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Quintet explores old, new instrumental music

Quintet explores old, new instrumental music

The American Brass Quintet is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2020.

Bass trombonist John D. Rojak, who has been with the group for half of that span, said former member Chris Gekker explained its longevity the best.

“He said at one point, the more we remained the same, the more unique we became,” Rojak said last week during a telephone interview. “We stuck to our guns, highly principled, trying to stick to music that would have played instrumentally, commissioning music and finding early musical arrangements. As the world evolved around us … we maintained the niche of being the purists, the group that’s looked to provide serious brass chamber music.”

That’s what the quintet — Kevin Cobb and Louis Hanzlik, trumpets; Eric Reed, horn; Michael Powell, trombone; and Rojak — will do when it performs Friday at Ford Family Recital Hall as part of the Donald P. Pipino Performing Arts Series.

One way the group has been able to maintain its musical purity is by its individual members doing other things. Rojak, for example, is director of brass studies at New York University and on the trombone faculty at the Hartt School. He’s played in the orchestra for many Broadway shows and has performed with acts ranging from Wynton Marsalis to Metallica. The whole group works with students at the Juilliard School and the Aspen Music Festival.

“We’re not trying to make it a 45-week (a year) touring group,” Rojak said. “We play where people want us … Playing two-, three-dozen concerts a year makes it possible when someone asks, ‘Can you play “Pink Panther?,” we can say no. We could, but we won’t.”

That doesn’t mean ABQ’s repertoire is limited to the Renaissance or other centuries-old compositions. The quintet continues to commission new works by leading composers. For its 50th anniversary, instead of looking back at its past, the quintet released a two-CD set featuring 11 brand new works for brass.

One of the pieces Rojak said they hope to perform on Friday is a commission by Nina Young that they premiered in Baltimore last year. It incorporates brass with sampling and feedback triggered by a computer.

“She was there to trigger the laptop (in Baltimore),” Rojak said. “She’s putting together a version we can trigger ourselves. I hope it’s ready in time.”

ABQ’s very first commission was Charles Whittenberg’s “Triptych” in 1960, which Rojak equated to hitting a home run in one’s first at-bat. They often try to find composers on the cusp of stardom, before their rates get too high. Melinda Wagner was hired to compose a piece for the quintet right before winning a Pulitzer Prize; Robert Paterson was hired right before Classical Music magazine named him composer of the year.

“We try not to steer them in a particular way,” Rojak said. “We’ll talk about the length of the piece, remind them that our lips are made of flesh, so we ask for rests. We may request a piece suitable to close a concert. A lot of composers have decided it would be interested to end a brass piece really softly with a diminuendo ending.”

One thing the group is looking to do in the future is commission more collaborative works, particularly with string quartets. Part of the reason is to raise the profile of brass quintets in the chamber music.

“We’re trying to get a couple pieces in the repertoire that show the similarities and capabilities of brass in chamber music,” Rojak said, adding that many think of string quartets first and then piano trios and other configurations when they imagine chamber music. “We’re hoping brass quintet pops in sooner after string quartet.”

He’s also encouraged about the future of chamber music after evaluating the student quintets they will work with this year at the Aspen Music Festival, something ABQ has done since 1970, and seeing the success of ensembles like Eighth Blackbird and the International Contemporary Ensemble.

“All of these groups playing new music and finding an audience and figuring out ways to create their art is really cool,” Rojak said. “It keeps us inspired and makes us want to show the way.”

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