EMPIRE BRASS
SUNDAY AFTERNOONS OF MUSIC (5-7-06)

By Lawrence Budmen

A blast of brass provided a joyous conclusion to the 25th anniversary season of Sunday Afternoons of Music. On May 7 the peerless Empire Brass took the stage of the Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miamiís Frost School of Music for an afternoon of great entertainment, superb artistry, and musical fun. 

The five players in this stalwart group are terrific musicians with impressive resumes. Empire Brass founder and principle trumpet Rolf Smedvig was the youngest member of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra where he graduated to a first chair position. Together these players produce a sound that is riveting, warm, and exciting with just a hint of a cutting edge.

The Empire Brassís program featured a potpourri of brass transcriptions from the Baroque era to 20th century classics and the sounds of Broadway, jazz, and swing. The spirited, peeling tones of Basse Dance Bergeret by Tylman Susato was a bracing opener. A transcription of the Introduction and Allegro from the Sonata for Violin and Continuo, Op.6, No.5 by Tomaso Albinoni (of the Hollywood purloined Adagio fame) had the Baroque splendor of a Gabrieli canzone. 

The modernist patina of Sergei Prokofievís music is perfect for brass. The Morning Dance from Prokofievís classic ballet score Romeo and Juliet was harmonically astringent and bristling. The Troika from the film score Lieutenant Kije had the sparkle and brassy fizz of great champagne. Manuel De Fallaís Ritual Fire Dance had plenty of bite. This fire was really combustible.

For sheer inventiveness, tuba player Kenneth Amisís arrangement of Mozartís Rondo alla Turka from the Piano Sonata No.11, K.131 was in a class by itself. Amis (a faculty member of Londonís Royal Academy of Music) played Mozartís rapid fire piano figuration with absolute precision. He also captured the sly wit of Mozartís fascination with Eastern musical modes. Who knew the tuba could be a melodic instrument, much less play cadenzas? Amis is a genius! 

French horn player extraordinaire Michelle Perry, the ensembleís newest member, has added depth and mellifluous sonority to the Empire Brass. Her exquisite shaping of the melodic line and rich, voluminous tonal compass were mesmerizing in the Danse Arabe from Tchaikovskyís irresistible Nutcracker. The Dance Russe really bounced in the Empireís terrific treatment. Dvorakís Slavonic Dance No.1 was just as rousing with Perry blending seamlessly with trumpeter Marc Reese and trombonist Mark Hetzler. 

Perry and Hetzler brought bluesy pathos to George Gershwinís Piano Prelude No.2. Hetzlerís virtuoso turn on 76 Trombones from Meredith Wilsonís The Music Man had to be heard to be believed. His set of variations challenged the instrumentís musical capacity to the nth degree. Hetzler emerged triumphant. A medley of Irish dances had snap and verve. 

Gershwinís Summertime from Porgy and Bess and It Donít Mean a Thing (if It Ainít Got That Swing) by the immortal Duke Ellington Ė one of Americaís seminal musical geniuses Ė were vintage Empire chestnuts. The freshly scrubbed rhythm, flair, and sheer jazzy ťlan were irrepressible. This group is in a league of its own Ė brash, theatrical, quintessentially American.

An eloquent, grandly spacious arrangement of the Shaker theme Simple Gifts from Aaron Coplandís ballet score Appalachian Spring was a marvelous conclusion to the concert. Smedvig and his terrific players brought rounded, richly flexible tone and nobility of phrasing to this American classic.

The groupís encores did not disappoint. Hello Dolly by Jerry Herman (who got his start at the UM Ring Theater just a few yards from the Gusman Concert Hall) was so lively and irresistibly rhythmic that Sunday Afternoons of Music founder Doreen Marx and husband Byron Krulewitch danced in the aisles. 

Smedvig dedicated his arrangement of Amazing Grace to the cause of world peace. The sheer beauty of the Empire Brassís evocative rendition was the perfect summit of an exciting afternoon.

This group is one of Americaís precious national assets. The Empire players are great showmen, terrific instrumentalists, and real communicators. They make music speak in the most universal manner. Here was a truly celebratory conclusion to Sunday Afternoons of Musicís landmark season!


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