Sunday, August 9, 2009

Synergy rocks NCMF opener

There are always surprises at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival and this year is no exception, beginning with the opening performance of the Synergy Brass Quintet, a brash ensemble with a reputation for bringing a rock attitude to a classical repertoire — an intriguing although somewhat amorphous concept. But, whatever it may have meant to people attending the show, about 120 in all, whether it was tied up in attitude or repertoire or light shows or groupies, you knew, going into it, as soon at you entered St. Paul's Church, that this was not going to be your typical classical concert: There were two tables of product and gear in the vestibule, the kind of display you'd find at, well, rock concerts, not classical music venues, my dear: compact discs, five (count 'em, five) designs of gig tees, stickers, yo-yos and — no kidding, folks — even whoopie cushions. And if that wasn't a sufficient clue that something different was in the air, then you certainly would have figured it out after the first piece, an energetic performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Procession of the Nobles," when the audience broke out in a raucous, hooting applause, not the polite, respectful ovation normally associated with this sort of venue. Or after Jesse Chavez's fierce tuba solo during William Byrd's "Earl of Oxford's March ("You didn't know the tuba could do that, did you," he says introducing the next piece. "Neither did I. Surprises me every time.") Or, if you hadn't gotten the point by intermission, they made it plain, following up an intriguing arrangement of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" ("Why bother with strings when you can have brass?" asked trumpeter Greg Lloyd.) with a rousing, stomping, howling and definitely non-standard repertoire cover of W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues." If this were the closer, you probably would have had people whipping out their Bics, lighting up the church for an encore.

What's it all about? Synergy came together as a student group at Boston University ("We wanted to make beer money," says trumpeter Bobby Thorp.) and has been playing together ever since. They are one of the workingest classical bands out there, playing up to 300 dates a year — a wild, rock-and-roll kind of schedule. Their program was eclectic, to say the least, with Thorp comparing it to wandering through an art museum ("Bouncing from period to period, mindlessly looking for the rest room, by which we mean intermission," he says.) and covering 500 years of musical history in the process. There was lots of joking around in the introductions — some of it pretty corny, all of it well received — some physical humor and musical jokes in the performances, but the playing was deadly serious at all times, sometimes combining with strange, perhaps unexpected consequences: For example, when Jon Hurrell, who introduced the Rossini overture as "Wabbit of Seville," conjuring up the Bugs Bunny-Elmer Fudd Looney Tunes showdown we all knew before we ever heard of that Itallian fellow who wrote the "Barber of Seville." Having Hurrell introduce the piece added a layer of irony, seeing how he has a hairstyle that puts Sideshow Bob to shame. The rapid-mood-swing program kept the audience a little on edge — in a good way, receptive.

Because they were so impressed by the acoustics of the church, the musicians broke from the formal program to play Thomas Tallis' lush, gorgeous "If Ye Love Me, with the quintet taking up positions in the balcony and at different locations throughout the church to create a kind of close-your-eyes-and-sigh moment, and, after "Evensong," a somber original by trumpeter Bobby Thorp dedicated to members of the armed forces, they hauled-ass into a modern triptych of "Simple Gifts," a section from Copland's "Appalachian Spring," to Louis Armstrong's "My Heart" (which, since Hurrell arranged it, included a killer French horn solo) and selections from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess." They closed with a wild ride of "When the Saints Go Marching In," with Thorpe turning the trumpet upside down for his solo, perhaps a bit of a nod to recalling Hendrix's behind-the-back playing at Monterey.

As for this rock thing, it's probably just a matter of attitude. In her opening remarks, Jane Niebling, executive director of the festival, said that "all good music to me is rock and roll." which sounds about right: So maybe it's only rock and roll, but I like it, as that old fellow used to sing.

FOR THE RECORD: Here is the program for Synergy Brass Quintet's August 8 performances at the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival: "Procession of the Nobles," Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov; "Alman," Thomas Morley; "Earl of Oxford's March," William Byrd; Aria, George Frederic Handel; "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; "Memphis Blues," W. C. Handy. Intermission. ""Overture to the Barber of Seville," Gioachino Rossini; "If Ye Love Me," Thomas Tallis; ""Simple Gifts," Aaron Copland; "Evensong," Bobby Thorp; "My Heart," Louis Armstrong; "Suite from Porgy and Bess," George Gershwin. Encore. "When the Saints Go Marching In," traditional.

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