The quintet known as the Canadian Brass are to appear with the Nashville Symphony at the Ryman this Friday and Saturday evening at 8 p.m. If past experience is anything to go by, the Ryman will resound with brazen delight, for this group is as well-versed and well-rehearsed as they come. But they come to town in the wake of two local performances that make for tough acts to follow: Two weekends ago in the Blair Recital Hall, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra played to an overflowing house, while the following Monday, despite record cold and swirling snow, the Belmont Camerata Musicale did likewise at the Belmont Mansion.
The Nashville Chamber Orchestra, directed by Paul Gambill, led off its evening with an Ernest Bloch concerto grosso, Karen Krieger at the piano, followed by Britten’s settings of poems by Rimbaud, beautifully sung by Amy Jarman. But the piece people had come to hear was the premiere of NCO’s “Southern Song Cycle.” Kathy Chiavola was the featured vocalist on six songs, each written by a well-known local songwriter teamed with a local composer.
All of the songs were noteworthy, some more so than others. With a couple exceptions, the musical settings were better than the texts themselves. “Daddy,” by John Jarrard and Don Hart, was a strong, raw ballad about a family ravaged by a father’s addiction to whiskybut the moving story was weakened by a feeble final stanza. The last of the set, “Black Sheep,” by Karen Taylor Good and Don Hart, was a delightful contemporary scherzo featuring some witty cello by David Hancock. But the most completely achieved piece was “Beloved Enemy,” by Gretchen Peters and Conni Ellisor, a woman’s complex tale about the conflict between herself and her sister. Lyrically and musically, this song effectively fused the narrative genius of country music with the vibrant expressiveness of classical strings. Let there be more, I say.
Belmont offered another evening of music, equally fine in its own way. Called “Courtly Music of the Baroque,” the program featured music by eight composers who wrote between 1600 and 1750, performed in a lively, spacious chamber very much like the ones the music was intended for. The chamber was crammed with savvy listenersno misplaced applause hereand the few small children in attendance were perfectly behaved. I’m not sure that was historically accurate.
The music featured various combinations of two harpsichords, two violins, a cello, a bassoon, and two recorders, as well as the Belmont Guitar Quartet. The music was delightful partly because it was not perfectly performedit was played well, but it didn’t smell like studio Lysol. There were many memorable moments: the Ciaccona movement from a Pachelbel sonata; the Muséte de Taverni by François Couperin for two harpsichords; the very difficult, slow Grave movement from the Albinoni, performed by the guitar quartet; and the last movement of a Purcell sonata, a quite vivacious Vivace with just a little aroma of beer and bawdiness. The evening finished strongly with violinists Elisabeth Small and Pamela Sixfin in a lovely duet of the last movement from a piece by Tartini. Twang Town continues to surprise in very pleasing ways.
I don’t expect the Canadian Brass to surprise me, but I do expect to be pleased. The Canadian Brasslike the King’s Singers and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fieldshas for more than two decades been delighting crowds all over the planet, and they have a list of recordings as long as a Mountie’s leg. They do a wide spectrum of music, from J.S. Bach’s Art of the Fugue to three-chord banjo ragtime, and they always do it brilliantly and in the proper style.
When they came on the scene in 1970, the brass quintettwo trumpets, a trombone, a French horn, and a tubawas scarcely recognized as a chamber group. The very idea smelled of Wurst mit Kraut. When founder/trombonist Eugene Watts decided to challenge the primacy of the string quartet as classical chamber ensemble, the notion must have seemed nutty even to him. He not only had to leave a good job with a good symphony, he had to persuade four other guys to do the same thing. But right away, their playing renovated ears.
They have played a lotalone, with other small ensembles, with “serious” orchestras, with “pops” orchestras, at music festivals, on TV. They do a lot of educational workshops for young musicians. Their list of recordings is a catalogue of versatilityfrom Gabrieli Brass to Red Hot Jazz. Whatever they play, they play with razor-sharp precision of rhythm and tone, with zest and wit (when appropriate), and with sapient expressiveness.
Yet they never forget that their medium is brass, not strings or reeds. An exemplum: Ten years ago, they issued Bach: Art of the Fugue, one of the canonical texts in music lit. Die Kunst der Fuge is an artesian fountain of imaginationwritten out on four lines in open score, with no indication of tempos, dynamics, or instrumentation. The score has been realized in many wayson harpsichord, piano, and organ, among others. But there are two versions that together show clearly how the music works: one for orchestra by Musica Antiqua Köln, and the version by the Canadian Brass.
The Brass have to play this piece much faster than an orchestra doesbecause there are only five of them, and they have to breathe. Thus the orchestral version can be sweeping and meditative, and the tone-colors of the several sections can clarify the interweaving lines. With the Brass, the shortest values have to pop like automatic-weapon fire, and the tone-colors of the instruments, though distinct, are more subtle. Both versions are marvelouseach in its own wayand each helps us hear the other.
The Canadian Brass’ appearance with the Symphony this weekend has been advertised as a “family” event. Certainly, the program ought to have broad appealmusic by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, George M. Cohan, and John Philip Sousa. No Paul Patterson. The performance should be a delightful romp.
The first half of the evening belongs to the Nashville Symphony, who will do a kindred program. The orchestra has scheduled a bouquet of shorter pieces, reaching from Gabrielli to the “Colonel Bogey March”which will make some folks remember Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai. There will be some Delius and some Kabalevsky. The last offering listed is Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”
The Symphony and the Brass togetherin the Rymanare an emblem of how much good music there is in our city these daysand of how varied it is. The Ryman will always be, for some of us, the embodiment of the Grand Ole Opry. But the renewed classical performances there show that the Rymanand therefore Nashvilleis a wonderful place for other kinds of music too. It was a fine place for the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. It would be a fine place for Kathy Chiavola to sing Gretchen Peters and Conni Ellisor. And it will be a fine place for the Nashville Symphony and the Canadian Brass to play music your fifth-grader and her grandmother will both enjoy as much as you do.
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