Metropolitan Opera fans who’ve marveled at the wondrous brass sounds emanating from the pit had their chance Sunday afternoon at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall to see who makes them: the Metropolitan Opera Brass. The 12-member section was making its Capital Region debut, courtesy of the Renaissance Musical Arts series.
The concert was revelatory in other ways: brass fans and students could hear what great brass playing should sound like and see what it takes to play the trumpets, French horns, trombones and tuba. And for the ensemble, it was a chance to get out of the pit onto the stage and see the audience and delight in playing repertoire it doesn’t play often. Principal trumpeter David Krauss said that once the opera season begins, the musicians usually play seven performances a week, which leaves them with little time to explore.
Some of the pieces were written for a brass ensemble. Most of the others were excellent arrangements of opera arias or orchestral sections that its conductor John Sheppard, who also subs in the trumpet section, made. In most everything the ensemble played, the sound was mellow and golden toned with mellifluous phrasing, light attacks, and superb balance and pitch. Krauss introduced each piece, often spicing it with a brass player’s typically easy humor.
They began with Paul Dukas’ Fanfare from the ballet “La Peri,” which had a few rough edges as they warmed up. Eric Ewazen’s “A Western Fanfare,” however, was finished, pretty and with interesting lines and rhythms. Samuel Barber’s “Mutations from Bach” was wonderfully resonant, like deep organ chords, as it began with a kind of Bach chorale before mutating into more celebratory passages with staggered descending scalar lines. It ended reverentially.
Sixteenth century composer Tylman Susato’s “Renaissance Dances” arranged by Iveson had all the open chords, dance rhythms and sensibilities of that period. The ensemble rearranged itself to create a kind of antiphonal effect. The six dances were bouncy, light, had pretty lilting lines and catchy articulations. The third movement from Ewazen’s “Symphony in Brass” was wonderfully cheery and beautifully written for brass. The players were tight, never blasted, and used a wide range of dynamics under superb control.
For Gabrieli’s “Sonata Pian’ e Forte,” the group split up into three four-person sections with one on stage, and the others in the right and left second-floor balconies for antiphonal effects. Sheppard merely gave each section a wave of a hand to come in. Transitions were remarkably smooth. Back on stage together for Gabrieli’s “Quis est iste qui venit,” they were equally stellar.
Then it was home turf for the rest of the show: arrangements of opera arias. The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” was beautiful; scenes from Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” were bright and splashy; the Letter Song from Korngold’s “Die Kathrin” and the final trio from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” were more complex and didn’t flow as well.
But for selections of the famous melodies from Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus,” the ensemble soared with plenty of froth and verve. As an encore, the Strauss was repeated, much to the delight of the crowd.