One of the ongoing problems facing classical music performance is the balance of artistic integrity and bottom line commercial viability. For a classical music ensemble to bridge this rift, to entice the layman and satisfy the purists, and to deliver uncompromising musicianship which is appreciated on all levels, is an all too rare occurrence.
And this is precisely where the Munich-based Harmonic Brass makes its mark; as an ensemble which performs with unbridled enthusiasm while staying true to its artistic integrity. Its members interpret popular classical masterpieces with originality and flare, not to mention performing with great virtuosity. They have recently made their way to South Africa for a three week tour, starting at the world class Endler Hall in Stellenbosch University.
After the lights dimmed, the ensemble walked on, one by one playing their opening piece. Their sound soon filled every corner of the hall with a cornucopia of tone colours from a mixture of brass instruments which, while very much related to each other, each displayed a distinct individual character.
Andreas Binder (horn) addressed the audience with modesty and charm, discussing the influences on the ensemble’s choice of repertoire and setting the tone for the concert ahead. They then proceeded with the overture from ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ by Frederick Händel. From the very first note, the Endler Hall was struck by a wall of sound; the musical mastery of this quintet was made evident with clear, crisp articulation and a homogeneous sense of balance between the various instruments. The tuba, played by Manfred Häberlein, had a particularly impressive part in this piece, and Häberlein’s control of the bass line with its wide interval leaps was extraordinary, not to mention his excellent breath control.
A rendition of Bach’s Fugue in G minor followed – a beautiful work with rich harmonies and counterpoint, the execution of which was exemplary with well-matched phrasing and style. The sound was almost symphonic in tone and volume, ending off with a Tierce de Picardie: a fine touch to the arrangement.
Gergely Lukács (trumpet) and lead trumpeter Hans Zellner led the next piece, the ‘Duet of the Flowers’ from the opera Lakme by Delibus. Their timing and intonation was great, despite having to adjust their tuning slides during the song.
As the arranger of all Harmonic Brass’s material, Zellner’s pinpoint skills were particularly highlighted by his interpretation of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. He exploited the different trumpets they had at their disposal, starting with a muted flugelhorn, moving to piccolo trumpet – also muted – and back to Bb trumpets. Each instrument took turns in stating the main melody as well as the repetitive rhythmic feature along with the steady bass line.
Thomas Lux (trombone) introduced Binder as the featured instrumentalist in a compelling and expressive arrangement of ‘Nessun Dorma’ by Puccini. Binder’s wonderfully warm and expressive tone did the operatic piece justice, backed by a symphonic-like accompaniment from the rest of the ensemble. A very comical rendition of Bizet’s Carmen then saw the musicians take on certain character roles poking fun at the story line of the opera. The audience relished the humour and gave a thunderous applause at the end.
After a very social interval, the second half began with each member entering one after the other, playing ‘Palladio’ by Karl Jenkins. This is a flashy piece with lightening quick articulation and fast melodic passages which really got the audience fired up, before a pleasant arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story which displayed the ensemble’s versatility. Bongoes and a cow bell (played with a mallet fixed to a pedal) added texture to the music, with a combination of scooped notes by the trombone and flutter tonguing by the trumpets adding to the impressive variation of dynamics as they moved in and out of the different time signatures flawlessly.
The next two works, ‘Tarantella’ and ‘Libertango’ composed by Pusch and Piazzolla respectively, demonstrated an ability to shift between different sounds and an utter command of different rhythms and syncopation, with more comic relief thrown to an appreciative audience.
To round the evening off, Zellner tackled De Areu’s famous ‘Tico Tico’ – a notoriously difficult piece with demanding melodic lines which Zellner pulled off with an elegant dexterity. The audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation was met by the group’s party trick: Häberlein took centre stage to bring the house down with his astounding performance of the ‘Carnival of Venice Variations’. This is a common feature for trumpet players but to hear it executed on the tuba was absolutely extraordinary.
From the first note to the last, this was a fun, inspiring, engaging and quite simply brilliant concert. The members of Harmonic Brass evidently enjoy their time on stage, proving that it is possible to be serious about one’s art while still having fun. It is also one of few groups in their field that is self contained: managing themselves and making a full time living through the ensemble. Harmonic Brass entertains legions of fans around the world and continues to be a major force for brass music. We were honoured to hear them.
Harmonic Brass performed at Endler Hall on 11 May 2014.
Gareth Harvey is a performing saxophonist and music solutions manager at Octave Leap Music.