On Wednesday, Oct. 3, Lawrence University welcomed the Atlantic Brass Quintet (ABQ) to Memorial Chapel. Their concert was the first of the 2018-2019 New Music Series.
Among Conservatory students, this was a highly anticipated event; the Quintet’s trombone player, Tim Albright, just so happens to be an Assistant Professor of Music at Lawrence. Albright is a well-known figure in the brass community outside of the Lawrence microcosm, in part because ABQ is generally recognized as one of the foremost professional brass quintets in the world.
Since 1985, ABQ has enjoyed a distinguished career, winning competitions, recording and releasing albums, leading summer seminars and performing worldwide. Many attendees were already familiar with ABQ from listening to their albums or studying trombone with one of their members. The quintet’s musical selections were decidedly less familiar — but that’s the point of the New Music Series. ABQ’s program was exciting, unique and inventive; nearly every piece had an anecdote or backstory to provide some context.
The audience was seated on the Chapel stage, leaving the pews empty. The mighty volume of the quintet’s sound was only magnified by this setup, but I wasn’t concerned — for brass fans, a trombone’s fortissimo is just spicy food for your ears. As I expected, the stage was packed and nearly every brass student was in attendance. This was not an event to miss.
To continue with last week’s theme, the brass quintet is another one of those niche musical forms that usually fails to receive much attention from those who aren’t brass musicians themselves. Two trumpets, french horn, trombone and tuba (or sometimes bass trombone) all lend and blend their voices, creating a euphony that brings together the wide spectrum of pitch and tone of musical brass. The bright upper register of the trumpets is complemented by the deep lower register of the tuba, and the trombone’s powerful, piercing tone is complemented by the more mellow french horn.
Distinct from larger brass choirs, the quintet setting still allows each player to perform soloistically instead of blending in with a larger section. For this reason, music written for brass quintet usually does not assign one instrument to an accompanying role. Rather, each of the five voices will likely contribute to the melody in comparable measure over the course of the piece. In practical terms, this means that a tuba player in a brass quintet will see a lot more ink on their sheet music than I ever would, sitting in the back row of Lawrence’s Symphonic Band.
Most of ABQ’s selections were commissioned for them recently; accordingly, each member had plenty of opportunities to showcase their virtuosity. They kicked things off with “Mini Overture” by Witold Lutosławski. Like any good introduction, it was loud, captivating and brief. The next piece was “Shine” by Robert Paterson. Each of this work’s four movements recall the composer’s impression of a certain type of metal, from the amorphous metallic sheen of liquid quicksilver to the shimmering contours of a brass instrument. The music was extremely evocative of this, aided by the impeccable musical sensitivity of ABQ.
Victor Wooten once observed that “in order to be a good musician, you have to be a good listener.” ABQ’s performance epitomized this. When they got loud or quiet, they did it together, never overpowering any other voice. They listened closely to agree on even the most minute detail: the emphasis on certain notes and the taper at the end of a phrase. To even approach that level of musical professionalism and maturity, you have to learn to pay as much attention to what other players are doing as to what you’re doing. It was easy to see why ABQ is known for their virtuosity.
Another highlight was “Kopi Luwak” by Alan Ferber. Another ABQ commission, this piece gets its name from an Indonesian coffee delicacy that is made from coffee cherries that have previously passed through both ends of a creature called the Asian palm civet. According to ABQ, who confessed their collective coffee addiction, kopi luwak is delicious, but they emphasized that they do not purchase it anymore due to its unethical procurement techniques that involve force-feeding captive civets. The piece itself had a caffeinated energy generated by frantic, driving rhythms and a 15/8 time signature.
The finale, “Balkan Dance Party,” was comprised of three traditional tunes from the Balkans. I’m willing to sacrifice some level of sophistication to say that it was just plain awesome. ABQ went all out in terms of volume and energy. Our very own Albright took a solo, which was jaw-dropping. After the last note, the Atlantic Brass Quintet instantly received a standing ovation for a performance that was much appreciated by all in attendance.