Axiom Brass serves up a varied array of new music at Epiphany

Fri May 24, 2024 at 1:27 pm

By Landon Hegedus

The Axiom Brass performed a program of premieres Thursday night at Epiphany Center for the Arts.

The long-running Chicago Composers’ Collective wrapped their 2024 season on Thursday night with a jewel box of new music for brass quintet at the Epiphany Center for the Arts. The new works were illuminated by the Axiom Brass Quintet, whose diligent and probing interpretations of contemporary works made them fitting partners in this exploratory lineup. 

The program kicked off with “Promenade,” the first movement of Kevin Day’s Fantasia III, a rousing fanfare commissioned by and dedicated to Axiom that the quintet dispatched with polished ease, asserting its penchant for crisp articulation and gleaming ensemble sound.

With its conventional brass-playing bona fides established, the quintet eased into a more nuanced mode for the remainder of the program. With Dorival Puccini and Christopher Scanlon swapping their trumpets for flugelhorns, Axiom brought sonic and interpretive warmth in a clear-eyed performance of People in the Park by consortium member Amos Gillespie, a quotidian tableau of Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood painted in Copland-esque hues.

The cornerstone of the program was a trio of movements from the Heavy Metal Suite, an ambitious work premiered by Axiom Brass in Vancouver in April. The suite was commissioned by and inspired by the work of the Future Minerals Working Group, an initiative based at the University of British Columbia focused on mitigating the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of mining around the world. 

The suite was collaboratively written by composers from seven different countries, each of whom penned musical reflections on a mineral most prevalent in their respective homelands. Representing the United States (and Chicago) was Augusta Read Thomas’ Aura Tenebris (Radiant Darkness), a muted contemplation on the luminous quality and complicated social implications of gold. The work maintains a quiet tension throughout, characterized by intermittent rays of sound that pulsate, cross and recede like lighthouse beams on the horizon. While the overall dynamic scarcely rises above a mezzo-forte, the work’s spare but tightly knit scoring maintained narrative interest.

Thomas’ entry reveals its subject through gradual perspective shifts, like a cut gem casting light from different angles as it spins on a dais. On the other hand, Kypros 29, Red Metal by Chilean composer Valeria Valle Martínez takes an episodic approach to its depiction of copper, stringing together a sequence of textures. Each successive phase represents a different phase of the copper extraction and refinement process, with minimal transitional material between them.

Axiom’s virtuosity was on display as they traversed the movement’s eight varied vignettes, encompassing lopsided grooves, broad melodies stacked with crunchy harmony, and oscillating figures that evoke the repetitive workings of machinery. Each of these was interesting on its own, but as a whole, would have benefited from greater expansion and development.

Two pieces by C3 members were given world premieres, including Timothy Johnson’s Insuppressible, an impressionistic portrait of the composer’s wife presented on the occasion of their wedding anniversary. Tubist Serena Voltz, who gamely shouldered a respectable share of the evening’s solo duties, was particularly spry in the cascading triadic theme that served as the backbone of the piece.

The other premiere was of Elizabeth Start’s delightful Somewhere Above Their Heads, a standout among the C3 offerings on this evening’s program. Witty and compact, the piece deployed its gestural motifs — which included a descending theme that transformed from air huffed through the players instruments into a sighing trombone solo—to great effect. These motifs served as signposts throughout the narrative, between which was melodic material seeded with fallow originality.

After intermission, the quintet delivered Evan Williams’ Lux Aeterna from 2013, the second Axiom staple on this program and the oldest work on the program. The work deals in the brass-friendly vocabulary of Gregorian chant, but a few chipped entrances and a hesitant approach to the work’s climax indicated the players were sounding fatigued after the taxing first half.

Nevertheless, Axiom dutifully advocated for Austin-based composer Maxwell Franko’s “lamplight,” the first movement of A Light Shining in Darkness, the winner of the Chicago Composers’ Consortium’s 2024 composition competition. The work opens with a series of unpitched wind and taps upon the bodies of the instruments which yield to an ethereal, uneasy harmony as the musicians play their instruments — symbolizing, according to the program notes, the protagonist finding his “sense of direction as it approaches the light.”

Like Thomas’ work, A Light Shining maintains a deliberate, unchanging pace throughout. Yet while that work patiently excavates a single contrapuntal idea, Franko’s piece is content to gaze around at other harmonic vistas on its leisurely stroll from darkness to light and back. 

To close the program, Axiom offered another installment from the Heavy Metal Suite, Platinum by South African guitarist and composer Vuma Levin. Of the three minerals surveyed on this program, the eponymous platinum might be the most fraught on account of its rarity and the exploitative practices of its extraction. Levin explores these themes through references to black South African music, calling upon the musicians to take up cabasa, tambourine, and a host of other percussion instruments to construct a hopscotching groove. These give way to a marching bassline in the low brass overlaid by vibrant, chorus-like melodies declaimed in octaves by trumpets—sending the program sailing to a close, as it did in the beginning, in bold, radiant fashion.

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