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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Brass players set sights on special concert at abbey

Music by Giovanni Gabrieli will reach across centuries in the unique space.
Eric High
Eric High

PHOTO: St. Norbert Abbey Church in De Pere is the setting for a concert by brass players from the region. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – A rare music event is taking shape that will find teaching professionals massing for an aural spectacle that takes advantage of the singular acoustic and aesthetic qualities of St. Norbert Abbey Church in De Pere.

“We’ve never tried anything like this before,” says Eric High of the St. Norbert College music faculty. “We’re all very excited about it,”

The “all” consists of 19 brass players from the region, most of who teach at five institutions. The group will gather at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, to play at the abbey church, 1016 N. Broadway in De Pere.

High says, “All the pieces, except one, were composed by Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612). Most of those pieces date from 1597.”

Admission is free.

Gabrieli was a native of Venice, Italy. An organist and composer, Gabrieli composed music to suit St. Mark’s Basilica there.

“The antiphonal music of Gabrieli, while not originally exclusively for brass, is now most commonly performed on modern brass instruments,” High says.

The audience, High says, “can expect to hear some late 16th-century music that they’ve probably never encountered, played by excellent players.”

The program

By Giovanni Gabrieli except where noted.

“Canzon septimi toni No. 1”

“Canzon primi toni”

“Canzon duodecimi toni”

“Canzon in double echo”

“Canzon a 12”

“Reflections on a Teacher” by Marty Robinson

“Canzon noni toni”

“Canzon septimi toni No. 2”

High says, “The music is very elaborate, and the pieces are short (4-4½ minutes) and sweet and powerful.” The concert will last less than an hour.

Teachers being teachers, and music being music, it’s taking a lot of juggling of schedules to put together a rehearsal and this concert. “Miraculously, we found a time where literally every brass faculty member could make it,” High says.

The persona

Brass faculty

- St. Norbert College, De Pere: Eric High, Linda Cook

- University of Wisconsin-Green Bay: Kevin Collins, Adam Gaines, Michelle McQuade Dewhirst

- Lawrence University, Appleton: John Daniel, Jeffrey Stannard, James DeCorsey, Marty Erickson

- University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh: Bruce Atwell, Marty Robinson, Dylan Chmura-Moore, Rob McWilliams, Heather McWilliams

- Ripon College: Kurt Dietrich

Friends

- Michael Henckel, Andrew Zipperer, Andrew Parks

Conductor

- Michael Knight (St. Norbert College faculty)

High says, “We’re geographically situated in a nice place where we have talented music faculty within a 45-minute radius… I play with a lot of these people in a lot of different groups. We’ve been discussing this for a while. Brass players like to get together and play some of the traditional Venetian antiphonal music. For a few years now, we’ve been doing a Christmas event at the abbey with a small group and some of the choirs from St. Norbert College like the faculty brass and choirs, and it’s been a big hit. So we thought about trying to find a day where we could get as many of these people involved as possible and play some of this big, fantastic 16th century Venetian brass music that all of us really enjoy playing. It’s really quite extravagant and pleasant.”

The place is important. The abbey is known for its distinctive sound and remarkable properties.

High says, “According to Father Michael Frisch, who is the organist at the abbey, there is eight seconds of reverb. With all of the smooth marble and the glass surfaces, the sound, once it escapes your instrument, just kind of bounces around and lingers in there up to eight seconds. In standard concert hall, musicians are used to maybe a two-second decay. So this is really an extreme event. But this was common for this sort of music. The music was originally composed to be performed in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and all of the traditional Catholic, gothic cathedrals. One of the features is a tremendous resonance. It enhances the message of what they’re trying to say in the service, and it enhances all of the music. So that will be on full display.”

The musicians will gather in different configurations for each piece.

“The music takes multiple choirs,” High says. “We’re not going to spread out too far because the acoustics in the abbey are particular in points. If we get too far away, the music might fall apart. Each choir will sort of have a designated area in the abbey space. The choirs work together in teams, and there’s a lot of imitation between the different groups. Choir One might make some sort of melodic statement, and Choir Two makes either an identical statement or a very similar statement, and the music develops kind of bouncing around that way. It’s like early stereo sound. Think of it that way.”

The one rehearsal will be a learning experience, High says. “A lot of the players have not played in there, and I think they’ll be surprised.”

High adds some details of what to expect in emotion and intent in the music:

“The pieces kind of run the gamut. This is pre-tonality, so they’re not really major or minor. But there are some that are very brilliant with a lot of fanfare sort of figures and a lot of ornaments in the upper brass in particular, the trumpets and the French horns. We also intersperse a few reflective or solemn pieces just for variety – slower moving, not as ornamental. We start with the smallest ones. Eventually, we have all 19 people playing. The concert will slowly accumulate to more and more sound. We’ll start pretty brilliantly, we’ll go through a few more subdued numbers, and then we’ll end with a couple of really big, triumphant ones.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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