Canadian Brass channels madcap energy.
If you've followed the Canadian Brass for any length of time over their first 43 years, you pretty much know what to expect when you see them in concert. Chances are, they'll march in playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee.'' There will be spoken introductions to just about every piece on the program. Much of the banter will be engaging and humorous. There will probably be at least a couple of jokes about Canada. And their program will consist of many well-worn hits, usually ranging everywhere from Bach to the Beatles and beyond.
With all these predictable elements, it's a testament to the group's stamina and musicianship that one rarely encounters a sense of complacency in their performances. The ensemble's appearance on Friday night at Mechanics Hall, part of Music Worcester's 155th season, was anything but ho-hum. On the contrary, it thrived on a combination of madcap energy and a very high level of musicianship. There was, too -- especially in the closing "Suite from Carmen'' -- a certain manic goofiness to the proceedings (more on that later).
Most of the program consisted of a chronological survey of music, starting with a pair of Renaissance-era hits and moving through Bach to some Beethoven and other Romantic-era fare before branching out into Fats Waller, Sonny Kompanek and Jose Padilla, among others. It was grandly, unashamedly eclectic and all played with infectious joie de vivre.
One possible reason for the Brass's continued vitality is the turnover of its members. Only Chuck Daellenbach, the ensemble's tuba player, remains from the founding group of five; the rest of the players appear to have been born well within the last four decades. They each bring to the ensemble impressive musical gifts.
Trumpeter Christopher Coletti, in addition to being a first-rate trumpet player, is a talented arranger, as was well demonstrated in his settings of "The Moon Represents My Heart,'' an adaptation of a Chinese folk song, and selections from Robert Schumann's Carnaval. If the latter doesn't trump the original piano version, it's at least fun to hear some of those knotty keyboard textures sonorously bellowed out by a brass quintet.
The group's other trumpet player, Caleb Hudson, took a pair of impressive solo turns on the piccolo trumpet. It's a fiendishly difficult apparatus to play, and though it was common to many Baroque composers, it was given a new lease on fame, courtesy of the Beatles' "Penny Lane.'' The Brass's rather sophisticated arrangement of that song gave Hudson ample opportunity to showcase his crystalline tone and wickedly precise intonation on the instrument, as did their performance of Fats Waller's "Handful of Keys.''
Trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos strutted some impressive chops in an arrangement of Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So,'' while the Brass's horn player, Bernhard Scully, deftly held his own with his colleagues, whether performing a nifty set of variations on Beethoven's "Fur Elise,'' Luther Henderson's "Well-Tampered Bach,'' or Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee,'' the last the group's sole encore.
Before the Rimsky, though, came the Brass's reinvention of Bizet's "Carmen,'' replete with wigs and hats and introducing a new character to the opera: a bull (gamely realized by tuba player Daellenbach). Suffice to say that by the end of the piece the bull had been vanquished by Liarmakopoulos's Escamillo and Daellenbach added his contributions to the final "March of the Toreadors'' lying prostrate on the floor. To top things off, trumpeter Coletti vocalized a couple of impressively high, falsetto cries. Who says these guys don't like to have fun?
They also like to have fun with their audience, in an up-close-and-personal kind of way: in the middle of the first half, some of the large crowd in the hall got to participate in the concert, after a fashion. Thus, your reviewer found himself pressed into service, holding up trumpeter Hudson's part (on an iPad) when the ensemble fanned out across the main floor to perform Giovanni Gabrielli's "Canzona No. 4.'' It's just this sort of ease with their audience that's ensured the Brass a devoted following these last four-plus decades.
Well, that, and top-notch music making. On the merits of last night's concert, both qualities appear to be in as strong shape as ever.