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Crack Ensembles Rivet


What do you get when you combine a string trio with a low brass quartet? A pleasantly surprising mix of timbres and styles, with the overarching rule being exceptional virtuosity.

A string trio comprising Alexander Velinzon, violin; Danny Kim, viola; and Adam Esbensen, cello held court last night in Tanglewood’s Studio E with Beethoven’s early String Trio in G Major, Opus 9, No. 1. Like many of his early works, this chamber score displays a mastery of technique and style so complete it leads inevitably to impish impulses to subvert convention. The first movement already comes equipped not only with finely crafted themes, but also with a charged, riotous development, an extended and adventurous coda, and a surprisingly abrupt ending. The adagio is that type of charming which hints at great emotional depths, and the fast movement occupies that delightful multidimensional space between a graceful minuet and an aggressive scherzo. In the finale one can hear bits of jazz and Prokofiev. These elements, which would become Beethovenian hallmarks, are already flowing from the 25-year-old’s pen.

The performance brought joy to this listener, as well as, it seemed, to the players. Throughout, quicksilver flowed from their bows: round and sonorous, fleet yet full, capable of great speed and marked weight. Rose petals fell from the Adagio, while the finale was its busy bee. The ephemeral recipe always contained the right amounts of edge and grace.

A trio of trombones — Toby Oft, Stephen Lange, and James Markey — joined tubist Mike Roylance for a suite of works spanning nearly 500 years, making many unexpected stops along the way. But where would any brass ensemble concert start but Gabrieli? The foursome played an arrangement of this “antiphonal-choirs king’s” second canzona, roundly and beautifully. One could only imagine what it would have sounded like live in Studio E.

Besides the “long-term borrowing” of arranging works, brass concerts often go in for the full misdemeanor of transcribing works not originally written with any brass in mind. However, we drop the charge if the work, like Contrapunctus IX from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, never originally specified its instrumentation, leaving its constructions in the realm of “wild” music to be tamed by any worthy band. The quartet here showed itself very worthy, executing the running 16th notes (relentless near the climax and ending) with energy and accuracy over an exhaustive range of keys.

Mike Roylance plays tuba

Kevin Day’s (b.1996) Ignition initially explodes off the page like Mission Impossible hopped on Adams’s Fast Machine; even after it settles, nervous energy seems to surface in unexpected places. The obligatory lyrical section features the tuba for a short nostalgic solo before returning (evidently by way of a fast-forward survey of film stereotypes) for a quick close.

Clarence Hines’s arrangement of Ellington’s soulful Come Sunday felt like it owed something to Luther Henderson’s Canadian Brass version, but here the theme passed equally within the smaller ensemble. Chad “Sir Wick” Hughes’s Tribute to Sinfonia, an arrangement/transformation of the Phi Mu Alpha hymntune, gave a nice nod to the brotherhood of musicians. Fellow Sinfonian Mike Roylance encouraged the composer to refine a previous work into for this ensemble, providing a fitting anthem for a Boston based group, as New England Conservatory gave birth to the fraternity at the turn of the last century.

In Debussy’s Trios Chansons, the final and most poignant work of the set, the group’s original transcription hinted at the trombone’s similarity to the human voice, at least according to the spoken remarks; the performance did not disappoint. The perfect blend of the first song nicely complimented the quasi-ancient sounds of the second (also a nice bookend to the Gabrieli). The finale exemplified all that made the evening so riveting, from both groups: crack ensemble, excellent blend, and long gestures.

The August 14th “BSO Musicans in Recital” installment  [HERE] remains online until August 21st. NB: The works performed do not coincide with the program list printed under the video, but do align with the attached PDF.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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