“Seventy-six trombones” is nothing compared to this!
From The New York Times, review by Anthony Tommasini:
“Frank Lloyd Wright might never have anticipated this. But the rotunda of his late masterpiece the Guggenheim Museum — which opened in 1959, six months after his death — is an ideal place to perform one of the most mesmerizing and eclectic musical works ever written: “Orbits” for 80 trombones, soprano and organ by the Montreal-born American composer Henry Brant.
The East Coast premiere of this 1979 work, conducted by Neely Bruce, took place on Sunday night at the Guggenheim, part of both the museum’s Works & Process series and the daylong citywide festival Make Music New York. There were two performances of Brant’s 25-minute piece. The fire code allowed for only 300 listeners to mill on the floor of the rotunda during each one.
Brant, who died in 2007 at 94, experimented with unusual sonorities and spatial placement of instruments. He regarded space as the fourth dimension of music, along with pitch, time and timbre. “Orbits” was first performed in 1979 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. This primordial, organic piece, by turns brutal and celestial, unfolds in thickly layered clusters and a maze of individual trombone lines. Brant’s vision was to have the players surround the audience.
That vision was excitingly realized at the Guggenheim. The trombonists were lined up on the walkways that encircle the rotunda, facing in, so that they could see down to Mr. Bruce, who conducted from the path leading up to the lower ring. An enormous rented organ with a row of loudspeakers was placed in a corner of the floor. The soprano Phyllis Bruce sang from on high, though what she sang was not angelic in the conventional sense.
Brant came to believe that music written in a single style could not evoke the “stresses, layered insanities and multidirectional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit,” as he once wrote. “Orbits” is defiantly polystylistic and multilayered. It begins with quiet trombone grumblings, like dinosaurs of our imagination stirring awake. The organ enters with a splattering of pitches in its high register, to contrast with the deep, indistinct sounds of the trombones.
As the music gains in intensity, there are captivating antiphonal effects, with ferocious outbursts passed back and forth among groupings of trombones and the organ erupting in a fit of cascading chords, holding its own against the din of brass. But there were also strangely spiritual episodes in this fitful and overpowering piece, as when the trombones played gently rising harmonies built from scores of individual lines while the ethereal soprano sang a wondrous mix of slinky slides and wordless melodic fragments.
Lining up 80 trombonists to play this piece could not have been easy; according to the program, there were 89. Before the performance, I asked one player whether he knew how many trombonists there were in New York City. He said, wryly: “About 85, I think. A few more came from other places.”
The scene in the rotunda was inspiring. As the audience entered, there were children in strollers, elderly people with walkers determined not to miss the event and some enterprising folks who brought along compact folding chairs. When the music started most people walked quietly around the space to hear from different vantage points. For once at a museum, people were allowed to take videos and photographs.”