ATLANTA BRASS EXCEL IN POPS CONCERT FARE
By Lawrence Budmen
The clarion sound of brass rang the sanctuary of Coral Gables Congregational Church on July 28 as the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet presented a sometimes rousing musicale - a mini version of a Sunday afternoon band concert in the park. Although all five members of the ensemble are members of the awesome Atlanta Symphony, the musicians excelled in the lighter pops offerings rather than the traditional Baroque brass pieces.
Their best offering on the classically oriented first half of the concert was the Quintet by the British composer Malcolm Arnold (1921- ). Best known for his film scores (including those for The Bridge Over the River Kwai and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness) Arnold has written a huge output of orchestral and instrumental works. His pieces are always marked by substance, grace, and subtle craftsmanship. In his Brass Quintet the opening Allegro vivace uses similar thematic material to the principal fugal subject in the concluding section of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Arnold bounces the theme around antiphonally between the brass instruments while developing clever modulations between major and minor keys. The Chaconne introduces a solemn, richly sonorous chorale melody. The final Con Brio develops a traditional English round with flair and verve. The Atlanta Brass played this splendid work with blazing virtuosity and a lively sense of style. Arnold’s music deserves more frequent performance. (Will we ever hear one of his nine symphonies in South Florida?)
The Atlanta players’ ensemble was less secure earlier in the evening in a series of Baroque pieces. The opening La Rejouissance from the Royal Fireworks Music by George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) immediately revealed differences in artistic approach and temperament between the groups’ newest member and the other four musicians. Michael Tiscione (the new Principal Trumpet of the Atlanta Symphony who was playing his first concert with the quintet) displayed idiomatic Baroque style. He phrased elegantly and ornamented the trumpet line with brilliant elaborations and extensions. The remaining four players (Mark Hughes, trumpet; Richard Deane, horn; Colin Williams, trombone; and Michael Moore, tuba – the ensemble’s leader and founder) played Handel in a loud, generic manner. An unimaginative transcription of the Kanon in D by Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) failed to ignite this vignette’s endearing charm. The Sonata by Daniel Speer was lively. Why didn’t the Atlanta musicians play some of the wonderful Baroque fanfares by Giovanni Gabrieli – works that pioneered the uses of antiphony and massive brass sonority?
An arrangement by the great horn virtuoso Alan Civil of five pieces by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) was considerably more imaginative and evoked characterful playing from the Atlanta Brass. The concluding Wedding Day at Troldhaugen was brilliantly articulated. Moore (who was a genial commentator throughout the evening) incorrectly stated that this Grieg piano piece was the basis for Richard Rodgers’s March of the Siamese Children from “The King and I.” Grieg’s work did indeed have a Broadway incarnation. The Troldhaugen theme became the love duet Strange Music in “Song of Norway.” That score was superbly adapted by Miami natives George Forest and Robert Wright, who passed away this week at age ninety-one.
The players were considerably more relaxed in the lighter fare in the concert’s post intermission half. A Civil War Suite featured delightful March and Quadrille transformations of the songs Old Folks At Home and Maggie By My Side by Steven Foster (1826-1864). These arrangements by bandmaster G.W.E. Friederich were quirky and inventive. Two of Friederich’s own compositions – a waltz and quickstep – were equally charming. The Atlanta players gave this tuneful music a sense of spacious elegance. The musicians understood that these period vignettes demand understatement.
The Mississippi Rag (1897) by William H. Krell and Ain’t Misbehavin’ by the inimitable Fats Waller were played with relaxed verve. A George M. Cohan medley was appropriately rousing. New York, New York by John Kander and Fred Ebb was given a really swinging rendition. For their encore the Atlanta Brass turned again to music of the Baroque – Contrapuntis IX from The Art of the Fugue by J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Here the perfect melding of sonorous brass timbres and Baroque reverence was beautifully achieved.
The Atlanta players are first rate musicians and display tremendous command of their difficult brass instruments. (Horn player Deane is a University of Miami alumnus.) Clearly contemporary brass scores and the pops concert repertoire are their forte. Future visits should concentrate on these genres which would display this ensemble at its zenith.