Canadian Brass rocks BAM — without, alas, the Céline Dion of it all

There’s a tradition in the Beaux Arts Quarter of Toronto of renting out a section of land to the Canadian Brass on Friday nights for the group’s annual concerts, typically with about 300 members…

Canadian Brass rocks BAM — without, alas, the Céline Dion of it all

There’s a tradition in the Beaux Arts Quarter of Toronto of renting out a section of land to the Canadian Brass on Friday nights for the group’s annual concerts, typically with about 300 members of the public in the audience. Over the years, that area has been dubbed “Canadiana,” a reference to the brass players who come from across the country and come to hear the sounds of the classic brass bands. (Prior to Canadiana, there were regular brass concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.)

It turns out this past Friday was a bit different: One of the evening’s final pieces was an unfamiliar title and excerpt from a composer much less known in the States than the Montreal-based Céline Dion, one who now works in Norfolk, Virginia.

In a word, yes, the Brass absolutely nailed this composition, which was a bold proclamation — in a delightful way — of patriotism and the idea of the United States as a patriotic homeland. The only thing missing was the accents of a big Céline concert, with a lot of violin solos and cello solos and guitar solos and trombone solos. The brass did all that, but the music felt sparse and forceful.

Saturday night was the first of the Brass’s three-night run at Jazz at Lincoln Center, so we saw a more conventional show, which most can agree was effective. Among the repertoire choices were several versions of “American Pie,” which, given the group’s tendency to go big on the full brass arrangements, we will probably hear often in the future. Céline’s “One Love” was also done twice, and the second version made a lot more sense, with just enough cello and violin and little trombone to ensure a sense of tone continuity in the second movement.

The entire group of brass players — six principal players and the rest of the 13-piece ensemble — played well, except for a brief lapse early in the second half. There were a couple of far-out bells that seemed to be on-target but were indeed dangerously on-the-money, and only managed to get away by rolling them off a bit, bringing in microphones for harmonies, and inserting corkscrews of brass to help the bottom register close. With any luck, the musicians will learn to get a little less playful in their show-off sounds.

The Brass is famous for its large-scale arrangements, and both the group’s decision to present “Canadiana” in large-scale repertory style and the creative beauty of the finished product show how well the ensemble has spent its many years of practice. (And this is not to mention that if you wish to see the Canadian Brass live, you can’t really do better than performing outdoors on a beautiful night at BAM at the new War Memorial Plaza.) With this memorable first-night performance, they are opening Canadiana for a new season in what is supposed to be the group’s last-ever year at BAM.

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