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Atlantic Brass Extravaganza

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Jan 26th, 2019

From left: Thomas Bergeron, trumpet; Tim Albright, trombone; John Manning, euphonium; Seth Orgel, French horn; Tim Leopold, trumpet

The Atlantic Brass Quintet performed a diverse program of classical, folk, jazz, and contemporary music in Elfers Hall at the Hotchkiss School this past Friday night. Introduced by Fabio Witkowski, they opened with Witold Lutoslawski’s “Mini- Overture” (1978); they played this rhythmically erratic piece with a more bold, fast-paced, and lit with dissonant edge than the standard recording by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Their interpretation offered more anarchy, especially in the opening fanfare. Due to some subsequent political comments by trumpeter Thomas Bergeron, I concluded they were offering contemporary political commentary by toying with more shock than poetic inflection. This muscular, topical version was arresting, yet I prefer the more subtle humor of the version recorded by Naxos.

Trumpeter Tim Leopold prefaced J.S. Bach’s “French Suite no. 4 in E-flat major, BWV 818” with the comment that their arrangement of this masterpiece was inspired by a 1993 piano recording by András Schiff. The piano version is an already stripped-down version of the original organ composition. In terms of arrangements, I thought that the Courante and Gavotte movements were superior to the other five movements.  Bach’s seven-part work provides a dance for each day of the week, reserving the simplest dance, the Gigue for Sunday conclusion. Through intricate counterpoint layering Bach creates a stunning labyrinth of sound from the elementary 4/4 rhythm to deliver one of the great WOW finales. Here the concluding Gigue was elegantly and attractively muted, albeit without any religious significance on the majesty of the Creator.

Robert Paterson’s “Shine” (2016) demanded bravura playing. The program portrayed the characteristics of metals. Ringing Brass Bells was more varied than I might have imagined. Quicksilver delineated an atmosphere of liquid flux in stable and unstable situations; here was deep, mellow drama with a shimmering silver shine. Veins of Gold ran even slower with luxurious meditation; I found this vein to be the most exciting. Bright Blue Steel was more extroverted (as one would expect) yet it left me cold as steel usually does.

After intermission they opened with Steven Juliani’s “Coruscate” which wandered to dissonant edges, but pulled back into melody and even satisfactory harmony in the wonderful and memorable finale; Seth Orgel on French horn excelled here. “Declamatory Ascent” was overtly political, lamenting the divisive nature of our political discourse and its debasement: in the middle of the piece Bergeron and trombonist Tim Albright delivered a DA-DA-DA-DA mocking chant, simultaneously evoking both our coarse discourse and the satiric Dada movement. This composition worked its way through classical and pop styles yet discovered optimistic renewal in cool jazz, thus supplying satisfactory reversal and hope. I am not inclined to admire political music, yet I did admire and enjoy this lengthy piece.

“Kopi Luwak” by Alan Ferber (who composed the work for The Atlantic Brass Quintet) was the climax of the modern compositions they presented which opened with four horns punching out competing canons. Here Albright performed a marvelous solo while John Manning on euphonium rose to prominence with comic runs. Ferber did not give The Atlantic Brass a title. Thinking of the most expensive coffee in the world from Indonesia, they arrived at a jesting title. I urge you to listen to this masterpiece on Amazon music.

Dialing ambition down and dialing up fun, they performed three Balkan folk songs for brass. Here the two trumpeters were more relaxed as they played without a score. Albright delivered another remarkable trombone solo in the third number, “Bubamara” (Ladybug), a gypsy dance number that rocked the place and had the students swaying and ready to dance.

For encore they tamped the flame with Brad Mehldau’s elegiac “Airport Sadness,” which records the sadness of leaving those one loved. The Atlantic Brass is a talented ensemble more comfortable in treading the perilous frontiers of contemporary music with an inflection of more than casual delight.