something of a homecoming for the Virginia Beach native.

According to Canadian Brass tradition, the higher pitched the instrument, the shorter the member's time with the band. Tuba player Chuck Daellenbach and trombonist/leader Gene Watts were members of the original 1970 lineup. At that time, trumpeter Ryan Anthony and French horn player Jeff Nelsen, both of whom joined the group in 2000, were infants.

The band members travel extensively; their May starts in Ottawa, passes through Virginia and Texas, and ends in China and Japan. "It's a great lifestyle," according to Burgstaller. "We're always doing what we love to do, nonstop."

At the Carpenter Center they will cover a typically wide range of material. "The show starts with Handel's Arrival of Queen of Sheba, Burgstaller says. "Then there is a suite by William Berg, followed by an antiphonal piece by Giovanni Gabrieli, which we play while dispersed into the audience."

The Brass' signature piece is Bach's monumental Toccata and Fugue in D minor. "It's very well known, very difficult and therefore impressive," says Burgstaller. "It's both a perfect fugue and it lends itself to transcription."

Segueing from baroque to blues, the next selection is a suite of Duke Ellington standards, including "Harlem Sunday Morning," "Cotton Tail," "Sophisticated Lady" and "It Don't Mean a Thing." Luther Henderson, a frequent collaborator, arranged them for the Brass. "Luther is at the forefront of the movement that codified jazz," says Burgstaller. "His work preserves the historically correct interpretation of Ellington and is right-on in capturing Duke's elegance, nuance and approach."

The vocabulary is jazz but the approach is classical. "The improvisation is done at the arranger's table," Burgstaller says. "For a modern, trained jazz musician it will not sound authentic, but then again it is an approach that makes it consistent. It preserves what would have been heard if you had heard the actual orchestra."

The second half of the program includes a Glenn Miller suite, which demonstrates the group's facility with dance music of all centuries, and an arrangement of "Penny Lane," a natural choice given the French horn solo.

"We also play a composition by Michael Kamen, who composed the music for Die Hard," Burgstaller says. "It is perhaps one of our most powerful pieces — amazingly, hauntingly beautiful, it spans every emotion, hope and despair, in a very short time."

The evening concludes with a composition written for the Brass by Peter Schickele, who is more familiarly known as PDQ Bach.

"'Hornsmoke' is a horse opera in one act," says Burgstaller. "I don't want to give too much away, just that there are costumes involved. And there is a girl … me."

The band's inclusion of popular music and humor is matched with informality unusual in chamber music. "We wear tennis shoes when we play," says Burgstaller. "It's a small point, but it is our approach in microcosm. So much classical music is stiff, and that eliminates the higher form of communication. We have to break down the barriers."

Breaking down barriers is the central mission of the Canadian Brass, whether it is the gap between stage and audience or between the varieties of musical expression. As world travelers, and as (mostly) Americans in a Canadian band, they know that these divides, like all borders, are artificial.

Canadian Brass will be the final performance in the Carpenter Center's "Many Worlds, One Community" series on May 10. Tickets cost $33.50-$35.00. Call 225-9000.

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