Brass ensembles tend to affect quirky personas. They talk to their audiences and joke among themselves.They drain their instrumental plumbing with some frequency but don't tune up much, and they frequently play standing up.
The Empire Brass is a little more restrained in its extracurricular activities than some. In a program of light favorites at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre on Saturday, the entertaining quintet put on a show of virtuoso brilliance and performance chic that delighted an audience liberally laced with members of the Trumpet Players Association. Each of the musicians had a chance to mold phrases and to play subtly, and each did so, at times, with distinction. But for the most part, the musical focus was on rhythmic energy and splashes of sound, and in this the ensemble excelled.
The first half of the program featured arrangements of pieces by Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and a lot of other colorful 19th-century composers, and the second half featured 20th-century Americans Copland, Ellington, Gershwin, Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas. Tilson Thomas, better known as a conductor, has produced an attractive Op. 1 on commission from the Empire Brass. Called "Street Song," it draws openly on well-developed idiomatic formulas, but shows considerable creative imagination, particularly in the opening section. It is a big piece and a fine addition to the rather limited brass repertoire.