It hasn't been a bad year for visiting brass quintets along the Wasatch Front. First it was the Chicago Brass Quintet in September in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, then the Canadian Brass the following month at Weber State College. But it was Utah State University that saved the best for last, with a performance by Boston's Empire Brass on Tuesday in the Chase Fine Arts Center.
How are they the best? Well, they may not be as much fun as the Canadians, with their outlandish sense of humor, or even the Chicagoans, although their own slightly more reserved line of patter isn't bad. (Llead trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, in acknowledging the applause after a particularly difficult solo Tuesday, cracked, "Yeah, I'm glad that one's over, too.")Nor are they the showmen the first have become, limiting themselves to standard concert attire (i.e., black tuxedos) and only a few glosses on the pieces they play. At the same time probably no one anywhere plays those pieces with greater polish and precision, pretty much letting the music itself do the selling. The result Tuesday was a rush to the record counter they set up in the lobby at intermission, although in fact most of what is on their latest Telarc issues did not appear on the program until the concert's second half.
So what turned everyone on during the first half? In this instance an all-baroque lineup of Handel (four extracts from the "Water Music"), Purcell (five from "The Fairy Queen") and Bach that at its best fairly took one's breath away.
I am thinking of things like the unison trills in the trumpets in the "Water Music," here absolutely together, and the solemnity of the matched horn and tuba in the transcription of the song "If Love's a Sweet Passion" from "The Fairy Queen." Not to mention ornamentation so easeful throughout that you forgot about it after a while.
From the Bach canon we were treated to organist Douglas Major's account of the E flat major Preludium, which he invested with clarity and a Walcha-like impulse, as well as a pleasing variety of registrations. After which the quintet brought a comparable purity to a series of arrangements from the cantatas, including the familiar "Sheep May Safely Graze" and "My Spirit Be Joyful," here wonderfully celebratory. Less effective was an awkwardly phrased "Sleepers Wake," though even this earned trombonist Scott Hartman a well-deserved solo bow.
Following intermission, the Kent Concert Hall's unique layout, with the organ to the right of the stage, gave us a truly antiphonal version of Gigout's "Grand Choeur Dialogue," here long on ceremonial brilliance. That was followed by a Slavic set, ranging from Rimsky-Korsakov's "Procession of the Nobles" to the "Wedding March" and "Troika" from Prokofiev's "Lt. Kije," with the "Dance of the Comedians" from Smetana's "The Bartered Bride" thrown in for good measure. Barring a couple of rough patches in the horn, the first was festive and precise, with some incredibly rapid playing from both trumpets, the second enhanced by a zestily virtuosic Smedvig solo and the Prokofiev, with its cheerful oom-pah-pahing, amusingly flavorful.
Smedvig's trumpet likewise came to the fore in Hovanhess' "Prayer of St. Gregory," amid whose medieval modalities Major managed to subdue the USU organ's natural brightness. Then, after Mulet's "Carillon Sortie," the quintet took over again for a Gershwin-Bernstein-Copland trilogy - "Summertime," a sassy "America" and the variations on "Simple Gifts" - bracketed by jazzy renditions of Duke Ellington's "Jungle Nights in Harlem" and, as an aisle-roving encore, "Ain't Misbehavin.' "
Which predictably sent a few more people back to the record counter, and yours truly whistling into the night.