Paul Merkelo has held the seat of principal trumpet at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal since 1995. He recently performed music of Vivaldi, Haydn, and Tartini with the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) at Cadogan Hall in London. I write this concert review from my home office in New York City. But I am not recollecting the concert and consulting my notes. Instead I have been experiencing it via video, and, in the process, realizing that two pandemic years have changed what’s considered normal and even permissible.
New Rules for a New Normal
Before the onset of COVID-19 I would have hesitated before agreeing to review a concert without having attended it in person. When, here at Blogcritics, we noted the city in parentheses in the title of a review, there was always an assumption, on our part and presumably on that of our readers, that the writer had been physically present at the event. That assumption is no longer valid – or needed.
Handel’s Concerto for Trumpet in E flat major is a repertoire favorite, and Mr. Merkelo brought a full range of skills and energy to it. Though this piece employed the program’s largest ensemble, it felt warm and intimate. With consummate phrasing he merged buttery legatos with pinpoint staccatos in the celebratory first movement. The ruminative Andante evoked a lovely pastoral scene. The orchestra’s bouncing touch, combined with Mr. Merkelo’s agile virtuosity, made the famous finale sound both lighthearted and brightly triumphant.
Maurice André, for one, was known for performing the trumpet transcription of violinist-composer Giuseppe Tartini’s Concerto in D (D53) for Violin. (Not incidentally, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has called Mr. Merkelo “the new Maurice André.”) The performance by Mr. Merkelo and the ECO was a graceful one all around. Switching to the piccolo trumpet, ideal for playing high passages in pre-classical music, he navigated the first movement’s quick runs with easy dexterity, then brought a liquid, almost oboe-like tone to the slow movement.
The jaunty finale calls for much nimbleness from the trumpeter, who in this case made it all sound easy. It also includes passages of hushed tension, nicely modulated by the orchestra. And it provided Mr. Merkelo an opportunity for a brief, tasteful cadenza in which he explored interesting harmonic possibilities not present in the score.
When One Trumpet Is Not Enough
Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C, RV537, has long been popular in the repertoire. It’s loaded with high spirits and playful interplay between the two soloists. Backed by a smaller ensemble, Mr. Merkelo and ECO Principal Trumpet Neil Brough recreated a little of the 18th century for a delighted live audience.
So much of the appeal of this concerto, as in some of Vivaldi’s other popular works, lies in the solo players’ interplay and synchrony. Here the trumpet parts sounded like a conversation between two dear old friends. The two trumpeters and the ECO together infused the music with delicacy and a sense of joy, transcending its formalism to convey its spirit with easy virtuosity and a wink.
What more could you ask for? Well, one thing: being present in the concert hall. As the recovery from the pandemic progresses and concert schedules fill out, we have more and more opportunities to experience in person the joys of great music-making. But among the new rules and habits that have evolved from the long shutdown is a greater awareness among musicians that they are performing for the world at large, and for the future.
Paul Merkelo’s most recent album, The Enlightened Trumpet, includes music of Haydn, Telemann, Mozart and Hummel and is available online.