Holiday live entertainment options abound this time of year in Southwest Michigan, but perhaps none so festive and crisp as the Canadian Brass Christmas concert at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, which kicked off the season mere days after Thanksgiving.
The brass quintet, started in Toronto in 1970 by tuba player and Wisconsin native Chuck Daellenbach, has produced more than 130 albums in more than four decades, and spends much of the year on tour. The music ranges from classical Baroque to Dixieland to holiday favorites and riffs on Rock and Roll — and the group offered a little bit of everything with plenty of personality and silly banter on Saturday night.
“Surely half of you are from Canada,” Daellenbach said to the Kalamazoo audience. “Or wish you were,” he added, to applause. Perhaps he was speaking from experience with this tongue-in-cheek semi-political remark, as none of the current members are actually Canadian.
Dressed in trademark dark suits and white Puma sneakers, Daellenbach on tuba, Chris Colette and Caleb Hudson on trumpets, Achilles Liarmakopoulos on trombone, and Bernhard Scully on horn, made a dramatic entrance in procession down the orchestra left aisle onto the stage set with four lit Christmas trees and a winter scene projected onto the cyclorama while playing a traditional arrangement of “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”
The rest of the concert included singing, whistling, dancing, jokes and general merriment, in addition to the full, rich sound the five men made together with their 24-karat gold-plated instruments.
Highlights included especially lovely renditions of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and “What Child is This,” a trio from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” arranged by former ensemble member and Kalamazoo native Brandon Ridenour, a piccolo solo from the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” (which was written long before most of the musicians were born, so therefore considered classical, they said), an arrangement of “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” inspired by a cappella group Pentatonix, and a dramatic set of “Fur Elise” variations, a jazzy mashup of Glenn Miller Christmas and other tunes.
But perhaps nothing topped the hilarious “Tribute to the Ballet,” inspired by a shared 35 years of playing in orchestra pits for ballets but never actually seeing one, Daellenbach said. In this series of pieces, not only did the men play variations from “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker,” they also recreated what they described as National Ballet of Canada choreography. Picture a man who qualifies for AARP doing grand jetes while playing a tuba landing in a 5th position deep plie; some rather dangerous-looking pirouettes, ronde de jambe en l’air, and even the splits with instruments in hand; and a trumpeteers’ pas de deux ending with their taking a selfie.
As exquisite as these finely-trained (many at Juilliard) musicians play, the real joy is how not seriously they take themselves. It makes for a wonderfully light-hearted evening of entertainment that is also rich with meaning for those eager to take a trip down memory lane. Canadian Brass encourages singing and dancing as well as shooting photos and video during the performance with an invitation to post and tag on social media. Depending on the talent and courtesy level of surrounding audience members, this can be a distracting feature of the concert, but it also adds to the casual atmosphere — and ultimately does not detract from the fine quality of their performance.