Imagine an entire concert of music for brass quintet without a single piece by Gabrieli. And in place of Gabrieli, playing instead that famous rondo for tuba by Mozart, “Rondo alla Turka.”
That’s the kind of concert a large and appreciative audience heard in Wright Auditorium on the East Carolina University campus courtesy the Empire Brass. The concert was part of the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series.
Showmanship and humor combined with skill and more skill, as the quintet performed nearly 20 classical, popular and jazz pieces from the 14th century through the mid-20th century. Each performer could shine in solo passages, and the blend of two, three, four and five instruments was excellent.
The Empire Brass, which has been faculty quintet-in-residence at Boston University for more than a dozen years, presented virtually no music written specifically for brass ensemble; instead, the selections were classics, light classics and other pieces arranged for brass ensemble by the players themselves. And they did not dumb down the scoring, with arrangements that included multiple rhythms and a wide range of dynamics so that the program did not resemble a continuous wall of brass sound.
Thus, the audience was treated to an amazing version of the well-known “Rondo Alla Turka” from Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11, featuring Kenneth Amis on the tuba, playing the melody lightning-like in at least 16th notes, if not 32nds or even 64ths.
In addition, the “Danse Arabe” selection from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” showed not only how the French horn and trumpets can carry the treble melody line and harmony, but also how the trombone and tuba can create a bass drone. In de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” the tuba assumed the role of a bass continuo.
Some pieces made the transition to brass ensemble scoring quite easily — such as a jig from 14th century Ireland and a gigue from Anthony Holborne of the Elizabethan era — while others required the audience to put aside the notion of more traditional orchestral arrangements of familiar music and listen to the music in new dress — Gershwin’s “Piano Prelude No. 2,” for instance, and Dvorak’s “Slavonic Dance No. 1,” with its wild roller coaster line played in the French horn.
When the program moved into the more popular idiom of the 20th century, the quintet’s sound was more familiar, even if some of the arrangements of the music were not.
The quintet played lively versions of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Ain’t Misbahavin” that could have been part of either a jazz combo or dance band arrangement. But in the scoring for “76 Trombones” from Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” Alexei Doohovskoy on (naturally) the trombone played near-Mozartian cadenzas, in addition to the main melody line, that dazzled the audience. Before the piece ended, a few bars of “’Til There Was You” surfaced.
“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess featured muted trumpets from both Rolf Smedvig and Marc Brian Reese (who also played cornets and piccolo trumpets during the program), exchanging the melody with each other and with Gregory Miller on French horn. The final pianissimo passage came, interestingly, from Amis on the tuba.
Two unusually effective arrangements were among the program highlights: “Amazing Grace” before intermission, and Copland’s version of “Simple Gifts” at the end. The scoring for “Amazing Grace” built on a lead by Miller on French horn, with a foundation by Doohovskoy on trombone and Amis on tuba. Harmonies that could have been written by Copland helped bring the piece to an end. Then the real Copland music itself, “Simple Gifts,” was a showcase for full ensemble, as well as duets and trios, finishing with perhaps the lowest note of the evening on the tuba.
The Empire Brass players showed amazing stamina and dexterity — after all, 90+ minutes of playing brass instruments require lots of wind, lips, tongues and fingers — and the program was not without a few minor flaws. But this was a lively, human exploration of seven centuries of music that was a joyful experience for the listener, even without a Gabrieli canzone or two.