American Brass Quintet Blares into Finney
Quintet Performs Renaissance to Contemporary
by Sarah Hall

To a delighted audience, the American Brass Quintet opened the second show in the 2001-2002 Artist Recital Series on Tuesday night. The Quintet performed a wide range of pieces dating from Renaissance to contemporary American compositions.

The performance in Finney Chapel showcased a broad repertoire that included both traditional chamber music arranged for brass and modern pieces by Julliard professor Eric Ewazen and prolific composer Melinda Wagner. Wagner’s piece, entitled simply Brass Quintet No. 1, was commissioned by the group and written in the summer of 2000. While introducing it, one member of the Quintet suggested that they were “lucky to have paid the pre-Pulitzer price” — a reference to Wagner’s acceptance of the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999.

The Julliard-affiliated ensemble has commissioned numerous compositions since its inception in 1960. Additionally, members have worked to revitalize brass chamber music of the late Renaissance/early Baroque period and vocal chamber pieces arranged for brass. Together with compositions received as gifts from various composers, these pieces constitute over 100 new works introduced to the repertoire of brass chamber music over the Quintet’s 41-year history.

When they began as a group, the American Brass Quintet was a rare company among professional-level quintets. Audiences were skeptical that a brass ensemble could stand up in a concert series next to more traditional string quartets and solo virtuosos. On Tuesday night, a member of the Quintet pointed to the group’s performance in Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series as an indication that brass ensembles are finally gaining the recognition they have long deserved. Competition between professional brass quintets from New York, Chicago and many other American cities is now stiff.
Thankfully, the Quintet’s performance was anything but stiff. Speaking to the audience between pieces, members of the group related anecdotes around the composition of various pieces and the lives of their composers. Ewazen’s Frost Fire, performed at the end of the second half after four playful canons from the 16th century, was apparently inspired by a billboard advertising beer that Ewazen spotted while driving through an Amish community in northeastern Ohio. Another Ewazen piece not performed on Tuesday night takes the name of its movements from various pubs in London.
Frost Fire, composed in 1990, testifies to the magnificent descriptive power of brass. In three movements entitled “Bright and Fast,” “Gentle and Mysterious” and “Tense and Dramatic,” the Quintet took the captivated audience through a composition that glimmered, faded and quietly shone again. The encore, a tightly wound piece announced as the second movement of Anthony Plog’s Mosaics, had the feeling of perpetual motion.

While the audience was thrilled with these new and exciting compositions, there was happy recognition for a suite from American composer Stephen Foster’s The Social Orchestra, arranged by trumpeter Raymond Mase and played immediately after intermission. Foster, whose better known work includes Beautiful Dreamer and Old Folks at Home, composed pieces that were often performed by brass instruments of the day and are easily adaptable to the modern brass quintet.

Rounding out the program were Three Italian Madrigals by German composer Heinrich Schutz and Iincisioni — Five Engravings in Brass by early 20th century Italian composer Vittorio Rieti. The third and fifth movements of Incisioni elicited applause and laughter from the audience for their fantastic phrasing and rousing finales. The madrigals, written while Schultz studied in Venice under the tutelage of Giovanni Gabrieli, were a lovely finale to this superb performance by the American Brass Quintet.

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