Under the wistful gaze of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Brass Quintet initiated us last evening at the Concord Free Public Library to a thrilling new repertoire. A packed audience enjoyed a program boldly combining High Renaissance works with recent compositions, as Kevin Cobb (trumpet), Brandon Ridenour (trumpet), Eric Reed (horn), newest member Hillary Simms (trombone) and John Rojak (bass trombone) took turns introducing the featured works, then regaled us with brightness and surprise.
To whet our appetites, the musicians started with arrangements by Raymond Mase of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean Fancies by the little-known English composers William Simmes, John Ward and Giovanni Coperario (née John Cooper), nicely emphasizing the courtly decorum and honest good cheer that marked a new embrace of secular music in rising Protestant England. Having successfully created a venerable and slightly nostalgic atmosphere, they performed Anthony Barfield’s recent Samsāra (2020), mesmerizing and sinuous in its evocation of births and rebirths, full of subtle shades of light and hope. Three arrangements of Chansons by the great Josquin des Prés followed suit, interpreted with a keen sense of ludic joy tinged with gratitude and featuring a lovely canon. Who could follow such a master of brilliance? Jennifer Higdon’s Book of Brass (2022), commissioned by the American Brass Quintet with the generous support of Dorothy and DuWayne Hansen, dazzled, enraptured, teased, provoked, convinced and left us gasping with admiration. Finesse, architecture, the unexpected and the unhoped-for ― they were all there in a deceptively down-to-earth but towering piece.
The second half holding more bright gems, opened with jazzy and intricate Dance Movements (1980) by David Snow, nicely set against Ludwig Maurer’s Romantic era pioneering efforts to create a repertoire for brass chamber works. Of Maurer’s Ten pieces, we heard a graceful Lied, an emotional Andante espressivo, and an earthy concluding Allegro grazioso. Without denying the pleasure that Maurer’s bodily rhythms brought to us, the chief impact of plunging briefly into the 19th century, to my mind, was to make the creativity of the ensuing work by Eric Ewazen, Frost Fire (1990), vividly audible. Dedicated to the American Brass Quintet and comprised of three movements ― Bright and Fast, Gentle and Mysterious, Tense and Dramatic ― Ewazen drew freedom from American jazz as well as solid roots into modernism from his teachers Milton Babbitt and Gunther Schiller, producing his very own dynamic sound palace of expressive beauty and power. On the eve of Patriot’s Day, when Concord is festooned with flags unfurled in the April breeze, how sweet it was to discover that we are in the very thick of a new Golden Age for brass repertoire.
Anne Davenport is a scholar of early modern theology and philosophy. She has published books on medieval theories of infinity and Descartes. Her most recent book is “Suspicious Moderate” on the life and works of the 17th-century English Franciscan, Francis à Sancta Clara.