‘CHRISTMAS VESPERS’

The Motor City Brass Quintet’s debut recording has been, to say the least, a long time coming—certainly (but not solely) in its artistic concept. As such, it has afforded the MCBQ a wealth of discovery along the way. Perhaps the most insightful artistic lesson can be summarized with a new adage, based on the age-old chicken-and-egg riddle: What comes first, the album or the arrangements? Well, both, we now say. This probably is no riddle, but rather a goal toward which we’ve dutifully trudged: find great quintet arrangements we love to play, and unify them in a narrowly-themed collection that stands in whole even greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.

And so we present our whole: Christmas Vespers; a collection of our favorite Yuletide music; and various tunes heard in assorted contexts each December, yet commonly programmed side-by-side, sacred and secular, in churches’ candle-lit musical celebrations of the Advent, the Vespers service.

Sample “Christmas Vespers”


     
 
     

McGregor’s lush carol arrangements evoke an all-congregation sing-along with booming pipe organ, and Hansinger’s Carol of the Bells imitates a handbell choir, echoing through the depths of an old, resonant church. The Herbert and Anderson favorites remind us of the children’s choir feature, while Handel’s great aria is the cantor’s (and house trumpeter’s) moment to shine. Subdued ancient European carols suggest choir-led meditations for moments of introspection, contrasting the brassy flair of Borngesser’s Joy. We might hum Gilliland’s tasteful arrangement of a warm modern classic as we head home in the cold night.

Of course, Vespers often features the Christmas pageant. The centerpiece of the MCBQ’s Vespers is the premiere complete recording of John Harbison’s Christmas Vespers (1988). Professor of Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harbison is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and many other prestigious awards and commissions and has composed in virtually every genre, from solo to chamber to symphonic music. His Christmas Vespers: Brass Quintet reflects a Vespers service in itself, beginning with two seasonal chorale preludes as processionals, and concluding with a festive postlude based on the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The main body of the piece, The Three Wise Men, alternates the familiar and beautiful narrative from Matthew 2:1–12 with elaborated “engravings” of each scene by the brass. The suite begins with a prelude depicting the long journey of the Wise Men, with its changing wide-open terrain and its optimistic, loping pace. The first lines of text, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem . . . there came wise men,” draw a response from the brass, which sets the format for the suite as a whole.

The (Three) Wise Men are personified by Bb trumpet, horn and trombone, with an early medieval cast. Herod’s voice is spoken by the tuba. The plainsong-like motive of the Star and the Prophecies is introduced by, and later associated with, the higher-pitched C trumpet. Each ensuing scene is an enactment of the text pronounced, ending with a postlude, the reflective departing journey (a deliberate tip of the hat to the master of this kind of “music-for-use,” Paul Hindemith). In sum, it is a wonderfully unique composition that we believe deserves a prominent place in brass quintet repertoire.

We hope you enjoy our Vespers! Reflect on its parts, and incorporate it into a whole new Vespers of your own. Listen in random order, or in one of your own choosing. Celebrate the individuality of your Vespers service! We are humbly privileged to offer this refreshing new outlet with which you can enjoy the spirit and traditions of the season.

The Motor City Brass Quintet
December 2008

     
     

The MCBQ’s debut recording has received high accolades from notable artists.

“I am honored to have my arrangements presented on The Motor City Brass Quintet Christmas Vespers CD. They give them such a sonorous and finely balanced performance that you will think your Christmas tree has been dipped in liquid gold. What a way to start an album of such varied and beautifully played arrangements by a wonderful variety of arrangers and composers.”
—Rob Roy McGregor, formerly of The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra

“I am just now listening to the Handel and I have to tell you that I am just about jumping out of my seat, it sounds SO GREAT!! The tuning, sound, style, balance is just perfect. You have a very beautiful sound, which I consider the heart and soul of every trombonist. BRAVO!!”
—Gordon Cherry, Principal Trombone, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, President, Cherry Classics

“It’s a nice sounding ensemble and I enjoyed the CD a lot. Very good playing all around. A lot of good brass writing and I like Harbison’s piece very much. And the trumpets sound really fine!”
—Allan Dean, St. Louis Brass Quintet

Composer John Harbison (Pulitzer Prize winning composer/MIT Professor) “…absolutely loves it! The group sounds terrific, spectacular! And the narrator is really wonderful on [Christmas] Vespers.”

And trumpeter Rolf Smedvig (founder, Empire Brass) says, “I had a chance to listen to Christmas Vespers – fantastic – terrific – wonderful recording – just great! You all are fantastic – I love it!”

More reviews of Christmas Vespers

     
     

REVIEWS

Detroit Free Press

Mark Stryker
Free Press Music Critic

I’m usually a Scrooge when it comes to Christmas recordings, but here’s one full of enough creative vitality that I might have to rethink my prejudice. “Christmas Vespers” (***, Brassjar Music), the welcome debut by the Motor City Brass Quintet, includes seamless and highly musical performances of interesting arrangements of seasonal carols and songs like “Sleigh Ride” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” etc.

The International Trombone Association Journal

Gretchen L. McNamara
Wright State University

From traditional to less-known Christmas music, the Motor City Brass Quintet compiles a wonderful collection of literature to celebrate the season. The 22 tracks and nearly an hour of music are sure to delight every listener gearing up for the holidays, from novice to professional. In their liner notes, the quintet emphasizes the significance of good arrangements for brass quintet that are fun to perform. Featuring arrangements by Rob Roy McGregor, Nicholas Hansinger, Jason Borngesser, David Gilliland, Bonnie Kline, Gordon Cherry, Randal Block, and Thomas Purdie, and an original composition by John Harbison, the recording compilation melds good musical elements with interesting and captivating lines in contrasting styles.

Notable are the lush sosenuto arrangemnts of McGregor, performed with wonderful style, intonation, rich ensemble tone, and group balance. In contract to the more traditional holiday fare is the complete recording of John Harbison’s Christmas Vespers, featuring Dennis Archer narrating the Christmas Story from Matthew 2:1-12. While the role of the ensemble as a whole is not lost, this composition features the quintet musicians as individuals to a greater extent that the other repertoire included on this recording, with roles of the Wise Men played by the Bb trumpet, horn, and trombone. King Herod is represented by the tuba, and the Star and the Prophecies are portrayed by the C trumpet. The use of contemporary forms and harmonies as well as sounds created by the use of the straight mute give this piece a unique flavor juxtaposing the arrangements of more traditional Christmas repertoire. Christmas Vespers would be a great addition to any musician’s recording collection.