Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra (1988)
The Concerto for Double Brass Choir and Orchestra was commissioned jointly by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and by the Meet the Composer Residencies Program, designed and administered by Meet the Composer with Major Funding from Exxon Corporation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The suggestion to write a concerto for brass came from Andre Previn. Ernest Fleischmann, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and John Duffy, for Meet the Composer, were immediately enthusiastic. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a celebrated and commanding brass section, every player a virtuoso, as I knew from my work with their New Music Group.
I chose a small orchestra, only eight woodwinds, and no percussion except timpani. I divided the brass into two more or less equal choirs; the crucial distinction between the choirs is the presence of the tuba in Choir II. Then I considered the curious sonority of an orchestra without brass, which would necessarily have to provide a contrasting presence.
I based each movement on a very small kernel, to allow the ear to experience without distraction the main preoccupation of the piece, pure sonority. The volleys back and forth between the choirs are really what it is "about."
The result is the appearance of features either very old or very new, outside the province of the standard orchestral literature. These features, once called cori spezzati, or hockets, or antiphons, all bear on the pleasure of tracking sounds across a room. Composing it on the Ligurian coast, I imagined it resounding in one of the grand baroque buildings I visited.
A brief description of the nineteen minutes sequence follows:
I. Invention on a Motive: this motive is a brass archetype, the downward fourth G-D, and a contest develops between the choirs, each asserting different locations for the motive. At the climax of this contest, no winner is decided: instead we hear a fatalistic set of challenges between the timpani players.
II. Invention on a Chord: the chord reads downward A-E-flat-C, and in the beginning it is stable with solos revolving around it. The chord gradually begins to move, finally flowering into an expansive aria for both choirs at once, the heart of the whole piece, and concluding with a postlude for the tuba, the only one of the brass I played, to me the most expressive of them all.
III. Invention on a Cadence: the cadence melody consists of four notes G-F-sharp-E-G. It is placed at many angles, overlapped, contradicted, extended and finally resolved into its simplest and most affirmative form. The animated brass calls are confronted by blocklike responses from the rest of the instruments. Finally the resolution of the first movement’s conflict is achieved.
-- John Harbison