American Brass Quintet

On the 15th of May 5, 2014, Newcastle was preparing to welcome musical royalty; the highly anticipated American Brass Quintet, with Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik on trumpet. They were set to perform works by William Lovelock, David Sampson, Luwig Maurer, Claudio Montiverdi and Joan Tower, as well as a variety of composers in the series of works collectively entitled In Gabrieli’s Day.


In Gabrieli’s Day was the first work performed. This work consisted of six movements each by a different composer; Scendi di Paradiso by Luca Marenzio, Canzon Prima a 5 by Luigi Mazzi, Sacro tempio d’honour by Giovanni Gabrieli, Canzon La Girometta by Antonio Cangiasi and Balletti a Cinqu Voci by Giovanni Gastoldi. This work was composed at a time when music and the arts were supported by a booming economy in Venice (1500’s), and the well rounded tone colours, majestic harmonic blends, lyrical melodic passages and contrapuntal dialogue occurring within the ensemble opted for a highly opulent and celebratory performance, reflecting upon a golden period of music for a contemporary audience.


The next work was Miniature Suite by English/Australian composer William Lovelock, which consisted of four movements; Allegro Moderato, Fugue, Intermezzo and Finale. The Allegro Moderato was highly tuneful, rhythmically bouncy and jovial, along with having contrasting themes within the Fugue operating upon prolonged and mournful melodic lines creating unease. It is also noteworthy to mention the Intermezzo, which deployed the use of mutes to create a comical yet slightly insidious ambience about the music. All this suspense and unease is all resolved with a bright trumpet melody, fortissimo dynamic and fantastic rhythmic excitement leading to an emphatic perfect cadence.


The third piece performed was Chesapeake by contemporary American composer David Sampson. Chesapeake depicts a sailing trip Sampson undertook with his family as a young child from Annapolis to Maryland, consisting of four movements; Morning in Annapolis/Setting Sail, Full and By, Bloody Point and St Michaels/Crab Claw. It starts with a steady tempo and easy dynamic momentum, occasionally surging with a short punctuating crescendo. There are jarring harmonic dissonances and unresolved cadences strewed through the music, as well as radical shifts between thick and thin texture to set up a treacherous journey, but in a manner that is not excessive enough to thwart the light hearted and nostalgic ambience intended by the music. The music ends by climaxing to a perfect cadence.


The fourth performance comprised of a series of five sequential works by Ludwig Maurer; Maestoso alla Marcia, Lied: Allegro giocoso, Andante espressivo, Scherzo: Vivace, and Allegro grazioso. The virtue of this piece lies within the simplicity of its tempo, steady rhythmic passages, intimacy of largely subdued dynamics and brief structure, as this calls upon brass writing reminiscent of early 17th century St Petersburg chamber music. This piece is finalized by landing softly on to a resolved harmonic progression.


The concert then succeeded to Claudio Monteverdi’s Three Madrigals, which contained three movements; Si ch’io morire, Non più Guerra, pietate and Ah dolente partita. This piece typifies the pioneering genius of Italian musical form of madrigal, particularly on Monteverdi’s part, particularly in the wide dynamic range and harmonic invention exhibited. Madrigals are typically written for voice, as the material written often draws upon sentiments of longing and poignancy, with harmonic dissonance and long contrapuntal lines being frequently used. As a brass performance, the vocal style of lyricism was emulated in a highly interactive and engaging manner, shining through the brilliant timbre of brass playing.


The final piece performed by the quintet was Copperwave by contemporary American composer Joan Tower. This modern piece is largely experimental of the mechanical properties of brass instruments, operating upon the idea of copper vibrations, of which brass is fabricated, creating waves of sound. There is also frequent use of mutes, suspenseful crescendos and harmonic clashes within the various musical lines, formulating a comical yet eerie performance. The piece ends abruptly with an accelerating tempo and crescendo climaxing to an unresolved harmonic progression.


Considering how rare it is for renowned brass ensembles to do international tours, the vast scope of repertoire performed by the American Brass Quintet, from modern experimental works to much more traditional styles of playing, exemplified the vibrancy and flexibility of this collaborative format. Equally impressive was the infectiously engaging internal communication happening within the ensemble, as well as the physical stamina of the players for such demanding pieces. This performance in Newcastle rekindled for its audience an appreciation for the exact art, musical blend and versatility of the brass ensemble.

by Joseph Asquith

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