From Empire Brass, Artistry, Fun and Just the Right Tone

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Empire Brass returned to the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Sunday night in what has to be one of the supreme concerts of the year. The group (Rolf Smedvig and Marc Reese, trumpets; Michelle Perry, horn; Mark Hetzler, trombone; and Kenneth Amis, tuba) did everything right. The players' virtuosity was electrifying and their programming -- ranging over five centuries -- diverse and balanced, including an invigorating 14th-century Irish jig, Tchaikovsky's "Danse Arabe," Mozart's "Rondo alla Turca" and a bouncing Prokofiev "Troika." Because music composed originally for brass quintet is rare, the Empire played reworkings -- some their own -- of music originally written for other musical combinations.

Summing up the wonders of the Empire's tone quality is a challenge, for it has pungent clarity, molten sustained notes, zippy staccatos, attacks right on target and show-stopping prestos (for both solos and ensemble playing). Also a plus is the musicians' uncanny way of performing their music dead seriously, yet adding witty commentary and fun-loving instrumental tricks that Sunday spoke directly to the capacity audience, even engaging listeners in the musicmaking. The quintet invited a young couple onstage to play finger cymbals, appropriately on the carol "Ding Dong! Merrily on High!" Amis even had his tuba jumping (his instrument is commonly thought sluggish), one time blowing his deepest notes right into the startled first-row audience.

As a finale, the players appeared in red and green vests, with Smedvig leading a lusty singalong for several Christmas songs, although a good chunk of the evening's music was non-seasonal. The performance was one of the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts.

-- Cecelia Porter

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