Archive for November, 2010


It is with great anticipation and excitement that we approach the 50th anniversary of the American Brass Quintet. When this quintet was founded in 1960, brass quintet music was in its infancy. The New York Brass Quintet was founded as the first professional brass quintet in 1954 and only a few composers had written works for this new genre by 1960. As of 2010 it is estimated that at least 1100 composers have written works for brass quintet, many of them multiple works, so the number of existing brass quintet works is approaching 1600 compositions in less than 60 years since the brass quintet became a performance genre. A large number of prominent American musicians that composed string quartets during the last fifty years also composed brass quintets.

In terms of performance excellence and generating new repertoire, the American Brass Quintet has set the example for brass performers around the world since its inception. Two groups with a similar focus are now retired; the New York Brass Quintet and the Annapolis Brass Quintet. Other groups that have consistently remained devoted to enlarging the repertoire include the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the Chestnut Brass Company. All of the aforementioned ensembles can account for nearly one-fourth of the current repertoire by commissioning and/or premiering nearly five hundred works.

Another paradigm that has been placed by the American Brass Quintet is that individual personnel cannot override the underlying mission of the ensemble. That is, commissioning new music and performing it flawlessly is the focus of an institution rather than a group of elite musicians that get together to perform, have a good time, and make some money. None of the current members were in the founding ensemble. While I personally hope that the current membership stays the same for many years to come, it seems assured that fifty years from now the American Brass Quintet will be in existence and still be the faculty that teaches brass chamber music at The Juilliard School and will be recognized in the music world with the same esteem as the Juilliard String Quartet.

So in regard to the “state of the art,” where have we come from and where are we going? The term “brass chamber music” is still considered to be an oxymoron in the art music world because the idea of brass (loud instruments) playing music in an intimate setting seems ridiculous based on our historical role. Of course, once you hear the American Brass Quintet you realize that brass chamber music can not only be powerful and moving beyond an intimate setting, it can also be soft and subtle in a very small space. Unfortunately, their musical example is not fully recognized throughout the serious chamber music establishment simply because so many non-brass chamber musicians are not in touch with the ensemble or the music. In terms of musical elements alone, brass instruments are capable of the widest range of dynamics, with (or without) mutes an extremely wide range of timbres, technical possibilities that match and/or exceed all instruments and the voice, and a human element that comes the closest to vocal music; that is, the lips/body are an integral part of the instrument.

Another underlying problem has been the state of music education in the United States and our failure to develop an audience for art music. A few years back I came across a brass training method for bands that was developed by Dr. Harvey Phillips (renowned tubist and New York Brass Quintet member) in the early 1960’s. This system was demanding, complete and thorough, and was light years ahead of the training systems that are currently utilized. The current “let us entertain you” approach to music education and performance has really set us back in terms of developing an audience for classical music. Even though I was not raised in a progressive musical environment, I had many advantages that today’s music students do not have. Musical excellence has progressed in spite of our poor educational system, but the end result is the lack of an audience for the many fine musicians that we produce.

As a young music student the first brass quintet performance that I heard was by the New York Brass Quintet at the University of Tennessee in 1972. For me this was a revelation. I did not realize how well brass instruments could be played until I heard this performance. As I entered music studies in college I wanted to emulate this example and I also had great teachers (superb performers also) at the University of Tennessee. A few years later I had the privilege of studying with Robert Nagel (founder of the NYBQ) at the New College Summer Music Festival. After four years of diligent practice I was able to audition into the Juilliard School and study with William Vacchiano. Even though brass chamber music was not a focus at Juilliard at that time (they also did not have a jazz band!), I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of hornist and a D.M.A. student David Wakefield through my sister Elga (voice student of Eleanor Steber). David, a new member of the ABQ, always made sure I had tickets to be admitted to the American Brass Quintet performances at Carnegie Recital Hall. My musical goals have remained the same since—though I am not as gifted, I want to emulate in my performance what I hear when this group performs.

Another underlying problem for the advancement of brass chamber music is the avoidance by most ensembles to introduce audiences to our new, but very rich repertoire. Early in my career, when I was subbing in a very fine brass quintet for a six-week tour, the manager of the group called and told us to stop performing some very fine works by twentieth-century brass quintet composers. The group members were all shocked and appalled, but we followed the bidding of the manager, who was writing the checks. So, we ended up playing programs that included a lot of transcriptions, jazz arrangements, and Broadway show tunes. It is not surprising that most college undergraduate brass music students do not realize that the brass quintet actually has an original, legitimate repertoire. Sometimes I wonder if they grasp that Bach, Buxtehude, Brahms, Berlioz, and Barber did not compose brass quintet music. This is not to say that transcriptions do not have a place in the training repertoire, but why avoid the 1600+ works that were actually composed for the brass quintet? In addition to this repertoire, the American Brass Quintet has consistently performed works that have some historical basis in brass chamber music. This includes five-part works for cornetti and sackbuts, five-part brass compositions from the nineteenth century, and late nineteenth and early twentieth century works that were composed for brass instruments.

Because the brass quintet has been so successful in the world of entertainment there has become kind of an “us versus them” attitude in the brass world. Many players argue that they need to make a living, therefore they must play music that entertains an audience or else seek another occupation. Of course, the current audience has a limited musical scope and our offerings to them become limited with this approach. On the other side, musicians such as Robert King, Jean-Pierre Mathez, a number of prominent music critics, and many brass musicians seem appalled by the entertainment approach and see little value in pandering to an uneducated American audience. I generally take the middle ground in this argument. There is nothing wrong with entertaining an audience, but, with the rich contemporary repertoire available to us, it is time to start educating this audience and training our students to a higher standard.

From my perspective brass performers should always remain challenged by the example that the American Brass Quintet sets. The ABQ has proven that flawless intonation is possible in a brass quintet, that dynamic range and timbre can always be moved to new and interesting levels, that balance and blend can be achieved at all dynamic levels, that stylistic considerations of all musical periods can be addressed successfully, and that technical performance possibilities can reach new heights. Striving for less than this standard will not pay off in the future for brass musicians. Brass chamber music has all of the musical possibilities (and maybe more) of any other chamber music performance genre and the ABQ example must be taught and emulated.

So what is the future? Who will carry the torch other than the American Brass Quintet? Fortunately, many ensembles that exist through universities and conservatories also carry the torch. Other groups such as the Meridian Arts Ensemble, the Chestnut Brass Company, and the Saturday Brass Quintet also remain devoted to the art music endeavor. Even more importantly, composers keep writing music for brass quintet and we can support their efforts by performing their music. For the last fifty years, nearly every composer of significance has composed a brass quintet, so the future projects more wonderful and interesting music for brass performers.

A Tribute to Harvey

 

The recent passing of Harvey Phillips has left a void in the world of brass playing. As the weeks pass, I am sure the accolades from his colleagues and former students will be posted to further document his contribution to the world of brass playing. Long recognized as the “Paganini” of tuba and recently in the New York Times obituary tribute as the “Titan” of tuba, Harvey left a mark on the music world that will never be erased.
Prior to the 2004 Brass Chamber Music Forum I had never met Harvey or had a conversation with him. I felt it was appropriate to celebrate the 50th year of the New York Brass Quintet (founded in 1954) and had talked with trumpeter Robert Nagel (founder of the NYBQ) about having such an event. With Bob’s advice and blessing I began planning this event in early 2003. To me, this was a monumental milestone in brass chamber music, very similar to the recent American Brass Quintet 50th anniversary celebration. Rising out of an interest in chamber music in the post World War II years at the Juilliard School, the New York Brass Ensemble began playing early music that had been composed primarily for cornetts and sackbuts and gradually melded into an ensemble of 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba that gave its premiere at the New York Town Hall in 1954 and became known as the first professional brass quintet–the New York Brass Quintet. Except for a few modern compositions such as the “Sonatine” by Eugene Bozza, the “Quintet” by Robert Sanders, and a composition by Ingolf Dahl (originally intended for a larger brass ensemble) the NYBQ had to become quite creative in order to present full recital programs and get the attention of artist managers and concert audiences. The end result of this creative spark, nearly sixty years later, has produced an original brass quintet repertoire of well over 1500 works for brass quintet by more than 1100 composers (for documentation see the database at americanbrassquintet.org).
Harvey was always an eloquent advocate for the tuba, for first-rate music education, and for creating new solo and brass chamber music repertoire. His successor in the NYBQ, Toby Hanks, propelled tuba performance and brass chamber music repertoire possibilities to new heights. Other tubists have gained reputations as soloists and chamber musicians including Roger Bobo, James Self, and Oystein Baadvik. I have always been the kind of guy to go to tuba, double bass, and bassoon recitals even when they were not so popular, but now the fact that these instruments are popular as solo instruments stems from the kind of energy and enthusiasm that Harvey brought to the music world by championing his instrument.
Once Harvey was brought into the planning of the 2004 Brass Chamber Music Forum, my “to do” list started getting much longer with each phone call and e-mail. Like me, he wanted the whole world to recognize this remarkable musical milestone. Naively, I thought that once I announced the event would be held at Podunk University the whole musical world would notice and come flocking in. The members of the New York Brass Quintet and American Brass Quintet had always been my musical idols and I certainly assumed that all brass players felt the same. I guess Harvey knew better because he really encouraged me to develop the public relations part of the event and we managed to get articles and announcements in the “Instrumentalist,” “Chamber Music,” and a number of national news sources. We secured letters of endorsement/tribute from the governor of North Carolina, Gerard Schwarz, Eric Ewazen and other prominent musicians. Harvey made collector’s buttons for all of the participants, issued an historic NYBQ recording, and contributed money from his foundation to help fund the project. Harvey also made suggestions along the way to make sure that we were including people in the music school in the event.

After the event was approved by the university, an independent on-campus funding agency used their whole annual budget to fund proposals to get the seed money needed for the event. Another non-music school entity agreed to hire the American Brass Quintet for a 3-day residency to perform a concert on their series. Other proposals were funded by the Southern Arts Federation and the ACMP Chamber Music Network. Todd Stanton (ABQ manager) had a proposal funded by the NEA to help offset the expense of the ABQ residency. Things seemed to be going well. Then the university changed the weekend of the annual Homecoming game to coincide with our event, creating parking nightmares. To further complicate matters, the music school (referred to henceforth as “Podunk U.” to protect the competent), dean, assistant dean, and wind ensemble director at Podunk U. seemed to think the event was not worth promoting to the university, to the local community, or to the music students. It seemed to them like an obnoxious interference in the day to day job of training band directors, rather than an educational bonus. I had lined up the American Brass Quintet to play “Shadowcatcher” with the wind ensemble, Frank Battisti to conduct, and the composer, Eric Ewazen, to be on hand to assist with the performance of the composition. The wind ensemble director (now retired) decided he wanted no part of this (even with him conducting and Frank watching) so we ditched this effort as part of the event. Frank Battisti, Eric Ewazen and the ABQ still showed up and the ABQ sweated through a rather mediocre composition for brass quintet at my request to try to create a sense of community and teamwork in the event for the music school.
On the other hand, the brass faculty worked their butts off to help create an event that is still memorable to all that attended. The music faculty presented perhaps the longest Eric Ewazen concert in history that included the flute sonata, trombone sonata, horn sonata, trumpet ensemble works, works for trombone and trumpet, and more. Master classes, discussion forums, and individual interviews with key members of the NYBQ were videotaped for posterity (and have been utilized by brass DMA students at other music schools for projects since). Student and professional quintets performed new works for quintet and 43 composers submitted brass quintets for review and performance at the event. In addition to the ABQ, the Bay Street Brassworks, a military band quintet, several amateur quintets, and a number of student quintets from other music schools came to perform and/or for coaching. Gunther Schuller stopped in to sit on a panel and conduct a work on a concert (thanks to Harvey’s invitation).The only tuba students from Podunk U. that may have met Harvey Phillips were the tubists that happened to play in the five quintets that our brass faculty had prepared to perform on the event. (One was a bass bone group so we are looking at four tubists at the most). The rest of the tuba students from Podunk U. did not attend or meet Dr. Phillips.

Further to my embarrassment was the fact that our facility, even though fairly new, was not very accommodating to the disabled. Harvey could only get around in a wheel chair and it took quite a bit of maneuvering to find him a parking place, get him into the music building and into the right hall/room for master classes and performances. He never complained. He was so excited to be there.

For me, the highlight of the festival was when the ABQ and members of the NYBQ played a two-choir Gabrieli piece to end the ABQ concert. John Swallow had to leave the event early because of a family emergency so my good friend and trombonist Harold McKinney filled in for him and Martin Hughes, trombonist and long time member of the Annapolis Brass Quintet, played bass trombone to fill out the NYBQ group that included Bob Nagel, Allan Dean, and Paul Ingraham. Harvey did complain about this programming because the grand finale had failed to include a tuba. (Whoops!).

Harvey had the kind of energy that the rest of us can feed off of if we were lucky enough to meet him and know him. A number of times over the past couple of years I have picked up my phone and started to call him, then stopped because I could only envision my “to do” list as getting longer from the experience. This is to my discredit. I love his energy and hope to have it someday!!

Everything about Harvey was big. He was a big guy, he played a big instrument, and he went about everything in a big way. I suspect if I have the chance to visit the field in Bloomington where he is now laid to rest, he would have the biggest headstone. This would only be fitting.