Semper Hi Fidelity: The Marine Chamber Ensembles, Sunday, January 17, 2010

Tired of paying top dollar for chamber music concerts that sound promising on paper but come across as undifferentiated slabs of same-y colors and dusty repertoire? Send in the Marines! The Marine Chamber Ensembles, which performed in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall on Sunday afternoon, draws their members from the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band, which you may remember as the ensemble that actually played live at President Obama’s inauguration. (Take that, Yo-Yo Ma!) They displayed a similarly intrepid spirit in programming Sunday’s concert, featuring three works by living composers, two intriguing arrangements, and one Romantic rarity, all for the low, low price of zero dollars.

Several of these works held particular appeal for me, which is the main reason why I was so eager to brave the clammy rain and chilly temps to get into the Sousa Band Hall on Sunday. For example, most of Richard Strauss’ music impresses me more than it moves me. The sheer sumptuousness of the orchestration deadens my emotional response, and as far as I’m concerned, almost all of his tone poems are half again as long as they need to be in order to get his point across.

Enter Franz Hasenöhrl’s arrangement of Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s lustige Strieche” (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”), which shortens the work, reduces it to chamber proportions — clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, double bass — and retitles it “Till Eulenspiegel…einmal anders!” (“another way!” I am not sure the exclamation point is necessary!). On Sunday, Staff Sgt. Douglas Quinzl nailed the famous horn solo that opens the work and played admirably throughout in extremely exposed conditions. Gunnery Sgt. Eric Sabo got a huge fat tone from his double bass, crucial to Hasenöhrl’s conception, in which most of the lavishness of the original orchestration devolves onto the big boy of the string section. This version ain’t gonna displace Strauss’ original in the canon, but it was fun to hear, even if (in the final analysis) I must admit to missing some of the death scene that Hasenöhrl omitted.

Jennifer Higdon‘s “Steeley Pause” gave the flutes of Gunnery Sgt. Elisabeth Plunk, Master Gunnery Sgt. Betsy Hill, and Staff Sgts. Heather Zenobia and Kara Santos a hell of a workout, with their cool tones whirling about like dervishes and piling up in close harmonies. It is to the credit of all four flautists that their various tones were precisely rendered, as the audiences would have experienced excruciating aural pain had they not been; instead, “Pause” felt literally like a blast of fresh air, not surprising from the mind of flautist Higdon. The piece also worked as an engaging palate-cleanser between the two bigger, more Romantic works preceding and following; it was a canny decision by bassoonist Master Gunnery Sgt. Roger Kantner, who coordinated the programming.

It may seem odd to have just called something by Peter Schickele “Romantic” — yes, he is that dude who dresses up as Bach’s fictional long-lost son; no, not everything he writes has humorous intent — and yet the autumnal tone and big, passionate melodies of the first movement of his quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano certainly put one in mind of Brahms. Gunnery Sgt. AnnaMaria Mottola maintained a lovely, bell-like tone in numerous extended passages at the top of her piano, creating a lullabyish sound as the other instruments murmured warmly. The second movement (marked “Fast, driving”) recalled the American populist sound of Copland, and Mottola in particular shone again, with her more percussive instrument pointing the rhythms. Master Sgt. John Norton’s clarinet got to shine in the “Slow, elegiac” third movement, which had an appropriately aching quality and lots of lovely melodies, before a blistering finale in which Schickele (and violinist Master Gunnery Sgt. Peter Wilson) balanced hoedown influences with his own invention to delightful effect.

The quartet was my favorite discovery of the afternoon, an immediately likable work written after I was born; unfortunately, not a lot of groups can deploy this combo of instruments, but you can buy a recording here.

Two missteps followed intermission. Camille Saint-Saëns’ late wind sonatas fit right in with the French tradition of urbane, charming, deceptively emotive music for winds, and his bassoon sonata is no exception, but Kantner in his role as bassoonist struggled audibly to navigate its high notes and runs. Master Sgt. Audrey Kupples next presented three transcriptions of Romantic pieces for her alto saxophone, with Master Sgt. Karen Grimsey accompanying on harp; the tonal combo delighted the ear, but unfortunately Kenny G has spoiled sax transcriptions of vocal works (for my ears, anyway), and playing Schumann’s “Traumerei” as a legato melody robbed it of some of its heartbreaking suspended quality.

In many of its concerts, the Marine Band sends ’em out clapping with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” On Sunday, the chamber ensembles did the next best thing, putting together a brass quintet to play Eric Ewazen‘s “Colchester Fantasy.” Enterprisingly, Ewazen named each of the four movements after a favorite pub in Colchester, England, and his writing recalled both the antique heritage of said pubs and the modern-day fun that can still be had in them. The quintet filled the hall with Ewazen’s bright invention, especially in the first movement, “The Rose and the Crown,” where the musicians rambunctiously tossed motives and chords around, and the finale, “The Red Lion,” a high-powered, high-spirited fugue.

Although they never stop performing publicly for long, January is a particularly excellent month to go see the Marines play music; this Sunday and the next one feature the Marine Band and the Marine Chamber Orchestra, both playing similarly intriguing repertoire and varied instrumentation, both concerts just as free (and recommendable) as last Sunday’s. It’s good to know that we can rely on our men and women in uniform to triumph in exotic musical realms where civilian ensembles fear to tread.

I apologize for this review being so late, but at least it’s been late enough that I’m sure this is a DMV Classical exclusive. Yeah, baby!

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3 Comments on “Semper Hi Fidelity: The Marine Chamber Ensembles, Sunday, January 17, 2010”

  1. Gunnar Says:

    Props to you for covering the Marine Chamber Ensemble. They’re very good musicians and clearly they’re being given some interesting (modern!) stuff to play.

    If you’ve never read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Proud Tower,” I highly recommend it. Both because (as it turns out) Thomas Reed was kind of awesome, and there’s a lot of good material on Strauss and his impact on the music & culture of the time.

    • Andrew Lindemann Malone Says:

      Oooh, a nonfiction book recommendation. Odd as it may seem, I rarely get those! I will check it out.


  2. […] the wintertime, you can hear these ensembles indoors, typically playing more substantial fare (here’s an example). Did I mention all these concerts are […]


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