The last time I heard the Canadian Brass, Graeme Page was the French horn player and J.S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G Minor (“The Little”) was their signature tune. It had been my original intention to hear their St. Catharines gig (Thursday) then scoot over the border and catch them with the Buffalo Philharmonic (Saturday) so as to compare acoustics, approach and repertoire. Unfortunately, fate intervened and I couldn’t attend their Kleinhans Music Hall show.
And that’s a pity because much of their musical output never made it past the lip of the stage in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre where only the addition of sound-reinforcing electronics could have produced any true reverberation.
Like the music itself, this intrepid quintet is anchored by founders Gene Watts (trombone), Chuck Daellenbach (tuba) and has, over the last couple of years, re-staffed the higher voices (Joe Burgstaller, Ryan Anthony—trumpets) and Jeff Nelson (now the fifth French horn member).
From here on in, this review gets trickier for it’s hard to know whether their primary purpose is music or entertainment. I’ll try the former first.
That all of the musicians are masters of their craft was never in doubt. Both trumpets have impressive range, clear vibrant tone-production and are equally comfortable on valve, piston or piccolo instruments. Their matching ability was particularly welcome in Gabrieli’s Canzona, where the group dispersed themselves amongst the audience. It was in this work and anytime that they stood (rather than the traditional “sit”) on the stage that the most homogeneous sounds were produced.
Nelson’s velvet melodic skill was effectively showcased in Michael Kamen’s touching Quintet. His colleagues offered sympathetic accompaniment; it was easily the musical highlight. But that shouldn’t be surprising given that it was composed for the five instruments of the group. The transcriptions did not fare nearly as well.
Despite the set-up banter of Bach’s most-loved Toccata and Fugue (and without a church-like setting to allow the contrapuntal lines to bounce, blend and solidify) the work had no depth, just sizzle and show. Not surprisingly—due to its length and technical challenges—there were more “extra-musical” sounds from everyone than anywhere else on the program.
Without saxophones and a drummer the “Glenn Miller Songbook” provided the large crowd with lots of memories but not a lot of swing (do-wah, do-wah, di-bup!). The major offering (in terms of length) was Peter Schickele’s commissioned opera Hornsmoke – A Horse Opera in One Act. And so the players dolled up in Western gear for this musical tale of the search for a trumpet-in-drag. Lots of fun, even a campfire trio, but nary a tune will ever be recalled. Low art, high laughs.
Which brings us to the founders and their banter. Both men have a good sense of timing but their material is as old as Scheidt’s Canzon. The sequel gag in the introduction of the Hollywood-written quintet didn’t know when to quit and the “Did you mention the CD?” routine gave “commercial music” new meaning. The crowd chuckled dutifully but no sides were split.
The very next evening I was in, arguably, Canada’s finest venue for the presentation of classical music: Toronto’s Massey Hall. Lily Tomlin was holding court. With seats up in the heavens (where the Canadian Brass’ opening “Closer Walk with Thee” came back to mind), I was soon awash with the irony that, in a room meant for music, I was having difficulty getting every word of this extraordinary comedian even though they were fired at my ears by a “state-of-the-art” sound system.
As the line between art and entertainment continues to blur, it becomes exceedingly rare that the former can escape the latter’s lure of a full-house and fame. JWR