For the first time in over four decades, the American Brass Quintet, dubbed the “high priests of brass”, returned to Australia for a series of concerts spanning the splendour of Renaissance Venice to the driving tension of the 21st century. Adrian Meyer writes that “it was an experience like no other”.
May 20 and 24 saw the American Brass Quintet present two performances at the Melbourne Recital Centre, as part of Musica Viva’s international concert series. The quintet’s sound was absolutely gorgeous – rich, warm, round, and brilliant – everything a brass quintet should be.
The instrumentation of the group is notable – a variation on the traditional quintet form, replacing the tuba with bass trombone, bringing a sense of balance and symmetry. The now two trombones in the quintet offer a complementing blend to match the brilliance and purity of the two trumpets, along with the horn, providing its vital, unifying mellow tone. The group’s ability to change colour and direction throughout its two concert programs was also quite remarkable. The trumpets doubling on mellow flugelhorns beautifully complemented the lyrical Renaissance works, whilst the use of mutes in the modern, edgier works brought interesting new colours to the group’s sound.
Between works, the comments made by the group were informative and interesting, detailing how the ABQ was formed to “legitimise” the brass quintet form. The goal of the group was to be accepted on the same level as other well established chamber music forms, such as string quartets or piano trios. Works commissioned for the group by modern day composers were given an enlightening context through humorous rehearsal anecdotes, and the relaxed, warm manner in which the comments were delivered, connecting the audience and performers in an intimate way.
Both concerts were of extremely high calibre as well as being distinctly unique performances. Concert one gave the audience a well-polished, exciting performance – not a bad introduction to one of the most respected brass quintets in the world. Concert two, however, brought a whole new level of excitement and tension, a result of the “riskier” program of works.
The concerts themselves were warmly presented, with Musica Viva staff greeting members of the audience and inviting all to have a blow on the trumpets set out in the foyer – a great opportunity for any novice brass players who might have been feeling inspired during the performance. The foyer of the Recital Centre was suitably decorated in all things American: blue, red and white balloons – as well as a life size Barack Obama cut-out! The end of the first night saw the quintet come out for a CD signing, whilst the second brought quite an informative Q&A session hosted by principal trombone of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Brett Kelly.
As well as the concerts, several master classes held at the Australian National Academy of Music offered students of brass in Melbourne a unique and valuable insight into the world of chamber and solo brass. Highly informative master classes on assorted aspects of brass playing were given, closing with a massed brass ensemble performance, open to the public. The sound made by the huge collection of brass players was phenomenal, filling the gorgeous reverberant acoustic that is the South Melbourne Town Hall with a rich, brassy, mellifluousness, prompting ABQ bass trombonist John D Rojak to liken it to “driving an ocean liner”.
The American Brass Ensemble is an exceptionally splendid group, on a par with any other fine chamber ensemble today. The work Musica Viva has done to bring them to Australia should be commended.
About the writer: Adrian Meyer is a trumpet player at the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School, currently completing his year 12 VCE.
The picture of the American Brass Quintet was taken by Matt Dine.