Triangle Brass Band Brightens Meymandi
by John W. Lambert
Music lovers who think the permanent tenants of Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall sound great therein owe it to themselves to beat feet to that venue the next time the Triangle Brass Band (or, for that matter, the NC Wind Orchestra) plays there. Bands are, well, bands, and that means that they can be loud. Brass bands usually do best outdoors, where the sound rapidly dissipates. They don't do well in confined spaces. But Meymandi, while confined, is big enough to be called capacious. And in Meymandi, even the loudest sound rarely sounds too loud, if you follow my drift. In Meymandi, one can hear everything - and that can be both blessing and curse, for the players and the audience alike. There were many positives in the TBB's latest outing - and a few negatives, too. Fortunately for all concerned, the plusses outweighed the minuses by miles and miles.
On November 15, the 40-member band took the stage and Music Director Michael Votta, Jr., mounted the podium for the program's opening work, the Overture to Bernstein's Candide . Maybe we're too familiar with this music in its pit band or orchestral guises. Or maybe arranger Howard Snell's version was just a mite unusual. Or maybe the players weren't quite ready. For whatever reason, there were things in this performance that were new and not altogether pleasing - pauses, seemingly rough transitions, lines that jumped out of the musical fabric that we'd never heard - or noticed - before. The playing was a bit rough here and there, too. In sum, it didn't seem quite ready for prime time. More of this anon.
The evening's guest artist was Philip Smith, Principal Trumpet of the NY Philharmonic. His visit here included a masterclass at UNC and this evening concert, and apparently he liked the region enough to be talking about coming back. His is a heartwarming rags-to-riches kind of story. His bio (available online at http://www.newyorkphilharmonic.org/music/orchestra/index.cfm?page=profile&personNum=88 [inactive 12/03]) reports his early training by the Salvation Army and subsequent work with his father before formal studies at Juilliard, where he now teaches. He played five numbers, using different instruments, and in each he provided ample evidence of his skill. Honneger's "Intrada" is, Smith told the crowd, a "standard trumpet and piano piece"; it was brilliant, and brilliantly played, too, as given in an arrangement by Mark Freeh. For his next offering, Smith took up the piccolo trumpet, playing "Escapade," by Joseph Turrin, his long-time accompanist. Bach never had it so good - the piccolo trumpet was right at home in great baroque works, but of course they were much more ungainly when they were "new" than Smith's souped-up instrument is, today.
These two pieces with the soloist sandwiched Holst's "Moorside Suite" and a single movement from Ireland's "A Downland Suite" that complemented the three-part Holst score admirably. In these, and in the accompaniments for Smith, and in the rest of the program, the TBB performed at its customary high levels of precision and musicianship. Never mind those "loud" bands, this one can play as well softly as it does at moderate and high volumes, and it sustains intensity and vigor even it the quietest passages.
Smith returned in the second half for James Curnow's "Centerpiece," for cornet. The hymn-like work was at once heartwarming and uplifting, and it steered the program toward a version of the old Jericho spiritual, renamed "Joshua Swings the Battle" and done up by Dan Marvin and Steve Bulla, that might have fit into an after-hours Salvation Army jam session, if not one of their formal programs. The band offered Jan van der Roost's great "Mercury March" after the Curnow and an arrangement by Marcia La Reau of the old hymn "Be Thou My Vision" (more Salvation Army fare, for sure) after the spiritual. The concert ended on an altogether lighter note with Smith and the TBB cuttin' loose in "Hejre Kati" by Raphael Mendez, arr. Freeh.
There was no encore; if we'd been calling the shots, we'd have given the enthusiastic audience a re-do of the Candide curtain-raiser, in part because it's clear the band can play it, theoretically!
It was in retrospect a fairly typical evening with one of the Triangle's better ensembles. The program included old-time band music, a march, some atypical fare, and an excursion into standard concert literature. In many respects, this reflects Votta's all-encompassing tastes and, surely, the TBB's interest in expanding its already substantial repertoire.
Don't miss the next Meymandi concert by this group, on January 11, when these players join forces with the NC Wind Orchestra for a program including music by Handel and Florent Schmitt plus Hector Berlioz's Grande symphonie funèbre et triomphale, Op. 15.