The Principal Brass Quintet on Sunday gave an attentive audience at Eastman School of Music's Kilbourn Hall a taste of the New York Philharmonic with an engaging program that was accessible yet sophisticated. The group, comprised entirely of principals from that historic orchestra, did not disappoint.
From the outset, the afternoon was all about the poignancy of timbre. The concert got underway with Nicola Ferro's "Tarando," a fanfare with a Spanish flair. The ensemble's sound was full and bright, yet a rounded tone from all five players provided essential balance. "Firedance" by Anthony DiLorenzo was a powerful vehicle for demonstrating the quintet's synchronicity as well as the twin disciplines of speed and control, which were indispensable facets in every composition in the concert.
Among the most rewarding listen of the set was Brian Balmages's "Music for 5 Brass." In the first movement, simply titled "Rhythm," the composer elicited a striking number of colors amid a driving syncopation, from metallic pungency to introspective calm. The following "Prayer" was filled with decidedly warmer timbres. Softer around the edges, the mood was suitably contemplative. The piece closed with "Dance," which highlighted a particular strength of the composer -- his predilection for a direct, unambiguous approach to rhythm that allowed the innate energy and buoyancy of the melodies to come to the fore.
"Sonatine" by Eugene Bozza was characterized by a more complex and ambiguous musical language and provided perhaps the most challenging listen of the evening, though the piece was far from dense or impenetrable. Lively, boisterous, idiosyncratic, ominous, jubilant -- this performance of "Sonatine" was all these things.
The resplendent, carnival-like atmosphere of Mikhail Glinka's "Ruslan and Ludmila" featured remarkable performances from trumpeters Matthew Muckey and Ethan Bensdorf, both of whom exhibited spotlight-stealing agility. In Jan Koetsier's "Brass Quintet, Op. 65," the bedrock presence of tuba player Alan Baer was not to be overlooked, and the chorale-like poignancy of the harmonies during the "Andantino" resonated with confidence and clarity.
The level of musicianship throughout was unmistakably high -- not perfect though, as Muckey and Bensdorf both had hiccups that marred the phrasing in a couple of instances. But it was trombonist Joseph Alessi who stood apart during the entirety of the program, from his rich and robust sound in "Tarando" to his lovely, nuanced tone during "You Got Me" from Leonard Bernstein's "On the Town Suite." Alessi's fine-tuned sensitivity to the melody was of an upper-echelon caliber, delivering the kind of revelatory interpretation one expects from a principal chair from the New York Philharmonic.
Principal Brass Quintet's two-song encore was a veritable crowd-pleaser, including a suave rendition of "New York, New York," made iconic by Frank Sinatra. There were some stunningly gorgeous moments from French horn player Richard Deane and Alessi on trombone, in which the full capabilities of the two instruments were on display--from a swoon-inducing French horn glissando to the voice-like quality of the trombone's upper register.
The most compelling quality of the Principal Brass Quintet is the way it articulates timbre. Upon hearing the ensemble, it was as if a myriad of sonic shades that were previously nonexistent suddenly emerged in high definition. That quality was an abiding force in an impressive recital that bodes well for the rest of the 2015-16 Kilbourn Concert Series.