The real stars of the annual Henry Mancini Institute concerts are always the talented young players of the HMI Orchestra. And Saturday night's season-opening event at Royce Hall was no exception.
After only five days of rehearsals, the full orchestra sounded remarkably good, the strings vibrant and alive, the winds articulate and beautifully textured. Only a few small uncertainties -- mostly in tricky metric passages -- betrayed the players' relative unfamiliarity with one another. And that was a particularly impressive accomplishment, given that more than a third of the 78-member ensemble arrived from other countries.
It seemed fitting that the 10th HMI season opened with a composition by Henry Mancini and that the piece would be the most entertaining number on the program. "March with Mancini," a joyous potpourri of patriotic themes, contained fragments of melody from every imaginable Sousa march and traditional American melody.
The performance featured the one aspect of the HMI musicians that does not change from year to year -- a combination of youthful enthusiasm with strikingly mature technical virtuosity.
Other works included world premiere performances of John Clayton's New Orleans tribute, "Jubilation Orchestration," student composer Jeremy Levy's smoothly textured "In Transit," and HMI artistic director Patrick Williams' "August." The last piece was an intensely atmospheric composition, a deeply felt personal expression stimulated by Williams' near-death surgical experience, performed with understanding and compassion by the HMI musicians.
Trombonist Chris Brubeck's "Prague Trombone Concerto," conducted by Joana Carneiro with the composer as soloist, was a powerful showcase for the instrument's too rarely heard capacity to embrace a full range of expression -- from dark-toned intimacy to tear-down-the-house exuberance. Interestingly, the 5/4 meter of the final movement recalled, rhythmically if not melodically, "Take Five," one of the most famous works in the playbook of the composer's father, Dave Brubeck.
The program climaxed with a pair of performances by jazz trumpeter Allen Vizzutti, playing his own "American Jazz Suite," and Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion." Playing flugel horn on the Piazzolla piece, trumpet on the jazz suite, Vizzutti ranged across the spectrum of both instruments with seemingly effortless ease. And his own work was an apt closer for the program, an intriguing blend of jazz and concert music, enhanced with superb soloing and a film music atmosphere -- a virtual definition of the Mancini Institute's musical goals.