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Except for a palate-clearing pair of Contrapuncti from Bach’s ”Art of Fugue,” the Meridian Arts Ensemble devoted its program last Sunday afternoon at Weill Recital Hall to recently composed works. The ensemble – a brass quintet that comprises Richard Kelley and Jon Nelson, trumpeters; Daniel Grabois, hornist; Benjamin Herrington, trombonist, and Raymond Stewart, tubist – was formed in 1987.
The players’ sound, at its best, is robust and well balanced. But the performance was also dotted with tentative attacks, tenuous pitches and a slight disunity that frequently undercut the music’s power.
The program began with John Stevens’s ”Seasons” (1986), a four-movement tone painting. Its ”Spring” is a murky piece, more evocative of sprouts working their way through the soil than of warm breezes and verdant landscapes. ”Summer” is a more outgoing, urban dance piece, and ”Autumn,” the best of the movements, is a sweetly harmonized, mildly jazzy meditation. After the brash staccato blasts of ”Winter,” Mr. Stevens completes the cycle with a reprise of the ”Spring” music.
David Sampson’s ”Morning Music” (1986), a moving, substantial work, is a sequel to ”In Memoriam W. E. S.,” a 1981 wind quintet Mr. Sampson composed in memory of his brother William, one of the five people killed by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazis in Greensboro, N.C., in 1979.
”Morning Music” shows that Mr. Sampson has put his loss in perspective: the piece closes with a burst of bright, hopeful energy. But the emotional path he describes in the rest of the work suggests the complexity of the journey.
The work begins slowly and reflectively, couched in a spare, ascetic harmony that keeps its brooding qualities from sounding lugubrious. The logical contrast – an angry, rhythmically driven section – follows, leading to a more circumspect reflection in which a plaintive melody stands out over a repeating, Minimalist figure. Eventually, that figuration drops away, and the quintet’s forces coalesce for the solid finale.
The program also included ”Armenian Scenes,” a set of four attractively folkish settings in a tonal, sonorous style, and Alvin Etler’s witty, incisive Quintet (1963). These works, and the Bach Contrapunctus IV and Contrapunctus IX, benefitted from performances considerably better polished than those given to the Stevens and Sampson pieces.