United and unconquered! The brass of Lincoln Center premiere Anthony Barfield’s Invictus

United StatesUnited States Barfield, Invictus: Various musicians / Anthony Barfield (conductor), Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, 7.8.2020. Streamed through Lincoln Center at Home on 1 September 2020. (RP)

Michael Barfield (composer/conductor) (c) Lincoln Center

MET Orchestra Musicians:
Raymond Riccomini (Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra), trumpet
Anne Scharer, horn
John Romero, trombone
Christopher Hall, tuba

New York Philharmonic:
Christopher Martin, trumpet
Thomas Smith, trumpet
Richard Deane, horn
Colin Williams, trombone
David Finlayson, bass trombone

New York City Ballet Orchestra:
Neil Balm (Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra), trumpet
Dan Wions, horn

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra:
Marcus Printup, trumpet
Dion Tucker, trombone

The Juilliard School:
Marshall Kearse, trumpet
Zachary Neikens, bass trombone

‘For united we stand. Divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We’ll be together’.

As I was delving into Anthony Barfield’s Invictus, the 1970 hit single ‘United We Stand’ by The Brotherhood of Man kept running through my mind. When brass players from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, The Juilliard School, Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet Orchestra and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra stood 12 feet apart on the Lincoln Center Plaza to play the premiere of Barfield’s new work on 7 August 2020, it was the first time ever that musicians from all of these organizations have performed together.

Barfield grew up on a 1,000-plus acre farm in Mississippi where he tended to the cows, hauled hay, built fences and went deer hunting. His musical gifts were discovered early by a music teacher. Barfield mastered the trombone during his studies at The Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music, but after a stint as a performer, he decided to focus on composition instead. Known for his lyrical writing style, his compositions have been performed throughout the US, Europe and Asia.

Lincoln Center commissioned Barfield to compose a work that would reflect this moment in time in New York City. From conversations with New Yorkers, he heard first-hand of their anxieties, including those surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. Nonetheless, he sensed an innate sense of community and hopefulness in the people with whom he spoke that change for the better is on the horizon.

Invictus gives voice to those aspirations. The short work opens with a motif played by the trumpets that is the theme of the work. A rhythmic pattern first heard in the lower brasses is similarly woven through the spacious musical fabric of the work. It is stately, almost majestic, music and for all of its brevity extremely profound. In the final measures an equipoise, more than a resolution, is reached with the optimism tinged with a subtle sense of apprehension.

For many, Invictus brings to mind the famous poem by William Ernest Henley of the same name. Henley was 12 when he was diagnosed with tubercular arthritis that necessitated the amputation of one of his legs just below the knee; nothing short of a medical miracle saved his other foot. Henley wrote the poem as he was recovering from the surgeries.

Its oft-quoted lines are ‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul’, but I’ve always been keener on a couplet earlier in the poem: ‘Under the bludgeoning of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed’. The theaters at Lincoln Center have been closed for more than five months, creating a hole in the cultural soul and economic heart of Manhattan. People the world over are hoping that these invaluable cultural institutions are indeed unconquerable.

Much of what is being created for streaming is as ephemeral as live performances generally are. Barfield composed for the ages, however, and it is fitting that Invictus will be available on demand indefinitely.

Rick Perdian

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