KALAMAZOO, MI — Combining string ensembles with brass groups can be dicey, given fundamental differences in their timbre and volume. Locating appropriate scores that successfully merge the disparate sounds is a further challenge.
But when that crucial bridging is made to work — as it did atFriday night's Fontana Chamber Arts concert at Western Michigan University's Dalton Center Recital Hall — the results can be all-out amazing.
Fontana's program featured the revered Boston Brass. Special guests were the dazzling Enso String Quartet that performed here recently for a concert honoring local composer Curtis Curtis-Smith. On Dalton's stage, each ensemble sat facing across at the other. The provocative joint program, "Notes from the Balcony: 'Romeo & Juliet' in Music," proved an exciting aural experience.
The superb Boston Brass included Jose Sibaja and Jeff Conner (trumpets), Chris Castellanos (horn), Lance LaDuke (trombone, euphonium) and Andrew Hitz (tuba). Comprising the gifted Enso String Quartet: Maureen Nelson and John Marcus (violins), Max Mandel (viola) and Richard Belcher (cello). Also playing key parts: locals Helen Lukan (piano), and Judy Moonert and Dan Hospetler (percussion).
Opening the concert with elan was Boston Brass offstage playing "Fanfare for the Prince," a brief excerpt from Nino Rota's score for Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film "Romeo and Juliet." Following were three movements from Kabalevsky' ballet "Romeo & Juliet," brilliantly arranged by Lance LaDuke, performed with great verve by the brass ensemble (plus percussion).
Both ensembles joined in a marvelously performed arrangement of Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet" Concert Suite in Seven Parts, Op. 64. This reflected a genuine joint endeavor, with strings projecting romantic passages and brass the threatening moments. Lower brass instruments thrillingly captured the throbbing hearts of the ill-fated lovers, leaving the large audience at Dalton Center Recital Hall breathless at the power of the performance.
British composer-pop singer Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet joined forces in 1993 to compose music and lyrics for string quartet and male singer in an ingenious song sequence based on imaginary letters compiled as "The Juliet Letters."
At Friday's program, only three of the "letters" were played by the Enso quartet and lyrics sung by Lance LaDuke from the Boston group. What they performed whet one's appetite. But more—many more—of the 20 sections were needed to fully appreciate the achievement.
Closing the concert in forceful fashion was Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" (1961), arguably the evening's major highlight. Again, both ensembles and percussionists took part. Because all instruments were amplified, there rarely was a problem hearing the strings, even with brass playing forte. "Somewhere" and "Maria" thus came across clearly via cello and horn.
Yet the highly rhythmic, syncopated numbers won most applause ("Mambo" and "Cool Fugue"). Every instrument had solo moments to confirm the excellence of the musicians. Verdict? All were remarkable artists. An encore, "America" from Bernstein's masterpiece, fittingly closed an absorbing performance.