The American Brass Quintet – LO -mts -cd

Amelia Perron

Lawrence brass players were reduced to speechless awe Saturday night, thanks to a stellar performance by the renowned American Brass Quintet, the last concert in this season’s Lawrence University Artist Series.
The American Brass Quintet, comprised of two trumpets, French horn, trombone and bass trombone, is considered one of the premier brass chamber groups currently performing. Since their founding in 1960, when brass ensembles were “unheard-of,” they have produced over 50 recordings, performed internationally and commissioned new works from some of the most important composers of the time.
As educators, they are in residence at the Juilliard School of Music and the Aspen Music Festival, in addition to working with many young musicians and ensembles.
Their biography does not mislead; it was nearly impossible to find criticism after the concert. Plenty of conservatory students were at a loss to describe their reaction.
“They’re pretty freakin’ amazing,” said senior tuba player Beth Wiese, summing up the general sentiment. What is it that makes them so good? “Just … wow. Everything,” she replies. “Balance, blend, musicality.”
“They have impeccable intonation,” added junior trombonist Dustin Zimmerman. “It’s CD quality.”
The genre of brass chamber music is not always taken seriously — the musicians make programming choices that are meant to entertain, rather than to represent a serious portion of the brass literature.
“The cool thing is that they don’t do any of that,” remarked Wiese.
The problem, of course, is the tremendous gap in compositions for brass, between the end of the Renaissance and the early 20th century.
“We don’t have the continuous tradition of the string quartet,” explains ABQ trumpet player Raymond Mase. “Our history is spotty.”
Their repertoire includes the obligatory Renaissance brass pieces, but because of their engagement with new music, there’s no risk of running out of material. “We get composers to write for us,” Mase explains simply. Of the eight composers, new and old, featured on the program, four had been writing with the ABQ in mind.
“They had a good variety, even within the new stuff,” said Zimmerman. “Some was really accessible, some not so accessible.”
The new works included “Quinteto Concertante,” by Osvaldo Lacerda. Using musical idioms from his native Brazil, he crafted a, as Mase said, “charming, accessible piece” that was enjoyed by many.
“The Three Tenses,” by the young composer Huang Ruo, was an attempt to express timelessness that featured ingenious imitations of other instruments — Tibetan throat singing on trombone, Chinese oboes on trumpet and the sounds of New York City.
The second half ended with a new work by Joan Tower, an exciting piece written recently for the ABQ. ABQ bass trombonist John Rojak described Tower’s process of creating the piece in collaboration with the quintet.
“She asked us if we could move around when we played,” he recalled. “The answer was no.” Nothing was lost.
The ABQ had a full weekend in Appleton, giving not only the concert but also master classes and lectures. “They gave really helpful criticism,” said Wiese. “A lot of little things, and great advice on how to do what they do. Plus, they’re cool guys.