Taking note of early brass

Music: A passion for antique instruments takes center stage at a festival at Goucher College tomorrow.

April 02, 2004|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

By day, Goucher College physics professor Dave Baum studies ways to identify anthrax spores using ultraviolet light. In his free time, he indulges his enthusiasm for early brass music.

Want to guess which endeavor is potentially more harmful to his health? The early brass, he says.

Baum, 44, is at the center of a small but fervent circle of classical music lovers who are devoted to playing early brass instruments - trumpets, cornets and sackbuts (the precursor of the trombone) like those used in the 17th and 18th centuries.

He is the organizer of the annual Maryland Early Brass Festival, which will be held tomorrow at Goucher, and is a member of the Maryland Early Brass ensemble, which will perform at the festival. But Baum's interest extends beyond playing early brass music. Using some of his physics know-how, he has taken to dismantling and retrofitting modern trumpets in the basement of his Cecil County home to create replicas of their 18th-century cousins.

That's where the health risks come in: Working with a propane torch to bend brass tubing has its downside.

"I cut my fingers and get the occasional burn, and then there's the vapors I'm breathing. It's probably shortened my life by a few years," Baum says. "But that's part of the fun, playing a horn you made yourself."

Early brass trumpets, also called natural trumpets, tend to be double the length of modern trumpets and have no valves. The musician changes notes solely by varying air pressure and tongue and lip position. The instruments are challenging to play because they require more air and because the slightest slip in technique can produce a jarringly wrong note.

Devotees say the instruments produce a softer, richer sound and allow musicians and audiences to hear what pieces by Bach, Purcell, Haydn and others were meant to sound like.

"You need the natural trumpet to really get the true sound and make the music speak for itself," says Elisa Koehler, a Goucher music professor who is in Baum's ensemble. "There are lots of things you can do with the old instruments, whereas the new [trumpet] is kind of a Johnny one-note. It sounds wonderful, but it won't sound dark; it won't shade colors."

Interest in the instruments is steadily growing, its champions say. An annual national trumpet competition at George Mason University in Virginia this year included a natural trumpet component for the first time. Tomorrow's festival, which will include discussions and recitals, is expected to draw 30 performers from the Mid-Atlantic region.

"It's fascinating. It's a specialized field very much like Civil War re-enactors, only you're getting instruments, not uniforms and not a musket but trumpet," said Koehler, who directs the Frederick Orchestra.

Baum's attraction to early music dates to his childhood near Syracuse, N.Y. At a time when classmates were listening to Led Zeppelin, he would listen to local classical radio and hear Don Smithers, a trumpeter and renowned early-music specialist at Syracuse University.

Baum would attend Syracuse Symphony concerts with a friend's family because his parents weren't fans. "For them, it wasn't `Turn that junk down' but `Turn that junky classical music down,'" he jokes.

He played trumpet in school, but his skills lay dormant for years until he decided to take up natural trumpet while teaching at Towson University 10 years ago. "I was looking for something challenging to do, and this popped back into my head," he said.

True antique brass instruments are prohibitively expensive, and having a replica made by a professional isn't cheap either, so Baum decided to learn to make them . In 1995, he took a weeklong course in the subject at Indiana University. Since then, he has made about 30 trumpets, each designed to play music from a different period.

His physics background comes in handy, helping him understand how sound is produced in the tubing and where to install the slides and keys that a few of the trumpets have. Building the instruments has improved his playing.

Baum's specialty is solid-state, low-temperature physics, and he's doing research for the Army on whether anthrax spores can be identified by the fluorescence they give off when exposed to lasers, potentially a faster identifier than the tests used now. He is doing his testing on harmless bacteria that share most of anthrax's properties, not on anthrax itself.

It's exciting and timely work to be doing, he says, but he reserves his passion for early brass. "One pays the bills, and one's for fun," he said.

The Early Brass Festival runs all day tomorrow at Goucher's Haebler Memorial Chapel, with rehearsals and workshops starting at 9 a.m. The concert starts at 7 p.m. Information: 410-337-6328.

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