BWW Review: THE AMERICAN BRASS QUINTET at Paul Recital Hall At The Juilliard School

BWW Review: THE AMERICAN BRASS QUINTET at Paul Recital Hall At The Juilliard School

In most music schools, faculty recitals are a standard part of student life. Attendance, while not mandatory, is expected because it is assumed the student will learn something from the performance. Sometimes it isn't exactly what the professor may have intended, such as a piano recital given by a professor at a music school (not in New York City) many years ago. As he played a particularly complex piece, the professor had a major memory lapse, stopped playing, stood up, and walked off the stage never to return. In this case, his students most likely learned what not to do.

A faculty recital at The Juilliard School is a different matter entirely.

One of the world's top music schools, Juilliard's faculty is drawn from the ranks of the crème de la crème of the best musicians anywhere. The American Brass Quintet (ABQ) has been the Ensemble -in- Residence at the Juilliard School since 1987. This award winning, internationally known ensemble is dedicated to the development of brass chamber music through higher education, and they've presented the world premieres of over 150 contemporary works which form the basis of the modern brass quintet repertoire.

Their February 14, 2018 concert, in a beautiful wooden box of a small concert hall at Juilliard, was a smartly designed journey through time and place. With works from the English Renaissance, 19th century Russia, the Italian Renaissance, and the 20th and 21st centuries, the performers took the audience on a delightful musical exploration of this rarely heard genre, the brass quintet. The ABQ members are Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik, Trumpets; Eric Reed, French horn; Michael Powell, Trombone, and John D. Rojack, Bass Trombone.

The concert opened with works by four English Renaissance composers, composed for the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and to some extent King James I (all edited by Louis Hanzlik). While competence on a musical instrument, particularly the lute, was prized by the Queen, not everyone could be as accomplished as she. Everyone, however, could sing, so vocal and choral music were always readily available. The first five pieces on the program were originally for voices but here arranged for brass quintet. The use of flugelhorns by the trumpet players added a unique, tenor-ish sound to the music and also provided moments of surprising dissonance. Tricky rhythms are standard fare in music of this period, but the Quintet ably dispatched them and made them dance. The Quintet's articulation of each and every note was pin-point and sure. This is difficult enough for one brass player. Five performers demonstrating this kind of perfection simultaneously is rather extraordinary.

A short suite of music from 19th century Russia followed. The two composers, while not Russian by birth, wrote music for brass quintet heavily influenced by soulful string writing in a Russian idiom. The pieces were fairly standard works, nothing very exciting, but played with panache and very clean playing on the part of the French horn. This notoriously difficult instrument was here lyrical, clear, and emotional in the hymn-like "Morgengruss."

Perhaps the most exciting moment of the entire concert was the world premiere of Juilliard faculty member Philip Lasser's "Common Heroes, Uncommon Land." This piece was a fascinating mixture of spoken poetry and music. Dr. Lasser was on hand to speak briefly to the audience prior to the performance of his work. Commissioned by Juilliard in honor of the 30th anniversary of the ABQ's residency, Dr. Lasser had this to say about his remarkable composition: "Common Heroes, Uncommon Land" speaks of the glory of the everyday. Based on five short poems by various poets, each movement explores a particular facet of the American experience."

Each member of the Quintet recited a poem, followed immediately by the musical depiction. Using mixed meters, muted instruments at times, bright chords, as well as quietly expressive moments, the piece was played with joy and commitment by the ABQ. It was well received by the enormously appreciative audience. If they had encored the entire piece, the audience wouldn't have minded in the least!

Joan Tower's "Copperwave" followed intermission. A thorny, agitated work in contrast to the sunny "Common Heroes," Ms. Tower's work demonstrated the range of what the brass instruments could do. The Quintet handily managed the extremes of dynamics as well as the urgency in the conga-like rhythms. Ms. Tower has said "The title of this piece is "Copperwave." What this means is that copper (in brass) creates a weighty (and heavy) motion that travels in waves (and circles) throughout the piece." This is a perfect description of what the audience heard. The piece was commissioned by the ABQ for Juilliard's Centennial Celebration.

The final works on the program brought the audience full circle back to the Renaissance, this time in Italy where it all began. Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, composed highly complex, anguished, and deeply emotional music during the late Renaissance period. It's been said that his music mirrored his unstable mind. Discovering his young wife with her lover, he killed them in the heat of passion and then displayed their bodies outside his castle walls for all to see. He was never prosecuted for the crime, but he punished himself by spending the remainder of his life attempting in various ways to come to terms with what he had done. His music most definitely reflects these efforts. The choppiness in his melodic writing, the sudden shifts in tonality, and the general musical disorganization of the three madrigals, (which were originally written for voice but are commonly performed by instrumental groups), gave the Quintet a moment to probe the musical thoughts of a severely disturbed individual. Their attention to all of the intertwining melodies and contrapuntal lines was mesmerizing. When the last, purely tonal chord was played, however, there was nothing but sheer relief for the ear. Gesualdo was a wild ride for all, for the duration of his life and after.

Giovanni Gabrieli was the foremost exponent of 16th century ensemble music, chiefly for the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. His magnificent brass quintet music was specifically tailored to the acoustic requirements of the Basilica, which had (and still has) a series of domes and arches for a ceiling. The walls and domes were (and are) covered in gold mosaics, which enabled a powerfully bright instrumental sound. Gabrieli was the organist of San Marco and utilized antiphonal brass groupings (and vocal groups at other times) to augment the sound of the organ. The congregation in the middle of all this would have heard the worship service and music in what we would call "surround sound." It must have been an overwhelming, deeply spiritual experience.

The musical journey through time and place concluded with the Two Sacred Motets of Giovanni Gabrieli. The American Brass Quintet was joined by six outstanding student musicians. The 11 players separated themselves into two groups to play this splendid music . Although they did not play in different parts of the hall, the antiphonality meant for both pieces could still be perceived . This was rich, stylish, full-out glorious playing by all concerned. A truly wondrous way to end a truly successful, brilliant faculty recital. Bravi tutti!

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From This Author Joanna Barouch

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