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Brass Works With Friends

The Meridian Arts Ensemble celebrates 25 years of music making

The Meridian Arts Ensemble will conclude a week-long residency at the University at Buffalo with a concert on Friday, October 21, at 7:30pm, in Lippes Concert Hall, in Slee Hall, on the UB Amherst Campus. Jon Nelson, who is an associate professor in the UB music department, is one of the founding members of the New York City-based Meridian Arts Ensemble and he has been instrumental, on this occasion as well as several times in the past, in bringing the group to UB.

This particular residency of the Meridian Arts Ensemble at UB has a special meaning for Nelson, as it is being presented in memory of Richard E. Nelson, and is made possible by a generous gift from Richard and Marie Nelson. “My dad was a band director for 35 years,” says Nelson, “and as a big fan of Meridian he loved coming to Buffalo to hear concerts at UB. He enjoyed many programs on June in Buffalo, and he followed the UB Concert Band, which I conduct. At the end of his life, he became very ill with diffuse Lewy body disease, and was not able to make it to Buffalo, or to hear any of Meridian’s live performances. So Mom and I decided that a Meridian residency of master classes and a concert would be a fitting way to remember him.”

While the MAE may have started out as a conventional brass quintet, winning First Prize in the coveted Concert Artists Guild New York Competition in 1990, shortly afterwards the group evolved into an adaptable ensemble with a core of brass and percussion, allowing it to further explore a diverse array of musical styles and influences. They very soon expanded their repertoire to include cutting-edge new works, initially and perhaps most notably through their association with Frank Zappa, the quintessential rock music maverick, shortly before his death. Zappa was notoriously unwilling to have his genuinely iconoclastic music performed by other musicians, but the musicianship of the original members of the Meridian Arts Ensemble, and Nelson’s chamber adaptations of his music with Zappa’s guidance, impressed him enough to allow them to perform these works on an ongoing basis—no small accomplishment for the newly formed group.

The ensemble has also commissioned over 60 new pieces, and in addition to premiering hundreds of other new compositions worldwide, the MAE has also been recognized for its regular performances of works by American composers, in particular those by Elliott Carter, Alvin Etler, and Ira Taxin.

The program for Friday’s concert may be a bit of surprise for recent fans of the group, with its large number of works by Renaissance composers like Frescobaldi and Gabrielli, as well as a work by J. S. Bach, in addition to a pair of contemporary works. But, as Nelson explains, “We have always liked the old music, as it helps to put the more contemporary works into context. We definitely try to seek out music that is unique, and perhaps non-idiomatic, whether it is contemporary or not. The Bach piece that I arranged, the Fugue à six from the Musical Offering, is a good example since I’ve not changed any notes, and the orchestration is inspired by Webern’s version for chamber orchestra. It’s as if we are listening to the piece with 21st-century ears. We all know how it goes in its original form—why not put it in a setting that relates to where we are at this particular time in history? That’s kind of an underlying theme in the MAE.

“We’ll be featuring two commissioned works on the concert,” says Nelson. “A 2010 work by David Sanford, titled 7 Kings, and Dave Ballou’s 2007 work, For Brass and Percussion. These pieces best represent the Meridian aesthetic. They are do not sound like anything else in the brass chamber repertoire, and they use the instruments to their fullest potential. Both pieces will receive their Buffalo premieres at the concert.”

The current members of the Meridian Arts Ensemble are Jon Nelson, trumpet; Tim Leopold, trumpet; Daniel Grabois, horn; Benjamin Herrington, trombone; Raymond Stewart, tuba; John Ferrari, drums. They will be joined by special guests Adam Unsworth, horn; Dave Ballou, trumpet; Faustino Diaz, trumpet and trombone; and Gustavo Rosales, trombone. “Faustino and Gustavo come from Mexico City, and they will also join us on the large ensemble works,” says Nelson. “These guys are part of the long Meridian history, so we thought it would be nice to get them to Buffalo for this event.”

Advance tickets are $12, $9 for UB faculty/staff/alumni and senior citizens, $5 for students. At the door: $20/$15/$8. For more information, call 645-2921 or visit

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