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Amazing Grace in Amazing Space

Orange County
Meng Hall
02/11/2006 -  
Tylman Susato: Basse Danse Bergeret
Sergei Prokofiev: Morning Dance from Romeo and Juliet; Troika from Lieutenant Kijé
Antonin Dvorak: Slavonic Dance No. 1, Op. 46
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Danse Arabe and Danse Russe from the Nutcracker, Op. 71
Manuel de Falla: Ritual Dance, from El Amor Brujo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Rondo alla Turka, from Piano Sonata No. 11, K. 331
Traditional Irish 14th Century: Kesh Jig
Anthony Holborne: Gigue
George Gershwin: Piano Prelude No. 2
Meredith Wilson: 76 Trombones from The Music Man
George Gershwin: Summertime from Porgy and Bess
Duke Ellington: It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)
Aaron Copland: Simple Gifts, from Appalachian Spring

The Empire Brass
Rolf Smedvig (trumpet)
Marc Reese (trumpet)
Michelle Perry (French horn)
Mark Hetzler (trombone)
Kenneth Amis (tuba)

In a demonstration of virtuoso musicality and the brilliance of modern acoustic design, the Empire Brass recently performed at Orange County’s stunning new Meng Hall. As always with the Empire Brass, the music was filled with bravura good humor and dazzling athletic feats. The audience was thrilled. But the real star of the evening was the astounding sound in this just opened 800-seat concert hall, on the campus of California State University, Fullerton. Although more industrial and less elegant, Meng Hall is a miniature cross between Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall and Christian de Pontzamparc’s Concert Hall at the Cité de la Musique. The smaller size of the elliptical “shoe box” interior of the hall made the music all the more present. It seemed as if we were inside the music, the sound was so bright and round and forward. Yet the dynamics were always correct - there was never a sense of overload or distortion. Hats off to the architects Pfeiffer Partners and the acousticians Mark Rothermel and McKay Conant Brook.

Although this Cal State campus is located somewhere between here and nowhere, musicians and mélomanes will find this hall worthy of pilgrimage. The room even has an advantage over Disney Hall; the beautiful wood-backed seats have excellent legroom! The percussionist Evelyn Glennie and the avant-garde New York string quartet Ethel both have concerts scheduled for this venue soon, and the admired Chinese composer Chen Yi will be in residence. Each of these concerts is an exciting prospect.

The Empire Brass began with the Basse Danse Bergeret by Tylman Susato, that they played even as they were walking on stage. Susato was a trumpeter and publisher in Antwerp in the mid-sixteenth century, and his approachable, fanfare-like piece was the perfect icebreaker. Dressed in black, mandarin-collared tunics, the performers each took turns introducing the pieces.

The Morning Dance from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was particularly evocative in the brass rendition, playful and slightly dissonant. The Troika from Lt. Kijé was percussive, absolutely compelling. At this moment, the acoustic of the hall revealed itself as remarkable, with sound that was full, rich, and clear but not sharp or unforgiving as Disney Hall is at times. The instrumental blend was astonishing, a technically perfect modern sound within an intimate space. The audience was about 60% full, but 110% entertained. Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance, originally composed for piano four hands, and later arranged for orchestra, worked beautifully in the Brass Quintet version. The romantic middle European melody made me long to hear the brass from Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, although the Bruckner dynamics might be too much for the small space.

The Danse Arabe from the Nutcracker opened with the ultimate French horn solo. The sonorous brass song leaped straight out of legend, conjuring gleaming towers in sunlight and cloud. The Russian Dance seemed to have more notes than humanly possible, with lip trills and a tuba solo, filled with acrobatic holiday charm. The Fire Dance from De Falla’s El Amor Brujo was also irresistibly musical. The first trumpet chose a gold instrument for his solo, where for other pieces he used a silver trumpet. The last selection before the intermission, Mozart’s Rondo alla Turka, was arranged to showcase the tuba. The brass version was hilarious, suggesting a brisk and delicate elephant dance. The comical transformation of the familiar tune drove the audience wild. The response was so enthusiastic that the quintet offered an encore - even before the intermission! As an introduction to the encore, the group’s leader described playing the same piece in Madison Square Garden, as part of a broadcast to 1.5 billion people in China. As the solo melody moved from tuba, to trombone to first trumpet, the hymn Amazing Grace could only be incredibly moving.

Returning from the intermission, the quintet immediately leaped into the exuberant Kesh Jig, a traditional Irish dance from the 14th century. The next piece was also a Gigue, but written by the renaissance English composer Anthony Holborne. This complex Elizabethan polyphony seemed almost improvisational, played in double, triple, and 6/8 meters all at once. There were moments that almost reminded me of the ecstatic drones of Gyorgy Ligeti. I began to wonder why the Empire Brass doesn’t arrange or commission longer compositions, with substantial musical architecture. Gershwin’s Prelude No. 2, arranged by the second trumpet player essentially for the trombone, was musical and authentic, not a catchy tune for a television commercial. The showpiece 76 Trombones was arranged to be even showier, with all 76 tunes slammed into one trombone. Arranged by the tuba player, the tour de force once again demonstrated the extraordinary sound quality of the hall, displaying a splendid subtle reverb in the lower register of the trombone. The evergreen jazz pieces and Aaron Copland’s version of Simple Gifts delighted the crowd.

Returning for an encore, the group wryly announced that they would play Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. But instead, they played a brass version of the Broadway show tune, Hello Dolly. Once again, the quality of the acoustic and the reverberation were phenomenal. The Empire Quintet’s dry humor and virtuosity were a remarkable delight. But if they were to collaborate with contemporary composers on more serious material, what could happen then?

Thomas Aujero Small



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