in: Reviews

April 22, 2012

New and Old from BSO Brass Quintet


BSO Brass at Shalin Liu (Michael J. Lutch photo)

How often, during a concert, do you get to watch grown men at the top of their game taking unselfconscious joy in playing together? Each knows the role he plays in the common effort. Each delights in contributing his unique skill to the group, and each takes pride in meeting the high standard they have set for themselves. It makes for special moments, and those were plentiful on Friday evening at the Shalin Liu Performance Center as the BSO Brass Quintet offered a program nicely balanced with music old and new.

The quintet comprises Mike Roylance, tuba; Thomas Rolfs and Thomas Siders, trumpet; James Sommerville, horn; and Toby Oft, trombone. Robert Dodson, Director of Boston University’s School of Music, recently brought the five BSO players together as the resident Boston University Brass Quintet. (They maintain their full-time BSO schedules: Roylance, Rolfs, Sommerville, and Oft are principals; Siders is assistant principal.) The concert on Friday was their second under this sponsorship, and given its success, Dodson’s vision should be applauded. The evening in Rockport was filled with well-chosen selections, virtuoso musicianship, warm camraderie, and moments of laugh-out-loud humor. (Anyone who feels that the classical music world has become too stodgy should treat themselves to an evening with these gentleman.)

The program began with a composer new to most, Ivan Jevtic. Living and working in Paris, Jevtic flew over to hear this concert. His Three Slavonic Madrigals (1982) were just right. “Madrigals” suggests the tone and mood: Lively melodies infused each movement. Sparkles of counterpoint alternated with surges of unison melodic gestures throughout. The third piece closed with a burst of melodic lines.

A selection of six pieces by Giles Farnby (16th century) arranged for brass quintet reminded us of the parallel between writing for brass instruments and for voices. Hearing harmonies and chords spaced for maximum sonority is a rare treat. The pieces each ended a single extended chord — always perfectly in tune — clearing the air for the next piece and letting us all hear the whole lovely space of the Shalin Liu Performance Center resonant in harmony.

Bernstein’s Elegy for Mippy II (a dog) for trombone solo was light and fun. Introduced as being for trombone and foot, Toby Oft’s right foot provided the “percussion,” perfectly consistent and steady, tapping at about 60 per minute. The jazzy looseness of the Bernstein prepared the audience for the next piece, Ivan Jevtic’s tightly crafted Quintette Victoria (1980).

Jevtic knows how to make instruments sound their best. The surprising changes in the direction of his musical thought occur without destroying the “long line” of the music. For example, at one point, the pure magic of a very soft passage (complete with muted tuba) made us lean forward to catch the details. As we began to perceive the texture, a muteless trumpet unloosed a loud and fast interruption. The intensely quiet ensemble continued without notice, despite the rude trumpet’s ongoing interruptions. Jevtic’s juxtaposition of rich, sustained textures punctuated by ascending rifts and bursts was always convincing. His play of foreground and background kept interest high. This is new music that successfully balances the demands of head and heart.

Gunther Schuller’s Music for Brass Quintet (1961) was simply marvelous. Introduced as one perspective on mid-20th century music (the Malcolm Arnold providing a quite different view), the quintet made the piece sing. Occasional overtones of Webern’s pointillist textures were backed up with rich, jazz-like harmonies. Throughout, the fragmented lines were made coherent by careful attention to articulations and balance. A beautiful almost-ballade for muted trumpet was supported with sensual chords. Spatters of individual sounds gathered into collections of colors: we were reminded of Jackson Pollack.

A difficult episodic duet by Jan Bach, Oompah Suite for Horn and Tuba (2006) followed. As the two players sat down, Sommerville (horn) quipped to the audience, “This is a hard piece. We haven’t got it right this far!” “Yeah, the wronger it goes, the righter it sounds,” Roylance (tuba) responded. With the opening flourish from the horn, they proceeded to play a delightful piece full of phrases with abrupt shifts, and (believe it or not) sequences.

After dark at Shalin Liu (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Arnold’s Quintet shared little with Schuller’s Music for Brass Quintet beyond the common date (1961). The style is vastly different. The tonal flourishes of the trumpets, the punctuations by the remaining ensemble, the full bass lines of the tuba, beautiful solos from the trombone and horn, lots of color contrast, beautifully balanced dynamics, articulations: This is ensemble playing at its best.

Throughout, the players included the audience in their conversational reflections on the pieces and their easy humor. While one player expelled condensation from a crook between movements, another declared in a stage whisper, “Stall tactic!” After intermission, another player complimented the audience for having been to so many brass concerts (puzzled silence). He explained that he drew this conclusion from the fact that the front rows of seats were empty (laughter all around). These musicians know the difference between playing in a symphony and playing chamber music.

The members of the BSO Brass Quintet are friends, and the resulting camaraderie was infectious. We heard one departing concert-goer say to another, “They were having so much fun.” His companion replied, “Well, that was fun.” We couldn’t have said it better.

Lyle Davidson, composer, studied at New England Conservatory and Brandeis. He is on the faculty of the New England Conservatory where he teaches Solfege, 16th-century Counterpoint, and Music in Education courses.

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