Thursday, February 12, 2015

Meridian Arts Ensemble: At Home in the Grit

It is hard work being a contemporary music ensemble.

No one knows that more than the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the foremost brass quintet in the contemporary music scene today.  The Meridians have been playing angular, complex, exhilarating music since 1987.  Having performed over fifty premieres on four continents, the NY-based brass quintet have maintained a reputation for presenting difficult, adventurous works to diverse audiences.

Over the coming weeks, Edge of the Center will be profiling the many internationally-renowned artists who will be participating in this year's June in Buffalo festival, and we're excited to count the intrepid Meridian Arts Ensemble among them.  

The Meridians began to receive critical and popular acclaim in the early nineties, particularly for their arrangements of the music of Frank Zappa, a composer with whom they worked closely.  To this day, they remain one of Zappa's foremost interpreters, and suites of Zappa arrangements appear on four of their nine recordings:  from 1991's Smart Went Crazy, with its agile maneuvering through "Dupree's Paradise" to Ear, Mind, I's lush helping of "Lumpy Gravy" (1998).  But the Meridians' repertoire expands far beyond Zappa's oeuvre—they are equally proficient with music of the American academy (Charles Wuorinen, Ira Taxin), works from the downtown scene (Elliott Sharp, Nick Didkovsky), music of Central and South America (Tania León, Hermeto Pascoal), klezmer (Frank London), jazz fusion (Randy Brecker, Herbie Hancock) and Baroque and Renaissance music.

Despite their broad palette, the Meridian's concerts never seem unfocused or too broad in scope.  Their repertoire remains united by centering on works by extraordinary—and often unknown—composers.  The group tends to favor collaborating with composers informed by both unorthodox rock music and the spikier edge of the avant garde (e.g., David Sanford, Kirk Nurock).  The Meridians are as engaging playing a well-executed program of classical works at the Library of Congress as they are wailing at a European Jazz Festival (and, in fact, their recent concert DVD shows them doing both with effortless agility).  Many times, when a classical ensemble plays rock or jazz arrangements, there seems to be an awkward element of irony involved, like the ensemble is "slumming", briefly stepping into the grit for novelty's sake.  But the Meridians are at home in the grit, equally well-versed in the vernaculars of Babbitt and Beefheart.  This extensive fluency is a testament to the ensemble's strong, dauntless musicianship.  It is a common cliché in music writing to praise a group by saying they are difficult to categorize or define, but with the Meridians, one has no difficulty in summing them up in a single phrase:  they're simply excellent musicians.

Below is a recent video of the ensemble performing an excerpt of Andrew Rindfleisch's In The Zone (2009).

It's great to have the Meridians at June in Buffalo, especially on this anniversary year.  The ensemble has been an important part of the festival's history, regularly returning to play exciting new brass works.  In 2001, the ensemble made up the core group of the JIBBRASSWORKS project, a large 23-player brass band that performed works of excruciating complexity and stunning beauty, including Xenakis's Khalperr and LaMonte Young's For Brass.

Meridian trumpeter (and Performance Institute Faculty) Jon Nelson offers the following thoughts about the group's first June in Buffalo, and about Meridian's general approach to performing new works:
I think our first June in Buffalo was 1990 or so. David Felder probably heard that we were a young and scrappy brass group that wasn't like all the others… he was right.  I suppose at that time, our two biggest mentors were Zappa and Babbitt.  Both of those guys aspired to excellence and carried a lot of irreverence.  We liked that.  That kind of summed up  (and still does) our mission as a group.  We have steered away from what's in fashion in New Music (if there could be such a thing), and have always gone for music that makes a bold statement.  We didn't chase "famous" composers for commissions, but rather sought out composers who would write for brass in a way that was unlike all brass pieces written before.  Its riskier when you play with the unknown.  Regarding interpretation, its our job to be the filter through which the music can be transmitted truthfully and accurately. Then you let the audiences make up their own minds.  That's a Boulez thing:  realize the piece clearly and let it do its work.  So that's what we have tried to do in the commissions, recordings, and in working with young composers.
At this year's festival, Meridian will play a concert with Talujon Percussion Ensemble at which the group will perform David Felder's dynamic Canzonne XXXI (1993) and Charles Wuorinen's recent Brass Quintet (2009).  In addition, trombonist Benjamin Herrington will join pianist Eric Huebner and percussionist Tom Kolor to play Wuorinen's Trombone Trio (1985) at a Performance Institute concert early in the week.  In addition, the Meridians will perform two concerts of works by June in Buffalo participant composers.  With several composers in the ensemble—including Nelson and hornist Daniel Grabois—the Meridians will be more than able to engage with these emerging composers, and help them execute their ideas in the most efficient and effective ways.

It is perhaps Zappa himself who sums it up best, when he said simply of the Meridians, "Go and see 'em."  So at this year's June in Buffalo, come and see 'em—and if yer a composer, write for 'em too!

—Ethan Hayden