American Brass Quintet review: elevating chamber music for brass

Venerable ensemble traces the trajectory of music for brass instruments from the distant past to the present to the future


Near the beginning of the American Brass Quintet’s concert in downtown Portland’s Winningstad Theater last week, trumpeter Kevin Cobb stood up and talked a bit about the group’s history, starting with their founding date: 1960. “If you’re looking on stage to see who’s the original member” — cue laughter— “there are no original members.”

The founding members “tried to bring brass music to places that would normally have, say, the Juilliard Quartet,” he said. Their goal was to “elevate brass chamber music.” One of the great commissioning brass quintets of our time, they are also dedicated to the “promotion of brass chamber music through education” (like Akropolis Reed Quintet last year, ABQ also put on educational outreach programs the week they were here). Part of this pedagogical endeavor means reaching back through time and drawing together the roots of brass chamber music, developing a long view of the genre and situating modern pieces in a living historical contexts. Their Portland concert, presented by Chamber Music Northwest and Portland5, managed to represent both ends of this spectrum (and a bit of the in-between for good measure).

American Brass Quintet

To open, the group leapt immediately into a bunch of 500-year-old Elizabethan and Jacobean Consort Music — fun and spirited and beautiful—and perfectly brief. Brass instruments, like strings and choirs (and unlike, say, reed quintets and percussion ensembles), are by nature delightfully homogenous, meaning they can blend all manner of complex counterpoint into a well-integrated acoustic gestalt. ABQ played short pieces by William Brade (1560-1630), John Dowland (1563-1626), John Wilbye (1574-1638), and a few by Thomas Morley (1557-1602). The counterpoint blended perfectly, separate lines shining through whenever I paid precise attention, everything blurring into a tasty musical porridge whenever I let my ears take in the larger soundscape.

Other moments, like the Dowland pavane, gave ABQ a chance to show off their balanced chorale sound, another strength of brass ensembles. At times the trumpets (if not the players) sounded like they were still warming up: brass instruments are insanely taxing and far more physically demanding than anyone who’s never had their lips on a mouthpiece can possibly imagine. By the time the Brade canzon’s joyously rapid hemiolas came along everyone was ripping through the tricky rhythms and rapid fire hunting calls like it was no big deal.

Later, horn player Eric Reed invited us to “jump in the American Brass Quintet time machine” and travel back 500 years for five canons, the nature of which Reed easily explained: “you all know what that is: it’s a round, like row row row your boat.” ABQ showed off their educator chops with demonstrations of the various canonic types: first at the unison, then at the 5th below…but then “things are about to get a lot more complicated” with a prolation (or mensuration) canon by “the master,” Josquin des Prez. The three voices sounded in turn: “Mike on the tenor trombone will play his part, and John will play the same thing a little faster, and Louis on the flugelhorn will play the same thing a little faster yet. And all at the same time it sounds like this.”

At that level of complexity, only the most sophisticated ear is likely to detect the implicit order underneath the explicit beauty, which is kind of the point. The canons themselves were only a little more interesting than the demonstration, but that’s sort of the nature of canons, isn’t it? In any case, this yummy porridge didn’t last too terribly long. If I want to hear an evening of nothing but Old Music sung in churches and played on sackbuts I’ll go listen to Portland Baroque Orchestra, Cappella Romana, or Oregon Renaissance Band (all very fine groups by the way).

ABQ moved into Romantic territory with music from Ludwig Maurer (1789-1878) and Antoine Simon (1850-1916). Both composers had a background in chamber music, and traveled from their native Germany (Maurer) and France (Simon) to compose for Russian players eager to play chamber music; their sensitive brass writing was a precursor for what was to come. The harmony was safe, in a 19th-century kind of way, more Johann than Richard Strauss, harmony maybe a little Berlioz, and certainly a bit of Wagner—but it’s the grandly cheeky marching band side of Wagner.

Contemporary Metal

ABQ has commissioned works by Robert Beaser, Gunther Schuller, Elliott Carter, “and some names on the program you may not recognize, but hopefully you’ll go home and listen to,” Cobb said from the stage. All too many classical concerts either go all new or all old—or, more commonly, have a token contemporary piece sandwiched between the Classical concerto and Romantic symphony. ABQ’s concert acknowledged and honored musical history without getting mired in it and ignoring today’s music. Thanks in no small part to ABQ, 21st century composers are writing music for brass too.

Trumpeter Louis Hanzlik described Anders Hillborg’s Brass Quintet as “a bit unique for ABQ,” in the sense that it was neither edited—”curated, you might say”—by a member of ABQ nor commissioned by them, but by Stockholm Chamber Brass in 1998. “We elect to play it whenever we can—there’s nothing like it. It’s as close to rock and roll as we get, because of the driving quick rhythm and intense sounds Hillborg asks us to make.” There are descending minor third hockets all throughout, and a moment where the group sounds like it’s “melting into the floor.” Most striking was a technique where the players are asked to “play as though you’re playing notes backwards.” Hanzlik joked: “Those familiar with tapes—young people often aren’t—will recognize the effect.”

The minor thirds turned out to be more bluesy than Stravinskian, though there were moments that reminded me of his Octet. Hectic overlapping flurries of wild chromaticism reminded me of Joan Tower’s Amazon and the aleatoric cadenza from Christopher Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto. I noted the quintet’s careful eye contact in the complicated interlocking parts. Cobb and Hanzlik delivered their close-second rapid-fire double-tongue passages super in tune, as such things must be if they’re going to sound right. Oh, and that goddamn tape effect. Trombonist Michael Powell especially nailed it: they all sounded really cool but he truly sounded like a reversed tape sample. I’ve heard trombonists make a lot of cool sounds (my favorite: squabbling chickens), but this one was new to me.

There were other neato tape effects too, echo and slapback and delay and all the usual stuff familiar to anyone who’s spent time with Pierre Schaeffer or This Heat (or side four of the Beatles’ White Album). And underneath all the flashy effects, a driving vital force more akin to punk than Pauline Oliveros. That’s one of the many benefits of hearing the music of living composers alongside the immortal ones. Hillborg sounds like he grew up listening to the same music I did, not just Wagner and Tchaikovsky but also Radiohead and Yes and Björk and Imogen Heap.

“It falls to me to introduce the newest piece written for the ABQ, written just this year,” Powell said about Steven Franklin’s Three Romances. “We’re still discovering things about it. It’s the newest piece of old music you’ll ever hear.” Powell promised us snippets of “Brahms and the Russian Romantics” as well as echoes of Robert Schumann’s Three Romances for Oboe and Piano.

The yearning, conflicted melody Franklin envelops in almost-jazzy late Romantic harmony reminded me immediately of the bittersweet, melancholy sentimentality John Williams has perfected in scores like JFK, Seven Years in Tibet, Catch Me If You Can. No wonder—Williams has built his career reflecting on most of the same composers Franklin did. Like Williams’ music, it doesn’t sound legitimately old, nor does it really attempt to. It’s not a period piece, after all—it’s a modern piece precisely in the very personal and idiomatic way it handles the music of the past (see also: Morten Lauridsen’s madrigals, Reich’s Proverb, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, pretty much the entirety of Arvo Pärt’s hallowed career). And it was smart to put Maurer and Simon on the program with Franklin’s anachronistic music: the comparison established yet another connection between past and present.

Bass trombonist John Rojak introduced the last piece, Joan Tower’s Copperwave. “We were playing her Fifth Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman and we looked at each other and said ‘we need to get a brass quintet from Joan Tower.’” It turned out she was busy—”and expensive.” But, Rojak continued, “some years later Juilliard celebrated their hundredth anniversary by commissioning new works for their ensembles-in-residence. We were an ensemble-in-residence. They asked us if we had anyone in mind.” The crowd laughed on cue.

Composers Joan Tower and Nokuthula Ngwenyama at Chamber Music Northwest’s Composer Panel last summer. Photo: Judy Blankenship.

Rojak described Tower in her first meeting with ABQ as “adorably nervous,” doing a damn fine impression of the composer’s distinctive Northeastern drawl: “I’ve never done that before.” She wanted to know everything, especially about their ranges, their highest and lowest possible notes. “We lied just a little bit.” Tower also took advantage of ABQ’s “music store full of mutes.” Rojak wrapped up joking a little more about Portland: “it’s so nice! I need to be here when it rains for months on end” and “I’m sooooo jacked up on coffee right now.”

Right away a characteristically jazzy-octatonic Tower motive, a quick brassy flat-five figure that immediately starts expanding and evolving. Tower’s music has been called angular, but I prefer to think of it as highly contoured. The composer has spoken of her love for Beethoven and Stravinsky, and their influence is indeed audibly pervasive, but I also hear a narrative approach to motivic development that seems to owe more to Béla Bartók and especially César Franck.

ABQ sounded like they were playing music that was written just for them, and they sounded like they’d been playing it together for the last ten years. Everyone was super locked in on all the sculpted swells, the precise stops and starts, and the long melodies shared across several instruments—all hallmarks of Tower’s style. Powell riproared away at this stomping “Powerhouse” type riff that kept coming back (alas, never for long enough!) and Reed’s horn playing soared to new heights of excellence, super high (and super difficult) notes way up in the upper register delivered with a firm, triumphant, delicious integrity. The whole thing closed on another Tower trademark, the dissonant quartal chord she lifted from Schoenberg, beautifully tuned and articulated by the quintet. It ain’t easy to tune a chord like that (just listen to it! Dear lord) and it would be a great chance to crash and burn on landing. ABQ not only played it right, they sold it with a conviction normally reserved for more traditional tonal cadences.

That American Brass Quintet can still be getting to know a piece like Franklin’s, when they’re already playing it this well, speaks to not only their fundamental professionalism but a long view of their relationship with their repertoire. They expect to play this music for years, decades even. They probably expect to hand it down to the next generation of ABQ. The same goes for the Hillborg piece and their Tower commission. Having put their roots as far down as possible into the history of brass music, they’re nourishing the tradition with contemporary sources while growing their way into the future.

Chamber Music Northwest has a few more concerts coming up before they roll out their winter festival in January. In two weeks, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet will be at the Schnitz to perform Glass’ Dracula score live to film; at the end of October, CMNW Protégé Project Artists Andrew Hsu and Angelo Xiang Yu will be playing a ton of Brahms in downtown Portland and Hillsboro. The Florestan Trio is playing a free show in November, and in December Christian Tetzlaff will close out the year playing all of J.S. Bach’s solo violin music.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at

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