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An awe inspiring performance

I grew up on Tubby the Tuba and Peter and the Wolf and, as an adult, I’ve enjoyed jazz, calypso, Latino and Swing horns, along with Dizzie Gillespie, Slide Hampton or James Cheatham, to name but a few, but none of them prepared me for the well-attended Onyx Brass performance at the Earl Cameron Theatre on Tuesday night.

The next to last offering from the Bermuda Festival 2014, the quintet has been performing together for 21 years, and it shows … not in looks or age, but in synchronicity of movement and sound.

I was totally awed by their smooth, clean, legato sound, a true testament to their consummate skill, proficiency and unique relationship.

I must also note that if anyone laboured like I did under the mistaken impression that the tuba is merely an oom-pah-pah instrument, Tuesday’s performance swiftly amended that error, as its melodic, vibrationally soul-stirring tones rivalled the bass pedals of John Scott’s organ.

Onyx Brass hails from Great Britain and consists of Niall Keatley and Alan Thomas on trumpets, Andrew Sutton on French horn, Amos Miller on trombone, and founding member, David Gordon-Shute on tuba.

All five are variously connected with a ‘who’s who’ of orchestras outside of their work with Onyx, and are also actively engaged in music education, giving workshops and master classes to a variety of students from first year primary classes up to students at New York’s Juilliard School of Music.

Two local workshops, one for beginners, the other for adults, were given locally and the participants joined Onyx Brass on stage for three selections.

Throughout the night, the audience was regaled with humorous snippets about the composers, the selections, the arrangers (since historically, there were few, if any pieces written specifically for brass instruments) and a little about the era.

We learned that Holbourne, composer of “Renaissance Dance Suite,” instead of composing for the Church, chose to “follow the money” and wrote for royalty, this selection having been written for Queen Elizabeth I for that era’s version of Friday Night, party night!

We learned that 1685 was a watershed year for music, being the birth year of three composers: Handel, Scarlatti, and the prolific Bach.

We were treated to two extremely complex Bach fugues, “Chromatic Fugue BWV 903,” and “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BWV 565” both of which, along with Shostakovich’s whimsical “Fugue in A flat Major op. 87, # 17” made it clear that this quintet shines brightest with complicated, intricate arrangements.

Each instrument carried its own melody blending into a tapestry of glorious sound. Brahms, described as somewhat self-satisfied by the time the next selections where written, is best known for his Lullaby, and that signature sound — melodic and slightly nostalgic — was evident in an arrangement by John Maynard of “Intermezzo” from Opus 118.

His “Ballade” from Opus 119 was quite a contrast. One could almost hear a chorale singing.

We were not privileged to know the names of the Bermudian workshop participants, but they made us quite proud as they filed on stage, looking professional in their black and white, with instruments gleaming.

Their performance gleamed just as brightly. The advanced students, consisting of four trumpets, a French horn, and two tubas, accompanied Onyx Brass in two selections, Humperdinck’s “Evening Hymn from Hansel and Gretel,” and Holst’s “Jig from St Paul’s Suite,” while the three young beginners, on tuba, trombone, and trumpet, accompanied the Brass in Susato’s “La Mourisque”.

Noting that horn playing is like “push-ups for the lips,” the Brass gave us “Anything But,” four ‘performance’ pieces of quirky British satire as they took a brief rest.

“Me,” a poem consisting of that one word; a mime “Going to Meet the Zen Master in the Kyoshi Mountains and Not Finding Him;” “Mrs Darwin” in which Charles Darwin was compared to primates accompanied by characteristic noises and gestures; and a Spike Milligan piece, “Hymn to the Parlous State of English Dentistry,” complete with clacking chompers.

We fell apart laughing, especially the little one in the seat behind me!

The programme concluded with “Three Dance Episodes” from Copeland’s “Rodeo,” the last being particularly memorable as the trumpeters and trombonist alternately slapped thighs and stomped feet in authentic hoedown style.

The quintet made frequent mention of how well they had been treated during their time here, and their encore number was fitting, a unique arrangement of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”.

I think we too will long ‘keep the memory’ of this performance. May we meet (and hear them) again!