Thursday, June 9 - 8:30 pm

Monarch Brass

Neville Young, reporter

The Pfleeger Concert Hall was busy tonight, and buzzing with anticipation of Monarch Brass's concert. We weren't disappointed as this fine ensemble, representative of the cream of America's female brass players, treated us to an outstanding evening of top-quality ensemble playing and interesting programming.

Gottschalk's Ceremonial Fanfare gave us an urgent, declamatory beginning then contrasted quieter moments with some blazing trumpet lines. Moving on to Goedicke's Concert Etude, in an arrangement by Michael Allen, we heard a spirited performance with precise handing-over and matching of the melody line between the four solo trumpets. Before the next item guest conductor Elizabeth Schultze made a very gracious and warm speech of welcome in which she not only spoke of her admiration for Monarch but also acknowledged, in a witty but kind way, the role of brass in the wider musical world. She even scored direct hits with a couple of rather telling remarks about what she'd noticed about brass players' reading materials of choice during rehearsal in the typical orchestral setting.

Turning back to the programme Schultze gave a most interesting and helpful introduction to the next piece, Tomasi's Fanfares Liturgiques. The author is ashamed to admit he did not know this work but was delighted to hear it. We moved from bold fanfares for the Annunciation through thoughtful music for Mary's contemplation, then heard a fantastic trombone solo, representing John the Baptist, from Jeannie Little, over a murmuring horn accompaniment - a stunning effect. The percussion section were very much in evidence for the Apocalypse, a scherzo section of spiky, angular, urgency in which we heard the riding of the horses and later perhaps some cavorting demons in the muted trumpets, cutting viciously through the busy textures before rising to a blazing ending. The fourth movement, painting a Good Friday procession, started with quiet solos and fragments from instrumental groups, establishing a wonderful repeating bass line from the tubas; it built to a huge and magnificent ending that left me breathless.

From Tomasi's twentieth-century masterpiece we went way back in time to hear medieval music from Hildegard von Bingen and Alfonso X El Sabio, both arranged by Phil Snedecor. In the former we were treated to stunning horn playing, along with solos and extended (but really extended) drones from the tubas, the ensemble being arranged round the hall so that we had a wonderful, warm, all-encompassing sound round us; segueing into the latter we got a blazing and percussive start before settling to a wildly exciting piccolo trumpet duet from Susan Slaughter and Amy Gilreath which pretty much brought the house down. Wagner's Gathering of the Armies on the River Scheldt, arranged by Jay Friedman, received a magnificent performance, much enhanced by careful staging and offstage/onstage movements as the armies gathered - soaring melodies and exciting fanfares characterized Monarch's fine rendition. With four Shostakovich preludes (Op. 34) we moved sharply eastwards, hearing movements of grotesque angularity nestling cheek-by-jowl with dark and mournful motives in an intriguingly contrasted selection. I must here mention the solo playing of Judith Saxton in the second prelude (No. 13) in which you didn't just hear the notes but actually felt you were being told the whole story: full of character, her playing made a very fine contribution. The next piece, Elgar's Nimrod from the Enigma Variations only makes me cry when it's very, very well played: as a consequence I'm afraid can't tell you much else about it as for some reason I couldn't see properly to write my notes: enough said. I was quickly snapped out of it by the next work, Eric Ewazen's Western Fanfare, which received a bright, joyful performance and featured some excellent tuned percussion work. Monarch's final piece, Brian Balmages' Fanfare Canzonique, was written in memory of Gilbert Johnson and somehow magnificently combines elements of both Respighi and Gabrieli and again treated us to the wonderful sound of brass in and among the audience. The show had already been stolen so many times but this was a truly stunning ending to an absolutely top-drawer brass ensemble concert, and received the rapturous reception it so clearly deserved.

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