An Interview with the American Brass Quintet
When we speak, the American Brass Quintet is in the middle of its Aspen residency, an annual commitment of eight weeks that is central to the ensemble’s annual timetable. Founded in 1949, the Aspen Festival is only eleven years older than the ABQ itself. These days the Festival attracts 70,000 participants; in its own parallel development, the Quintet has performed over 150 world premieres and re-defined public perception of music written for brass ensemble.
But while John Rojak and his colleagues work in ensemble and orchestral concerts, as teachers and as chamber music coaches in the former silver-mining town, their minds are on their forthcoming Australian tour. The ensemble has only toured Down Under once in its seven-decade history, and that was before any of the current members had joined. When they heard that the tour had been arranged, says Rojak, the mood was one of unanimous enthusiasm.
“We’re all incredibly excited. We immediately wanted to know: How long till we go? How long can we stay?”
After four decades of touring the world as part of a brass quintet, how can the musicians still find the energy to be thrilled about yet another destination?
“There are some places we don’t get that excited about,” concedes Rojak. “But going to Australia is a fantastic opportunity. It’s a trip you don’t get to make too often.”
Together with Musica Viva (“Somehow they knew all our repertoire, which I guess is flattering…”), the Quintet put together two programmes for the Australian tour. Both feature a broad range of repertoire, from Renaissance to contemporary.
“We’ll always play contemporary music,” says Rojak, “and we’ll generally play Renaissance music. And in the history of brass quintets, there’s not a whole lot in between.”
One programme features Ludwig Maurer’s 1880s “Five Pieces”, an example of the rare “in-between” works.
“Mauerer was actually a violinist,” explains Rojak. “Sort of a classical composer – Beethovenish. And he wrote what we consider some of the first 19th century music for small brass ensemble.”
Some eight decades later, William Lovelock wrote his “Miniature Suite.”
“He’s one of yours,” Rojak says. “He’s Australian. We performed the suite quite a bit in the 90s. It’s a very charming piece; in fact I think he wrote it for the ABQ. We recorded it about 10 years ago.”
The players’ favourite work on any given programme tend, he says, to be whichever piece they are playing at that moment.
“If we played concerts of only contemporary music, we’d miss the Renaissance, and if we played only Renaissance we’d miss modern music. And if we left out the stuff in the middle, we’d miss that.”
To explain the origins of the ensemble’s repertoire, Rojak refers to Renaissance Venice.
“The instruments were predecessors of what we play now, although the trombones were very similar,” he says. “In masterclasses I like to say that the trombone was conceived as the perfect instrument, so there wasn’t much need for improvement over the centuries. Trumpet-players tend to contradict, and say that there was no hope for the instrument, so they just left it like that.”
The wooden cornetto, which was leather-covered and sported a trumpet-like mouthpiece, was the ancestor of today’s trumpet, and surpassed the violin as the virtuoso instrument of the day.
“There was a lot of music written for unspecified instruments, but there was also a lot for two cornettos and three sackbutts,” Rojack explains. “There was Anthony Holborne and Thomas Morely in England, Giovanni Gabrieli and his uncle Andrea Gabrieli in Italy. And they had many students, including the Germans Heinrich Schutz and Erasmus Widman. As with any period, once something catches on, everybody does it.
“There were no formal concerts in the way we have them now. There was a lot of church music, and also secular music. If you were royalty, you had your own set of musicians as part of your staff.
“The music that comes to us in manuscript form is very basic. The notes are there, but it’s not edited the way music is now, with dynamic markings and accents and phrases. It’s like popular music today. When you see popular music notated today, it also doesn’t carry dynamics and phrase markings, because everybody knows how it goes. And we think that the Renaissance music we play now was the popular music of the time, and everybody knew how to play it. I think the level of performance was probably outstanding, and we believe from the complexity of the music that there were many virtuosos of that time. The music was incredible.”
Knowing each other as well as they do, says Rojack, means that the players are able to operate with a high level of trust in one another, leave certain things unsaid in rehearsal, and concentrate on subtleties. That has a great deal to do with the ability to listen, something each player developed in a different way. In his case, he maintains, it comes from having an outspoken family.
“My parents were both quite brilliant people, but they often spoke at the same time about different subjects. Listening to both of them, keeping track of the conversations, prepared me for a life in chamber music. I tend to listen to everything. Even traffic.”
The ensemble’s commitment to teaching, a key aspect of their Aspen residency, is something it carries along on every tour.
“Most of our touring includes masterclasses; it’s very seldom that we’d just go and play a concert.
“In Australia, we’ll have at least twice as many masterclasses as concerts, so we’ll be working with students all over the continent. It’s actually very satisfying for us. We form much more serious connections, and really get to know people.”
The American Brass Quintet was founded with a commitment to playing only music written specifically for brass instruments (or for unspecified instruments in the case of some historical repertoire). That continues to define the ensemble in the context of an increasingly diverse brass ensemble landscape.
“We have a great wealth of repertoire; we don’t play transcriptions. We’re also defined by our sound. There is always something slightly visceral about hearing brass. The sound gets into your bones. We hope that people will experience a sense of wonderment at how people could write music for this combination of instruments and get such intricate results.
“And we would like to present something that doesn’t leave your mind the minute you leave the concert hall.”
American Brass Quintet will be touring Australia 15 May – 31 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit; www.musicaviva.com.au/abq
Interview by Shirley Apthorp June 2013