Chris Brubeck plays trombone in concert with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in March 2015.
Cross-cultural jazz symphony Brothers in Arts — 70 Years of Liberty premiered in France in June 2014 for the commemoration of D-Day and the liberation of Europe. Composed in tandem by French composer and saxophonist Guillaume Saint-James and Wilton’s own Grammy-nominated jazz and classical musician and composer Chris Brubeck, the eight-movement musical journey will now grace Brubeck’s hometown in a performance at the Clune Center on Sunday Nov. 15, at 3 p.m. in celebration of Veterans Day.
The piece will be performed by a mostly French jazz quintet featuring the American Brubeck on trombone and Saint-James on saxophone, backed by the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO) and led by English conductor William Boughton.
“It’s an international musical union,” Brubeck said.
Commissioned for composition by the French Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne, Brothers in Arts tells two tales, one universal and one particular.
On the larger scale, it bespeaks, lyrically in some instances but by and large through the symbolic qualities of musical harmony and dissonance, the singular Normandy landings and the subsequent Liberation of Paris.
“For example,” Brubeck explained, “the first movement is a very serene and beautiful composition depicting what Normandy was like before it was occupied by the German invasion.”
More personally, however, Brothers in Arts is the story of Brubeck’s and Saint-James’ fathers, who happened to be in the same part of France at the same time during World War II.
Brubeck’s father, jazz legend Dave Brubeck, was an American soldier in Gen. George S. Patton’s army.
“He came through Normandy after D-Day,” Brubeck said. “An Army captain heard him playing piano and had him form a band — The Wolf Pack Band — which toured with the USO (United Service Organization) shows. It was also the Army’s first integrated band.
“Guillaume’s father was a young boy whose life was saved when U.S. field doctors performed an emergency appendectomy on him.”
But how Brubeck and Saint-James learned of this coincidence is a story in itself.
Seven decades later, Brubeck was in the French city of Rennes for a trombone concerto with the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne. After the performance, the audience requested that he play some jazz tunes, which he agreed to do, so long as they could get him a French sax player who was “really good.”
“That was the first time I met Guillaume,” Brubeck said.
According to Brubeck, “after the performance, we were doing a Q&A session with some kids, and one of the kids asked Guillaume why he liked American jazz so much.
“He said the reason he liked it so much was that, when his dad was a young teenager, he got very sick. It happened to be D-Day that day, and his parents ended up bringing him by wheelbarrow to an American field hospital, where they treated him for acute appendicitis.
“They saved his life, and while he was recovering, he was hearing American jazz,” Brubeck said. Saint-James’ father later became a country doctor and an amateur musician.
In a moment Brubeck described as a “miracle,” an American cultural attaché who was in the audience at the time took him and Saint-James out to lunch and suggested the two collaborate on a piece inspired by their fathers’ paths nearly converging at such a significant historical crossroads.
“Not often does the idea for a piece come from a diplomat,” Brubeck observed.
Nevertheless, that idea soon became reality when the Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne’s executive director, Marc Feldman, commissioned the piece’s composition for the 70th anniversary of Paris’s liberation.
Over the course of the next seven months, Brubeck and Saint-James worked remotely, Brubeck in Wilton and Saint-James in Rennes, sending files back and forth to “bring together two generations, two continents, as well as the worlds of jazz and symphonic music,” Feldman said in a press release.
“More than just a musical endeavor,” Feldman also said, “Brothers in Arts engenders numerous opportunities in education, commemorations, celebration and will demonstrate how music is a vehicle for understanding and peace.”
For Brubeck, the composition of Brothers in Arts was an emotional climb, and he laments that his father never got the chance to hear it in its finished state, though he does take some solace in that he “knew we were working on it before he died, and was really pleased that both Guillaume and I had an interest in really honoring the veterans.”
That said, Brubeck added, “It’s also very moving, never mind how I feel personally about the whole thing. When you go to Omaha Beach, and you stand there, and you’re looking at nearly 10,000 identical white crosses, most of which were casualties from the D-Day invasion, you realize that you’re standing at the crossroads of history. That battle could so easily have been lost.
“The French kept up their promise to build a beautiful graveyard there. The bond between America and France, particularly because of this battle, is very deep. You can be an American that goes there, and almost every French house you see will have an American flag hanging out of the window, and there are roads named ‘Patton Boulevard’ and such.
“For us, it’s a bit different, because we weren’t an occupied country. The French lost a lot of civilians. We did our best to warn them and to minimize the casualties, but there were a lot, because the Germans were dug in in villages. The French could have harbored resentment towards us for that, but I think they realize the sacrifice was necessary for an Allied victory.”
Chris Brubeck is the NHSO’s 2015 artist-in-residence. He and Saint-James will also attend the Wilton Kiwanis Club luncheon on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, to discuss the story and the writing process behind the composition. Guests are invited at the rate of $15 per person, reservations required. Reservations may be made at 203-354-0208.
The price of general admission to the Nov. 15 show at the Clune Center in Wilton High School, 395 Danbury Road, is $25. Student tickets are available for $10 and children between the ages of 7 and 17 are admitted free with the purchase of an adult ticket.
Blue Star tickets for active military personnel and their immediate families are free.
For tickets and information, call 203-865-0831, ext. 20, or visit NewHavenSymphony.org.
For the first time, Brothers in Arts will be accompanied by original video and choreographed historical photos supplied by WQXR Classical music host Elliott Forrest.