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Quintet trumpets renaissance of brass music

Stewart Oksenhorn
The American Brass Quintet, an ensemble in residence with the Aspen Music Festival and School, performs tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Harris Hall. (Richard Frank)
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When the American Brass Quintet formed 45 years ago, classical brass music had been going through a quiet phase – for some 400 years.According to Raymond Mase, a trumpeter who joined the American Brass Quintet in 1973, brass music had its golden age during the Renaissance era, which roughly spanned the 14th to 16th centuries.Brass music fell away, however, when composers began to focus more on strings and piano for their chamber-music endeavors during what is commonly thought of as the golden age of classical music – including the Classical period, from the mid-18th century through the first third of the 19th century, and the Romantic period, lasting into the mid-19th century

Brass music returned to the fore late in the 19th century, but not to the concert stage. America’s Civil War era led to a proliferation of brass bands and a rise in music suitable for brass instruments.It would take until the last half of the 20th century for classical brass to become prominent once again. It’s no coincidence that the latest upsurge came along at the same time as the American Brass Quintet, which made its debut in December 1960. Nor is it an accident that brass music continues to thrive, just as the ABQ carries on.”The brass movement of today, extending from the last 50 to 60 years, started around the time the American Brass Quintet got together,” said Mase, speaking by phone from the Aspen airport, where he had just landed. “There really is a movement now, and a repertoire.”

Mase is quick to note that the ABQ is not the only ensemble whose existence has overlapped with the resurgence. Several other brass combos have likewise spurred composers to write for the brass instruments. But the ABQ, which has been an ensemble in residence with the Aspen Music Festival and School for 35 years, leads the pack. In addition to commissioning over 100 pieces, including works from Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson and William Bolcom, the ABQ has created its own editions of works from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The New York Times has called the quintet – which includes trumpeter Kevin Cobb, horn player David Wakefield, trombonist Michael Powell and bass trombonist John Rojak in addition to Mase – “positively breathtaking.”The ABQ performs tonight at Harris Hall, the last concert in the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music Artist Recital series. The concert will take listeners on a four-century tour of brass music and of the ABQ’s own history.The concert opens with Elizabethan Ayres, by Renaissance composer Thomas Morley, whom Mase credits with bringing Italian music to London. The Renaissance era is also represented by “In Gabrieli’s Day,” an edition by Mase that references composer Giovanni Gabrieli. The group of pieces comes from the ABQ’s most recent recording, also titled “In Gabrieli’s Day.” Mase notes that the Renaissance works were not written with any particular instrumentation in mind, but were meant to be performed on whatever instruments were available.

The short piece “Entrance,” by David Sampson, was, said Mase, a “gift” from the composer, who had written three quintets for the ABQ. There are two works by Charles Whittenberg, including “Triptych,” the first work commissioned by the ABQ, in 1962. “Incisioni,” by Rieti, is a 1970 piece composed not for the ABQ, but for one of their contemporaries.Rounding out the program is Music of the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, from the Civil War era.”We have this mission to keep this music in the public eye,” said Mase.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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