Last year, the organization formerly known as the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society inaugurated “Just Summer,” a three-concert series that blends genres and offers a more casual concertgoing experience than typical programming.
Since that time, the group has announced a new name – Chamber Music Pittsburgh – and a pledge to become more accessible to the Pittsburgh community. “Just Summer,” then, was elevated from experiment to core component of the rebranded chamber music organization.
The final concert of the series’ second season on Thursday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater showcased groups of Pittsburgh-based musicians, all between 20 and 27 years old: C Street Brass, a brass quintet in residence at Carnegie Mellon University; and Beauty Slap, which includes the five brass players along with a DJ, saxophonist and guitar player.
The performance would not have satisfied the most orthodox chamber music fans, but let’s not think in those terms. In particular, Beauty Slap’s approach made for a dynamic concert experience unlike anything I’d attended before.
The band, which formed in April, performed in the second half of the show. The brass players (Scott Nadelson and Kyle Anderson, trumpets; Gabriel Colby, trombone; Eric Damashek, French horn; and Hakeem Bilal, bass trombone) played an arrangement of the Beatles’ “Because,” and DJ Jakeisrain (CMU student Jake Berntsen) came on for a strange, intriguing remix of “Eleanor Rigby.” Saxophonist Matthew Powell-Palm and guitarist Paul Crocker then joined for music produced by other DJs.
At first, it felt a bit strange, even awkward, to be watching this club-like music from the seats of a theater. Few took up the musicians on their suggestion to join them and dance (outside of bouncing in their seats). But eventually, I shed my self-consciousness and allowed myself to be immersed in the toe-tappingly good beats facilitated by Mr. Berntsen and enhanced by the instrumentalists, with most songs connected in one seamless presentation.
Using a computer and a hardware controller, the DJ tossed off effects over the musical covers, while the instrumentalists played pre-established lines or improvised solos. The choral qualities of the brass heightened the lyricism of a smooth “Falling Leaves” by Evil Needle, while fanfare-like playing complemented more thumping songs. And C Street brought a chamber ensemble’s sensibilities (tight playing, balance, blend) to What So Not’s “Touched.” Sometimes, the electric guitar’s timbre or outsize effects stuck out, although it fit in well here and in “DTW to DIA” by Griz.
Mr. Berntsen delivered impressive mixing and energy, even conducting with a baton at times. The instrumentalists’ creative chops were exhibited in solos throughout, as in Gramatik’s catchy “Obviously.”
The first half, which featured C Street Brass alone, was impressive, but – to flip a cliché on its head – Beauty Slap was a tough act to precede. With sections devoted to Latin music, classical music and jazz or musical numbers, the brass quintet demonstrated impressive command, sense of phrasing and flexibility across genres.
In Carlos Gardel’s “Por Una Cabeza,” for instance, the musicians delivered smooth lines and a unified, searching tone. Playing the flugelhorn solo in Astor Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” Mr. Anderson offered a sensitive, fine phrasing. Bach’s Contrapunctus IX could have benefited from a slower tempo and clearer articulation at the beginning, although a powerful second theme and clear, regal ending gave it organ-like majesty.
Other highlights included Enrique Crespo’s “Vals Peruano,” Bart Howard’s “Fly Me to the Moon” and Cole Porter’s “High Society.” The pieces were short, just a few minutes long, and many featured excellent arrangements for brass, including some by Mr. Anderson and Mr. Berntsen.
The musicians played the music from memory, and they performed most of it while standing up and moving in choreographed gestures – raising and lowering their bells in unison, for example, or featuring a soloist out front. That distinguished this group’s approach from typical chamber music ensembles, even before the excitement of the second half, but the theatrics occasionally distracted or seemed to compromise precision. It would be interesting to see the musicians build a program that integrated the brass pieces and electronic music, one in which the listening experience was deepened by an amalgamation, rather than a separation, of these divergent styles.
The concert was a welcome opportunity to see innovative musicians testing out ways to illustrate their art and to share it with the audience. I’ll look forward to hearing them again, perhaps next time in one of the bars or clubs where they perform. Now, the challenge for Chamber Music Pittsburgh is to bring the energy of “Just Summer” to the more traditional concerts it presents.
Elizabeth Bloom: email@example.com or 412-263-1750.