Easily Amused “Beyond Baby Mozard”

On Wednesday, Oct. 24, the Lawrence University (LU) Brass performed their first concert of the school year in Lawrence Memorial Chapel. LU Brass is comprised of Associate Professor of Music John Daniel on trumpet, Associate Dean of the Conservatory and Professor of Music Jeffrey Stannard on trumpet, Assistant Professor of Music Ann Ellsworth on French horn, Assistant Professor of Music Tim Albright on trombone and Instructor of Music Marty Erickson on tuba.

LU Brass opened their program with two short pieces by 18th-century Austrian composer Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, arranged for brass quintet by Professor Daniel. The music was of a distinctive late Baroque style, full of complex counterpoint. I was unfamiliar with Albrechtsberger until this concert, but his music seemed oddly familiar. It reminded me of the sort of classical music that appears on “Baby Mozart” DVDs — the ones meant to be played for woefully under-acculturated infants. I mean that in the most flattering way. After all, we can’t have our next generation taking their first steps to a soundtrack of anything less than our culture’s most sublime sonic artifacts.

My hunch was demystified when, after greeting the audience, Professor Daniel told us that Albrechtsberger taught music theory to many eminent composers of his time and is particularly well-known for teaching counterpoint to Beethoven himself. Of course, Lovely Ludwig Van is a perennial favorite for edifying toddlers as well as pacifying ultraviolent droogs.

This Beethoven-via-Albrechtsberger introduction set the tone for the remainder of the program; all but one of LU Brass’ selections were arrangements of chamber music written for instruments other than brass and ranging from Monteverdi to Shostakovich. I enjoyed each of their selections, but for much of the concert I was left with the impression that I was listening to string quartet music computer-modulated to a brass timbre.

Certainly, the concert demonstrated the impressive technical mastery, small ensemble skills and musical sensitivity of the LU Brass — and hence of Lawrence’s brass department. One of the arrangements even featured a trio of French horn, trombone and tuba, breaking the tradition of LU Brass performing as a quintet. However, I would have liked to see more selections that showcased the unique capabilities of brass instruments and musicianship, rather than selections that showcased the ability of the group to emulate other types of chamber ensembles.

Their one piece written for brass quintet — and my favorite by far — was Victor Ewald’s “Quintet No. 4.” To be fair, this one piece consists of four movements and runs over 20 minutes long. It fully satisfied my craving for excellent brass part-writing — I don’t mean to imply that the concert was exclusively string quartet-esque.  “Quintet No. 4” is a commonly performed piece in the brass quintet repertoire; it is notable for its extreme technical difficulty and for the fact that, having been written in 1888, it was one of the first pieces composed specifically for modern brass quintet. In fact, it’s so difficult that for a while it was commonly believed that the piece must have been a transcription of what was originally a string quartet, because it seemed unplayable on brass instruments.

While discussing a movement in the unfortunate key of F-flat, Professor Ellsworth produced a steamrolled French horn and joked that she now had the perfect instrument to perform it with. Although she decided to stick with her 3D horn, Ellsworth and the rest of LU Brass played the piece breathtakingly well. It goes to show that performers in all fields are constantly pushing the envelope. Just like the sub-five-minute mile run, “Quintet No. 4” was thought to be impossible until somebody took it as a challenge.

I have already covered two other brass concerts this term, and I think you all have heard enough about how cool I think these instruments are. So, to conclude, I’d like to turn my attention to the people holding the instruments. I want to point out that all five members of LU Brass are musicians of the highest caliber. Each of them has had an exceptional career, whether as a performer or academic. It just so happens that they are all Lawrence faculty, here to teach, mentor and inspire us. For me, the opportunity to study tuba with Mr. Erickson has been a highlight of my time here. I know that other students have had similarly transformative experiences with the brass faculty.

We are all so fortunate to attend a school that attracts such awesome people — professors in both the Conservatory and College, not to mention staff and administrators from custodians to VPs. More than any other school I have attended, Lawrence staff and faculty genuinely care about students and want to see them do well.