Five players make up a quintet. And 40 years marks a milestone.
Both are significant numbers for the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, whose 40th season will be celebrated with a free concert Friday, March 15, in Mills Hall.
Performing in the quintet will be four UW-Madison faculty members with impressive histories of playing, recording and teaching: John Aley on trumpet, Daniel Grabois on horn, John Stevens on tuba and Mark Hetzler on trombone. Jessica Jensen, trumpet, is a doctoral candidate and holds the fifth spot in the quintet, which is traditionally held by a graduate student.
The quintet is one of three resident chamber ensembles at the UW-Madison School of Music; the Pro Arte string quartet and the Wingra Woodwind Quintet are the others. All travel widely to perform.
“So among all three of our groups we represent the string, woodwind and brass areas,” said Hetzler, a member of the Wisconsin Brass Quintet since 2004.
“At the School of Music, we feel like among all the things we do, having three resident faculty ensembles really puts our faculty on display. The whole motive behind our groups is that we symbolize the Wisconsin Idea — the borders of the state are the borders of our university, so we tour all over the state, we do a lot of outreach and we try to do as much concertizing to as many different types of people as we can.”
The broad range of music the group will play reflects the musicians’ commitment both to musical diversity and tradition, as well as the fearless championing of original music.
The program includes the world premiere of “Gravikord” by the quintet’s own horn player, Grabois. It’s a piece “that stretches the boundaries of what we would typically do,” Hetzler said.
Also featured will be “Magnum Mysterium,” by John Harbison, “a very cerebral work but also very virtuosic — pretty exciting for the listener.”
And Hetzler himself transcribed Carlo Gesualdo’s “Four Madrigals” for brass.
That work, originally written in five vocal parts, “has a very futuristic feel to it, even though it was written in the 1500s,” he said.
Hetzler called all of the pieces “very un-brass quintet.”
“Typically you would think of fanfare-ish old and athletic music for brass instruments,” he said. “This music, while it is virtuosic and exciting, is also quite intellectual and cerebral. Imagine modern music for string quartet. This kind of music branches into those deeper places like that sort of music would.”
Thanks to its university support, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet is believed to be the second-oldest continuously running brass quintet in the country; only the American Brass Quintet, based in New York, has been around longer.
The institutional support also frees the group from performing the sort of “pop-sy, commercial, audience-friendly kind of music” that other brass quintets often must play to survive, Hetzler said.
“We do a lot of concerts around the state where we program for an audience that’s interested in being entertained, but we also like to be very adventurous in tackling truly demanding works, not only for the players but for the audience members themselves,” he said. “I would say we’re very rare in that regard. And I would say we’re very lucky in that regard.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong date for the concert.]