Chicago Chamber Musicians and guests make a golden sound in brassy season opener

Mon Sep 26, 2011 at 10:20 am

By Wynne Delacoma

The American Brass Quintet joined Chicago Chamber Musicians' brass players for CCM's season-opening concert Sunday night in Evanston. Photo: Peter Schaaf

Chicago Chamber Musicians opened their new season Sunday night in Evanston with what could be called a golden fanfare for a silver anniversary.

The 14-member group is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and change is in the air. CCM has new artistic directors: longtime member trumpeter Charles Geyer and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, who joined in 2009. In remarks before the concert, trumpet player Barbara Butler explained that CCM hopes to make collaborations with leading national and international guests an important part of the ensemble’s future.

Sunday’s all-brass concert at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, to be repeated Monday night at the Harris Theater in Chicago, set a high bar for collaborations to come. The distinguished American Brass Quintet joined CCM’s own highly respected cadre of brass players — Geyer and Butler on trumpet, Gail Williams, horn, and Michael Mulcahy, trombone — for a program that ranged from Gabrieli to Joan Tower. Four guests — Joel Benway and Gabrielle Webster, horn; Randall Hawes, bass trombone and Matthew Gaunt, tuba — rounded out the roster.

This was brass music at its most exquisite, a concert short on blaring swagger and long on burnished, suavely blended tone. The players’ virtuosity was particularly evident in the evening’s large-scale works: Paul Dukas’ familiar Fanfare from La Peri, Richard Strauss’s Fest Musik der Stadt Wien, an arrangement of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Street Song for Symphonic Band and three selections by Gabrieli.

This wasn’t virtuosity in the sense of showing off flashy runs or ornamental filigree, although each piece included a few such bracing bursts. The virtuosity resided in the musicians’ ability to listen to one another. Guided by conductors who included Mulcahy and Williams, they blended their individual voices into a glowing melodic flow, with nary an imprecise attack to disturb the music’s satiny finish. In Street Song, crisply directed by Mulcahy, the interplay among instruments was full of assertive eruptions and amiable lyrical interludes. Relaxed and spontaneous, it unfurled like a lively conversation among close friends.

Two works featured the American Brass Quintet alone: Tower’s darkly colored, restless Copperwave from 2006 and a collection of five short pieces by 16th-century composers titled In Gabrieli’s Day arranged by Raymond Mase, a trumpet player with the ensemble. Marking their 50th anniversary this season, the American Brass Quintet played with its signature rich, warm tone and astonishingly flexible phrasing.

Two CCM members took solo turns. Williams explored subtle hints of syncopated Spanish dance and seductive song in “Espana” from a set of pieces for solo horn by Russian composer Vitaly Bujanovsky. In Call, a vigorous solo by Lake Forest-based composer James Stephenson, Butler’s bright trumpet leaped tall intervals in single, commanding bounds.

In Anthony Plog’s Music for Brass Octet, CCM’s brass players and four members of the American Brass Quintet mingled, facing each other across the stage in two antiphonal groups.  The work was composed in 1987, but the contours of Gabrieli haunt its movements. The ensemble’s spirited unison playing and mellow, gently curving lyrical moments brought the glories of Gabrieli’s St. Mark’s to Pick-Staiger’s decidedly modern stage.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater. chicagochambermusic.org; 312-225-5226.

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