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.

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