Notes from Philly

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Sound the trumpets: Black Pearl

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Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra
Jeri Lynne Johnson, music director
with Rodney Mack Philadelphia Big Brass
Baptist Temple, Temple University
May 29, 2010
Airs June 2

Black Pearl, Philadelphia newest chamber orchestra turned the close of its first season into a celebration at the renovated Baptist Temple Saturday night. Maestra Jeri Lynne Johnson, a conductor who has smart ideas about programming, even if they don’t all work (and better ones about community!) mixed and matched her Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra with her principal trumpeter Rodney Mack’s Philadelphia Big Brass. The first half: lyric shorts by Americans Copland, Bloch, Ellis Marsalis and George Walker, came and went, easy and well.

Good strings are expected here, Black Pearl has them. Ms. Johnson is fortunate in her soloists, Mack’s trumpet was arresting in Copland’s movie score, Quiet City, Geoffrey Deemer’s English horn intense; the piece was the highlight of the first half with George Walker’s Pulitzer- winning understated Lyric Suite running a close second.

The second half mixed pops and classics performed by Rodney Mack’s six- year- old ensemble The Philadelphia Big Brass. A Rossini overture, a howling good quintet version of “He Walks with Me,” Elgar’s Nimrod variation and the finale to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Rodney Mack is a fabulous entertainer with a fine sound but he spoils things leaning too hard on a phrase, stretching or overstating like the toreador solo that he played to the house. His better gift is to support superlative musicians: Tubist and arranger Matt Brown, leader and trumpeter Wayne du Maine, whose part time gigs include playing the Met Opera and leading the South Pacific on Broadway now; du Maine led the better part of the Big Brass’s second half and when he was playing his tone was Brita pure. Rex Richardson’s trumpet made a blistering impression (Look him up on YouTube;) Jose Sibaja from Miami by way of Costa Rica with the Boston Brass. Johnson led the brass in the finale from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, which began ragged and turned tornado. It’s good to know the Black Pearl has access to these virtuosos. , marketable enterprise. Certainly it’s time has come.

But the best was the encore “Billie Jean.” Three trumpets Richardson, Sibaja and du Maine trading, no! igniting riffs on MIchael Jackson – in the beauty of Baptist Temple’s green glass windows. This was thrilling.

NB: They also have Board Chair James Undercoffler, the Drexel professor of arts admin and former president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra before he threw up his hands at the deficit and other ills there. Let’s hope Undercoffler sees Black Pearl as more manageable. Word is Ms. Johnson, who trained at Wellesley, and U. of Chicago, has excellent funding, including fine family backing. The maestra once served as assistant conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia.

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