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[MUSIC REVIEW] Empire Brass Quintet, Colonial Theatre, 9.30.06

"Sound and Dance"
September 30, 2006

review by SETH ROGOVOY, critic-at-large, BERKSHIRE LIVING Magazine

(October 1, 2006, Pittsfield, Mass.) -- It's been long well established that the Empire Brass Quintet, led by the charismatic trumpeter Rolf Smedvig, former principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a resident of the Berkshires, is one of the best outfits of its kind in the world, having performed with most of the greatest orchestras in all the best concert halls.

But on the basis of Saturday night's performance at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a number of other adjectives will undoubtedly come to mind for all those lucky enough to have attended.

These include versatile, for the quintet was anything if not versatile, in a program that spanned over five-hundred years of music, from a fourteenth century Irish dance through a work by the sixteenth century trumpeter/composer Tylman Susato, through familiar works from the classical era by composers including Mozart, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, and Aaron Copland, finally veering toward concert jazz by Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington, and even touching down for a bit of funk and hard-rock courtesy of local band Melodrome.

Which brings up another point: in spite of the piles of kudos and awards the quintet has amassed, the group displayed great humility and generosity in sharing its program with a host of local groups, accompanying dancers from the Albany Berkshire Ballet, and performing with the Berkshire Highlanders Pipe Band, drummer Bill Chapman, the aforementioned Melodrome led by singer/songwriter Robby Baier, and the Cantilena Chamber Choir under the direction of Andrea Goodman.

It was a smart and sensitive bit of programming to include so much homegrown talent in the still brand-spanking-new, community-oriented performance space at the Colonial. And if all the guest artists didn't quite reach the awesome level of virtuosity of the five horn players, it certainly made for a well-rounded, musically accessible variety show that was anything but stuffy, but rather connected deeply with an audience undoubtedly thrilled to hear such world-class players strutting their stuff in the acoustically perfect confines of the Colonial.

Highlights of the evening's program included the aptly titled Ritual Fire Dance by the 20th century Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, showcasing Smedvigís blistering technique with fiery triplets. Mozart's Rondo Alla Turka, originally written for piano, was transcribed for tuba, shining the spotlight on the sensitive and witty Kenneth Amis, one of the only tuba players of which it can be said that his playing is subtle and nuanced.

"Gigue" by 16th century English composer Anthony Holborne was the New Orleans jazz of its time, replete with improvised sections and polyrhythms, and the quintet was equally nimble with the modern jazz of Duke Ellington on a rendition of his greatest hit, "It Donít Mean a Thing If It Ainít Got That Swing."

In a final gesture of modesty that perfectly capped the homegrown, informal nature of the evening, the members of the quintet brought the evening to a close by descending from the stage and wandering through the audience, individually thanking concertgoers for attending the show. It was my good fortune to get to say thank you personally to the lovely and talented French horn player, Michelle Perry. Nice work if you can get it.

--review by SETH ROGOVOY, critic-at-large, BERKSHIRE LIVING Magazine

Listen to Seth's audio review of EMPIRE BRASS as broadcast on WAMC Northeast Public Radio:
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