Brass Quintet concerts remind this listener a little too much of high school, of the detested pep rallies he was forced to attend during school hours or the inane half-time rallies at the football games he scrupulously avoided. The brass quintet repertory doesn't help matters. It's what one would expect a brass band (which is exactly what a quintet is) to play, consisting mostly of transcriptions. And, of course, brass players are the jocks of the symphonic world: musicians outgoing enough to like to talk to audiences.
With that said, it must be admitted that the American Brass Quintet, which performed yesterday afternoon in the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is the Rolls Royce of brass quintets. In its distinguished history, the ABQ -- which now consists of trumpeters Raymond Mase and Chris Geker, hornist David Wakefield, trombonist Michael Powell and bass trombonist John Rojak-- has commissioned works from composers as important as Elliot Carter, Jaco Druckman and William Bolcom. While the usual transcriptions of Italian madrigals, Elizabethan airs and American popular songs were on the program yesterday, so were new works -- commissioned by the ABQ -- by Gunther and Eric Ewazen.
The suites comprised by transcriptions -- the transcriber was ABQ trumpeter Mase -- were unusually tasteful. "Three Italian Madrigals" was attentive to the music's quickly shifting moods, and "Elizabethan Dances and Ayres" was appropriately lighter in tone and more highly ornamented. The playing in both pieces was brilliant.
Schuller's Brass Quintet No. 2 -- which received its world premiere from the ABQ in New York several weeks ago -- is an attractive work. The composer -- a horn player him self who was in the foreguard of the classical-jazz fusion movement about 35 years ago -- makes imaginative use of jazz muting in the piece and, in the final movement, of jazz itself in its "swing" rhythms and mood.
Even more likable was Ewazen's "Colchester Fantasy." Its four movements took their names -- "The Rose and the Crown," "The Marquis of Granby," "The Dragoon" and "The Red Lion" -- from pubs frequented by the composer during a visit in Wales. And those names also seemed to inspire the atmosphere of the music, which had enough playful vigor, brilliance and garish splendor -- always with just enough good taste -- to suggest the score of a first-rate cinematic costume drama by Kenneth Branagh.