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American Brass Quintet, Olmos Ensemble

A feast of chamber music, new and old

October 22, 2013

With concerts piling up in the usual October rush, this review will have to be a two-fer, covering brass (the American Brass Quintet on Sunday afternoon) and woodwinds, strings and keyboard (the Olmos Ensemble on Monday night). Percussionists will have to beat their own drums.

The American Brass Quintet’s concert, a rare foray into the brass repertoire for the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, ranged from the 16th century to the near-present.

One of the troupe’s trumpeters, Raymond Mase, created idiomatic arrangements of Renaissance vocal material, three madrigals by Luca Marenzio and five chansons by Josquin des Prés. These sounded wonderful in the airy acoustics of Temple Beth-El, even if the spacious sound took a little of the bite away from Josquin’s familiar “El Grillo.”

Strongest of the contemporary works was the American composer Joan Tower’s “Copperwave,” commissioned for the ABQ by the Juilliard School. It begins with a six-note motto that serves as the touchstone for the entire 10-minute work. It’s a dramatic, arresting piece, gaining rhythmic vibrancy from the use of a conga-dance rhythm. It’s expertly crafted: Ms. Tower finds seemingly endless possibilities in that generative motto through processes of variation, elaboration and deconstruction. The structure is rather like a sequence of rooms with differing spatial character, and it closes with a cadenza for each of the players.

Also memorable was the Fantasia e Rondó (1977) by the Brazilian composer Ovaldo Lacerda, whose ingratiating and rhythmically eccentric Three Pieces for Oboe were heard on an Olmos ensemble concert in August.

Like that work, the Fantasia e Rondó is a little hard to peg, stylistically. The Fantasia is witty and sometimes woozy, colored with rich modern-jazz harmonies, and notable for passages of chattering from muted trumpets. The lively, infectious Rondó has more distinctly Brazilian character. The whole piece is at once familiar and exotic, and altogether delicious.

The American composer David Sampson’s “Chesapeake,” composed for the ABQ in 2010, is a four-movement piece about sailing. The music is tonal, with yearning, big-sky harmonies, and intricate counterpoint always keeps wind in the sails.

Pleasant but slight were five Romantic salon pieces by Ludwig Maurer, a German who spent his professional life in St. Petersburg.

The performances were consistently taut, polished and lively. The players were undaunted by any and all virtuosic demands. Joining Mr. Mase were Kevin Cobb (trumpet), David Wakefield (horn), Michael Powell (trombone) and John D. Rojak (bass trombone).

The Olmos Ensemble’s mostly-baroque concert in First Unitarian Universalist Church was notable for two débuts.

The Korean native Jae Ha is principally an organist -- he earned his doctorate in organ performance from UT-Austin in 2003 and since then has been organist at San Antonio’s First Presbyterian Church. But for this concert he played the harpsichord throughout the program, in music by Handel, Telemann, Boccherini and Handel, and turned out some of the most imaginative and astute continuo work I’ve heard. He was improvising, in the main, because the continuo is usually notated only as a sequence of harmonies underpinning the primary musical lines. He did what one expects from a first-class continuo harpsichordist, finding ways to support the main lines and propel the music forward, or sometimes to enliven relatively calm passages, without dominating the proceedings.

Also making his first Olmos appearance was oboist Matthew Goree, a 16-year old student of the troupe’s artistic director and oboist, Mark Ackerman. Student and teacher played together in Handel’s Trio Sonata in G for two oboes and continuo (Mr. Ha and cellist Ignacio Gallego). Mr. Goree played splendidly, with a rich, round tone that was nearly identical to Ackerman’s, and a bit more digital agility than his teacher.

Bassoonist Sharon Kuster did wonderfully expressive, flexible work in Telemann’s Sonata in F Minor, with Mr. Ha and bassist Zlatan Redzic. Mr. Ackerman was in top form in the finale, Vivaldi’s Concerto in C, with Mary Ellen Goree (violin), Renia Piotrowski-Shterenberg (violin), Marisa Bushman (viola), Mr. Gallego, Mr. Redzic and Mr. Ha.

The concert had been planned to close with JS Bach’s Ouverture in B Minor for Flute and Strings, but flutist Martha Long was excused to attend the memorial service for a close friend who died last week at age 27 -- Andrew Thompson, a gifted contrabassoonist with the St. Louis Symphony.

Substituting for the Bach on short notice were stylish, lively accounts of Handel’s Trio Sonata in C Minor for oboe (Mr. Ackerman), violin (Ms. Goree) and continuo (Mr. Ha and Mr. Gallego) and Boccherini’s Sonata in A for cello (Mr. Gallego) and continuo (Mr. Ha). 

Mike Greenberg