June 19, 2019

Princeton Symphonic Brass Presents Evening of Latin Music

By Nancy Plum

There is a relatively new performing ensemble in Princeton focusing on repertoire for a specific set of instruments. Founded in 2016, Princeton Symphonic Brass draws players from other area ensembles to explore music written specifically for brass instruments — horn, trumpet, trombone, euphonium, and tuba. This past Saturday night, Princeton Symphonic Brass presented a concert of “City Lights, Latin Nights” in the recently renovated Hillman Performance Hall at Westminster Choir College. Led by conductor Lawrence Kursar, the 11 brass and two percussion players of Symphonic Brass performed to an appreciative audience and showed some fancy footwork on instruments often performing from deep in the background of an orchestra. Dressed casually and sitting in a semi-circle in the hall, the members of the ensemble created an informal performance atmosphere which did not detract from achieving high technical standards.

Most of the works performed Saturday night were pieces for other instrumental combinations arranged for brass ensemble, giving the audience the chance to hear familiar or new repertoire with different orchestral colors. The program explored music of Latin American composers, as well as a few American works reflecting Spanish flavor or influence. Symphonic Brass opened the program with an iconic fanfare tailor-made for brass — Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, composed as a concert season-opener in World War II and arranged for this group by trumpet member Ed Hirschman. The four trumpets of the ensemble were well blended and rhythmically precise, presenting a clean dialog between upper and lower brass.

The other major American work on the program was George Gershwin’s one-movement An American in Paris, arranged for brass by Michael Allen. The ensemble began the piece lightly, with exact playing from percussionists Todd Nichols and Mark Bencivengo helping to capture Gershwin’s musical cityscape. A saucy middle section featured crisp trumpet solos by Hirschman and Charlie Megules.

The four trumpeters of Symphonic Brass each performed on multiple instruments, creating varying musical effects and palettes. Use of the standard trumpet in Bb, cornet, and piccolo-like high trumpet added diverse colors to the music, especially to the “toreador” character of certain works. The bullfighter atmosphere particularly came to life in Georges Bizet’s “Aragonaise” from the opera Carmen, as well as Anthony DiLorenzo’s The Blade of Spain. The Bizet excerpt was marked by Megules’ solo trumpet playing and precise tambourine rhythms from Bencivengo. DiLorenzo’s work showed quick and clean playing from both Megules and fellow trumpeter Brian Woodward.

The Latin American works performed depicted Mexico and Spain, capturing several dance forms. The tango was the most recognizable, heard in two excerpts from Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s Tango Suite. Both of these short pieces were highlighted by muted trumpets, with slinky passages played by Hirschman and a rich euphonium melody played by Ray Henricksen. The Cuban danzón was depicted in Jeremy Van Hoy’s arrangement of Danzón #2 of Mexican composer Arturo Márquez. Led by trombonist Lars Wendt, the dance theme was answered by Megules on high trumpet, with the full ensemble well unified in the syncopated rhythms and musical transitions. This piece also showed a great deal of musical individuality among the players. The Mexican waltz could be heard in Felipe Villanueva’s Vals Poético, arranged by Symphonic Brass horn player Craig Levesque. Led by euphonium soloist Henricksen, the musical material was also well conveyed by the horn and trumpet sections. Throughout the piece, Symphonic Brass maintained the European waltz roots of Villanueva’s music.

Princeton Symphonic Brass has only been performing in the area for a handful of years, but the organization has built a loyal following. Although the space at Hillman Hall was almost too resonant at times for an ensemble of brass instruments playing at top volume, Princeton Symphonic Brass seems to have found a good home at Westminster Choir College with fans who appreciate the power of brass.