Australian Baroque Brass says “g’day” on period instrument

Sonia Emmons

“Can you just humor me and say ‘G’day, mate?'”John Foster, Artistic Director of the Australian Baroque Brass, posed this question to his audience in the Chapel on Monday, Jan. 28. The question came after he spoke briefly (and with the delightful accent that can be expected from the group’s name) about the period instruments on which they perform. In short, it appears that news of Americans’ obsession with foreign accents — particularly those which include words such as “G’day” — has traveled as far as the southern hemisphere.

The Australian Baroque Brass delivered an impressive performance on Monday evening, as part of their USA Tour 2008. The six-member ensemble, founded in 2003, is distinguished for playing on authentic Baroque brass instruments. These instruments include two Baroque slide trumpets (which look like trombones), a natural horn (ancestor of the modern-day French horn), and a sackbut (ancestor of the modern-day trombone). The group also includes an organist and a soprano singer.

First things first: I am not above admitting that the word sackbut is funny. Warrick Tyrrell, whose name was mistakenly — and humorously — printed as Warrick Tyrrell Sackbut in the program, explained that the Baroque trombone’s name comes from the French words for “push” and “pull.” However, since neither pousser nor tirer sound anything like sackbut, he concluded that the exact origin of that funny word is unknown.

In an accent that never lost its charm, the performers each did a nice job explaining and demonstrating what differentiated their period instruments from the modern brass instruments used by the brass players in the audience (who made up most of the audience). The main difference is that Baroque brass instruments lacked valves, and only had vent keys for intonation, or pitch accuracy.

Lawrence junior and trombone player Tim Phelan commented that the performers sounded “really awesome” on potentially “cruddy-sounding instruments.” He also said, “They looked like they were drinking from the trumpets.” While brass and woodwind players are accustomed to having fluids in and around their instruments, as a string player, this concept is still slightly unnerving to me.

The soprano Anna Sandstrom was featured in two stunning selections: “Amarilli, mia bella” by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) and “Lungi da te, mio bene,” an aria from W.A. Mozart’s first opera, “Mitridate,” written when the composer was only 14 years old. Sandstrom’s pure, crisp voice followed an ornate trail that was perfectly styled for the Baroque music.

The word Baroque is actually a French transliteration of the Portuguese phrase “pérola barroca,” which means “irregular pearl,” and the word was first used with a derogatory meaning to suggest excessive ornamentation. Today, the Baroque is considered to be a form of highly elaborate beauty.

Lawrence University’s organist Kathrine Handford showed her impressive musical technique, and with no performers blocking her, the audience was able to pay close attention to the remarkable coordination of her hands and feet as she played the magnificent “Toccata” by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The organ loomed high above her and the air seemed to rumble and ripple when she struck the low notes.

With any luck, the Australian Baroque Brass will return to Lawrence for another concert, or even just a lecture. As long as there is speaking involved, I’ll be happy.

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