Seraph Brass: Asteria
Summit Records

Recorded in Finland last summer, Asteria is the first studio album by Seraph Brass, the quintet founded four years ago by trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden, whose solo album Radiance likewise impressed upon its 2015 release. A dynamic follow-up to an earlier Seraph Brass live set, the sixty-four-minute Asteria sees Bowden and fellow trumpeter Amy McCabe, horn player Rachel Velvikis, trombonist Hana Beloglavec, and tuba player Joanna Ross Hersey augmenting material by Mendelssohn, Grieg, Liszt, and Albéniz with contemporary works by Anthony DiLorenzo, Rene Orth, and Catherine McMichael. Arrangements for the four earlier pieces were provided by Jeff Luke, trumpeter in the Utah Symphony and formerly of the Atlantic Brass Quintet, with composer Thomas Oltarzewsk also contributing to the arrangement of Grieg's Holberg Suite.

The all-female aspect of the group bears worth mentioning, but mostly for its empowering effect; in Bowden's words, “My favourite part of touring with Seraph Brass now is seeing young female brass students or musicians who are just so excited to have female role models.” The quintet also is doing its part to increase awareness of American women composers by commissioning and premiering their works. All such issues aside, the key test concerns the quality of the recording, but on that count there's little cause for concern: Asteria is a superb collection distinguished by a consistently strong set-list, arrangements, and performances. It's also pleasingly varied, with the picturesque hues of Albéniz and Liszt effectively offset by the contemporary flavourings of the two centerpieces.

An excellent scene-setter, the brisk “Scherzo” from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream immediately shows how tightly this agile outfit's voices lock into position, the trumpets declaiming their acrobatic lines forcefully and the others responding with energized counterpoint. The seeming ease with which the five execute the material mesmerizes, but it's hardly the only time the music dazzles: the “Praeludium” that commences Grieg's five-part Holberg Suite is as impressive, especially when its staccato rhythms are so grandly offset by lyrical lead melodies and a closing chorale. The pace slows for the subsequent “Sarabande,” after which follows the lively “Gavotte” and the melancholy “Air.”

As Asteria, an ancient word with roots in both Greek and Latin, refers to stars, the title serves as a banner for the three celestial constellations portrayed in the suite, and in McMichael's view the piece exemplifies qualities of drama, nobility, and spectacle that naturally align themselves to the timbres of a brass quintet. Each movement possesses a rather different character: “Andromeda, The Chained Princess” exudes a potent rhythmic urgency in its intertwining patterns, the design perhaps an attempt to convey the agitation the young princess feels when chained to a rock and threatened by a sea monster; the quietly rapturous “Virgo, Lover of Justice” paints a considerably warmer and romantic picture; and “The Pleiades, The Sailing Queen and her Daughters” sails gracefully across its rolling waves, its bright aura bolstered by Bowden's piccolo trumpet.

Drawing for inspiration for her Leaguered in Fire, Lagooned in Gold from Edith Wharton's “An Autumn Sunset,” Orth was first struck by the poem's reference to a Valkyrie and notions of strength and feminism. But she gradually came to focus more on the imagery of a sunset on a windy bay, which prompted her to fashion the musical material so that it too would suggest conflicting colour palettes. At eleven minutes, the piece poses no small number of challenges, including multiple tempo changes, intricate passages, and rapid-fire unison playing, but the group meets each one handily. Aggressive and elegiac moments are juxtaposed during this wide-ranging travelogue, and each one of the players has moments that shine. An entirely different character arises during Albéniz's evocative Suite Española No. 1, with its three parts adding rich Spanish flavour to the recording, while the quintet breathes new life into the dance rhythms and folk melodies of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 during an inspired ten-minute performance. Both pieces might be crowd-pleasers, but Seraph Brass plays them with as much conviction as anything else on the release.

The high calibre of the playing is often staggering (see the high-energy roller-coaster of a ride that is Dilorenzo's three-and-a-half-minute Go), and the recording also benefits from democratic representation. The trumpeters naturally form a front-line, but Asteria is a recording where trombone, horn, and tuba are as prominently featured; certainly no small amount of credit for that must go to those responsible for the seven pieces' arrangements. One comes away from the release marveling at the performances and the rich, soaring sound generated by the five musicians.

March 2018