Music Review: The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass at the Oregon Bach Festival

By Daniel Buckwalter (#commonmanatthesymphony)

Saturday started innocently enough. There were errands, yes, because there always are errands. But at high noon came a lengthy text message from a friend that ended, “Also: I have an extra ticket to tonight’s OBF Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass. Interested?”

Why not? The Oregon Bach Festival has been anchored in Eugene for 48 years, and I had been to only one other OBF event. That was four or five years ago, I can’t remember.

I know, I’m a poor excuse for a Eugene resident.

Literary reviewer Daniel Buckwalter branches out to review a performance at the Oregon Bach Festival; his brother and sister-in-law are both professional musicians

Anyway, I went to the Hult Center for the Performing Arts and met two friends. I probably could have tucked in the tails of my button-down shirt; otherwise, I melded in fine with the sold-out crowd in the Soreng Theater.

Not that I’m a stranger to great musical performance. My brother, Michael Buckwalter, is a French horn player in Chicago, and his wife, my sister-in-law Elizabeth Anderson, also is a professional musician (cellist).

I’m glad I did. It was engaging, fun and classy. More importantly, The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass pulled in the audience with such down-to-earth style (and glorious talent to spare) that I never felt compelled to tuck in my shirt or order a glass of wine.

I left the nearly two-hour concert with some penetrating questions (hey, they’re my questions!) and also some observations.

First question: Among the three trumpeters, I counted 12 variations of the instrument. Most of them seemed concentrated between two of the players. I wouldn’t pretend to know specifically what any of them were, but they were shiny. How much does each trumpet cost? Are we talking three months of my rent to buy just one? Perhaps more rent money to insure the collection for a year? No wonder this group is busy touring the country and China.

Another question: Because it’s been since well back in the last century (don’t ask) since I mistreated the trumpet as a kid, I had forgotten that brass players … ahem, how to put this delicately … dispose of saliva on the floor. Who mops that up? Whoever does, I hope OBF pays them well.

Philadelphia Big Brass is clearly led by Rodney Marsalis. He is charismatic and a great musician with a pedigree (cousin to Wynton Marsalis). But he runs a democratic ensemble. All eight musicians on Saturday, including the percussionist, got a turn at solo.And the program was democratic. There were tips of the cap to almost all musical genres. There were salutes to John Phillip Sousa (two of them), serious J.S. Bach, Fats Waller and Rafael Mendez. I wasn’t sure about the last one until I heard Marsalis on the trumpet. Then I got it.

That leaves three favorites, all of which made me either laugh, hum along or almost dance. Thankfully, I kept to my seat and didn’t dance when it came to the Earth, Wind and Fire medley, though I did learn that the French horn can carry an EWF tune. I will never sell the French Horn short again.

I also will not sell Elvis Presley short again. Did you know that Can’t Help Falling In Love can be played baroque style with the trumpet? Marsalis showed us. It was quite lovely. I’m still humming it.

The best, I thought, came before intermission when the ensemble combined the Hallelujah Chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah with When The Saints Go Marching In, the spiritual famously recorded in 1938 by Louis Armstrong. How do you do that? It’s complicated, but it happens when you allow the trombone player to lead with the saints, and the rest of the ensemble answers with clipped — or just shouted out — the hallelujahs.

And the audience followed along, as well it should and couldn’t help itself.

One thing for sure: If the Oregon Bach Festival — or anyone else — brings back The Rodney Marsalis Philadelphia Big Brass back to Eugene in the future, I will fight for a ticket.

Note: The Oregon Bach Festival program continues through July 14. See the full schedule at or on the OBF website