76 trombones lead the Big Parade,
With a 110 cornets close at hand.
That’s the big brass sound of a marching band.
But the American Brass Quintet is not rows and rows of virtuosos, backed up by a thousand reeds springing up like weeds.
It’s just five players. And they won’t be marching up Main Street with “The Music Man” Robert Preston leading the way.
Instead, the American Brass Quintet will be performing indoors, thank you, when it appears Sunday, March 18, in a Chamber Music Society of Louisville concert in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville.
Not marches and fanfares, but serious music written expressly for a brass ensemble performing in a chamber music setting.
Coming in from the cold
Brass instruments date to the Renaissance, when the predecessors of trumpets and trombones were cornos and sackbuts — and violins were still viols. The rudimentary instruments mostly provided harmonic accompaniment for singing.
Over the centuries, modern brass instruments were perfected and became thoroughly incorporated into symphonic music. But unlike strings, for which thousands of string quartets have been written, there hasn’t been much penned for brass.
The American Brass Quintet has made it its business to change that, says the group’s French horn player Eric Reed — and a piece the group will perform Sunday provides a bit of historical context.
It’s a suite of Russian pieces written in the 19th century, when there was very little brass music being written by Romantic-era composers.
“It’s kind of an unusual period for brass composition,” says Reed, “but there was this little pocket of brass writing in St. Petersburg, Russia, and we’re sampling a few of the highlights of that time in the ‘Russian Suite.’ ”
Sometimes music happens simply because there are good players looking for good music to play. Often the pieces are created by the performers themselves. Paganini wrote theatrical pieces only he could play. Mozart wrote concertos for his friends in the symphony. And these Russian brass men penned new music for themselves.
“The brass music of the day was mostly happening outdoors, marching and hunting and things like that,” explains Reed. “But there were players that wanted to play indoors — and I guess you can’t blame them if they were living in Russia in the winter. You know they wanted to get inside and play something nice.”
Fast forward a few decades, says Reed, and we find American brass players wishing to come in from the cold, too.
“This quintet was founded in 1960, and that was a time when there were a lot of brass musicians who had been stationed in wars overseas and playing in (Army and Navy) bands. They were coming home with all this musical skill and wanted to play in groups together.
“Most people think of brass musicians as being in a brass band or a marching band, or something like that,” says Reed. “But if it’s your vocation, aren’t you a guy who wants to play indoors?”
Especially the top players.
Groups formed up, playing popular songs and arrangements of well-known classical pieces. Canadian Brass is the best-known of those, touring and recording in a very entertaining style.
Reed, a native of Evansville, Ind., played with Canadian Brass before switching his stand to the American Brass Quintet, which is the brass ensemble in residence and teaching at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Like the famed Juilliard String Quartet.
The American Brass Quintet’s goal, Reed says, isn’t to play arrangements but to create and perform music written especially for brass quintet — just as classical composers wrote for string quartets, and rock ’n’ roll songwriters write for bands studded with electric guitars.
That’s how music is created. Somebody thinks it up, and somebody plays it.
Lines for the musicians
Also on the bill Sunday is composer Ingolf Dahl’s “Music for Brass Instruments,” a signature work for the American Brass Quintet. The group has recorded it twice.
“It’s a great, big master work for brass, and one of our classics,” says Reed. “And I believe the Chamber Music Society requested it to be performed at this concert.”
That’s not surprising. The second movement from the group’s recording of “Music for Brass Instruments” became the theme music for the long-running, nationally syndicated classical music radio show “First Hearing.”
Reed says he and trumpeter Louis Hanslik, the two newest members of the quintet, will be performing it for the first time in the Louisville concert. Other members include Kevin Cobb, trumpet, Michael Powell, trombone, and John D. Rojak, bass trombone.
This season the American Brass Quintet is premiering a new work by Juilliard composer Philip Lasser that is inspired by the famous Langston Hughes poem “Common Heroes, Common Land” (below).
In the performance, the quintet’s players voice Hughes’ poetry at points in the score. Reed says the group enlisted the aid of Juilliard’s drama department to help it with speaking and presentation. Reed characterizes the groups’ roles as “orators.”
Also on the bill is “Copperwave,” from the esteemed contemporary composer Joan Tower. The piece has become a kind of No. 1 hit for the American Brass Quintet.
“We’ve started to hear it on audition tapes from groups we coach at Juilliard,” says Reed. “Other brass quintets are touring with it. It’s become sort of a modern standard for the brass quintet.”
Sunday’s American Brass Quintet concert is the fourth of the Chamber Music Society’s 2017-18 season, now in its 80th year. The season concludes with the Momenta Quartet, appearing April 22. Tickets for the 3 p.m. performances are $40, students $5.