The pipes are calling

Brillhart takes his turn conducting at rehearsal. The Brass met him for the first time Thursday.
Brillhart takes his turn conducting at rehearsal. The Brass met him for the first time Thursday. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)

The Canadian Brass and the Kimmel Center organ aim to blend it just right at their Saturday concert.

Posted: March 10, 2012

The ultimate outdoor instruments will match pipes, literally, with one of Philadelphia's more celebrated indoor musical monuments at 3 p.m. Saturday when the Canadian Brass meets the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ at the Kimmel Center.

The chief danger is that the two entities will get along all too well, once they find their common ground. Too much blend, and the musicians are lost in a cloud of music. Too little leaves holes.

To that end, during a Thursday rehearsal the brass made demands that organists love to hear: Play louder.

"There were a couple moments that left us feeling a little too naked," said trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, "and we asked if another sound from the organ could fill it up a little bit."

"My teacher at the Eastman School is rolling over in his grave," groused organist Jeffrey Brillhart when he realized how many notes they were adding to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

Then his tone of voice lightened: "But that's OK!" Bach can take it.

Such were the issues being worked out for Saturday's program of Giovanni Gabrieli, Bach, and Brahms Thursday at Verizon Hall, a red-letter concert on both sides of the musical fence.

Brillhart gets to play with brass ensembles only every three years or so. Though the Canadian Brass is the most-recorded and best-traveled quintet of its kind, its members joke that gigs like this happen only in close proximity to presidential inaugurations or the Olympics. (Or, less happily, in some small, low-profile church that houses an organ way too large for its own good.)

One of the few challenges with Verizon Hall's organ, which the brass players openly adore, was distance. Though the six musicians were nestled together onstage, with Brillhart using the onstage console, the organ's mechanics are housed behind Verizon's rear wall 30 feet away. The distance, though short, can create problematic time delays between the execution and realization of the sound, even when only the organ is playing.

"I will confess that on my first day of practicing, on Tuesday, I was fairly miserable," said Brillhart, who is music director of Singing City chorus and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and a member of Yale University's music faculty. "Then you come back and you're used to it. It's a matter of adjusting your listening."

Remarkably, the collaboration was so tension-free you'd never guess that the Canadian Brass met Brillhart for the first time on Thursday.

As they rehearsed, he sometimes conducted; other times Ridenour waved his hands.

"Somebody has to take the lead," said Brillhart.

"Basically, you're learning how to dance with one another," said Ridenour.

"At the end of the day," said Brillhart, "it's a meeting of intellects." Or six.

Though the program will have solo turns for both brass and organ on the first half, the second half includes organ/brass arrangements for a number of famous works, among them the Toccata and Fugue, the organ work popularized in a grand transcription by the Philadelphia Orchestra in the film Fantasia. The Canadian Brass version is as intricate as the group dares to get when playing with organ.

"With a brass quintet, you can naturally hear each one of the fugal lines," said Ridenour.

There may be some defensiveness in his words, since transcriptions and arrangements of classical masterpieces are still frowned upon by purists. But they're essential to any brass/organ concert. "There really should be more music for this combination," Ridenour said. "There's not as much repertoire as you'd think."

Composers, take note.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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