As lead trumpeter Rolf Smedvig observed, Charlotte has a special love for brass that he remembers from his previous visit, so he and the other members of the Empire Brass – or those similarly unaffected by its revolving-door membership – were eager to return. Of course, a few things had changed since Empire had last performed in the Queen City. The former Carolinas Concert Association is now in its first year as Charlotte Concerts, and the series is completing its first season at Halton Theater on the main campus of Central Piedmont Community College, a building that didn't exist last time Smedvig was here. Obviously, the College is proud to host the series, for it made the Empire Brass concert a centerpiece of its five-day Sensoria celebration of the arts – in its first year under a new name.
The 1000-seat Halton proved to be a marvelous fit for the quintet. In their entertaining intros to the varied morsels on their program – ranging from Tylman Susato in the 16th century to Prokofiev, Gershwin, Ellington, and Meredith Willson in the 20th – members of the ensemble sounded nearly as gratified by the sound of the hall as they were by the enthusiasm of the audience. Empire's personable tubist, Kenneth Amis, introduced the adaptation of Mozart's familiar "Rondo alla Turca" from the Piano Sonata No. 11 as a showcase for tuba, but the two trumpets, Smedvig and Marce Reese, took over the more celebratory half of the melody. Although the recent Alison Balsom recording of the "Turca" proves rather decisively that the entire melody is best left in the hands of a trumpeter, the engineered sound of her Caprice CD does not improve upon the live sound of trumpets at the Halton.
While Smedvig performed most of the soloing and emceeing, he wasn't the only standout. Gregory Miller, who has recently returned to the ensemble, is so smooth and proficient at the French horn that it becomes a different instrument from what we are accustomed to hearing. Miller filled us in charmingly on his extended three-pregnancy paternity leave from the group when he came forward to take us into the Tchaikovsky segment of the concert. Then he demonstrated his mastery on the "Danse Arabe" – arranged by Smedvig – and the "Danse Russe" from The Nutcracker. There was no flagging in Miller's eloquence when he took the lead in Gershwin's dreamy "Summertime."
Mark Hetzler, the Empire's voluble trombonist, is only allowed to introduce one piece per evening, so Willson's "76 Trombones" from The Music Man is inevitably his moment. All was fairly predictable and festive as Hetzler played the melody and Smedvig cued the rhythmic clapping from the audience. But the parading jubilation of the arrangement stopped dead in its tracks as Hetzler launched into an astounding cadenza – one that served as a sharp rebuke to the confraternity of classical composers who have provided few, if any, comparable outbursts in the instrument's repertoire. Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" offered Hetzler another opportunity to shine.
Considering how predisposed the Charlotte audience was to love the Empire Brass, I must observe that the quintet tried a little too hard to be loved. In addition to the prancing bonbons already named, the program included such surefire crowd pleasers as a 14th century Irish jig, Copland's setting of "Simple Gifts," Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Amazing Grace." The selections by Prokofiev – the "Morning Dance" from Romeo and Juliet and the "Troika" from Lieutenant Kijé – were less familiar but no more challenging. Dvorák's Slavonic Dance No. 1 became more challenging in a busy arrangement that all-too-democratically distributed the lead voice to all five brass players.
Better to my liking was Empire's arrangement of the "Ritual Fire Dance" from Manuel de Falla's El Amor Brujo, where only a brief splash of Miller's horn interrupted Smedvig's warm trumpet. Providing the initial isle of stately calm amid an ocean of bounce and pep was the fifth of Tomaso Albinoni's Trattenimenti Armonici sonatas, originally for violin and continuo. Yet there was no good reason – other than distrust of their audience's attention span – why the quintet couldn't have offered us all four of the sonata's movements instead of two. Both of the slow movements are lovely, and both fast movements brim with fireworks for Smedvig's virtuosity.