The American Brass Quintet turns 50
July 21, 2011
ASPEN – John Rojak, a bass trombonist who had trained at the University of Massachusetts – Lowell and Juilliard, spent the last part of the 1980s freelancing in New York, splitting his time between commercial and classical music. Over time, his tastes drifted toward classical, though – and his career thoughts began centering around the American Brass Quintet.
“They were at the top,” said Rojak, who first saw the group perform in 1985 at New York’s Merkin Hall, a concert that celebrated the American’s 25th anniversary. “The American and the New York were the top brass quintets. Then the New York retired sometime around then, leaving the American as the pinnacle of brass chamber music.
Rojak said he wasn’t counting the minutes till the bass trombone spot became vacant. But he was well-acquainted with the members of the American; he and Raymond Mase, a trumpeter in the group from 1973, had a regular Easter Sunday gig at Manhattan’s Trinity Lutheran Church. (“The ‘Ghostbusters’ church,” Rojak pointed out, but added that the more impressive part of the gig was the opportunity to play with Mase.) Rojak knew that Bob Biddlecome had joined the American a full decade before Mase, and that time was on his side.
“I was sort of waiting around for that opening,” Rojak said.
In 1991, Biddlecome announced his retirement from the group, and Rojak, though he thought he had the inside track on the position, went back into something like conservatory mode. “I prepared for that audition more than anything I’d ever prepared for. It was months of practice,” he said.
Rojak beat out seven competitors and got the job that he still holds. The American Brass Quintet – horn player David Wakefield, who joined in 1976; trombonist Michael Powell (1983); and the newcomer, trumpeter Kevin Cobb, in his 14th year in the group, plus Mase and Rojak – turned 50 this past December. The quintet marked its anniversary with a recital last October in Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, where they performed, with students of theirs from Juilliard, a double brass quintet, a piece that was a gift from composer David Sampson. Also part of the celebration was the release of the two-CD set “State of the Art: The ABQ at 50,” and a special edition of their newsletter by a guest writer, none other than Shakespeare. (That would be Margaret Shakespeare, a member of the American Brass Quintet board.)
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As Rojak points out, a 50th anniversary is a rarity for any chamber music group – “Or for any entity” – so the American has been milking the occasion, with events leading up the 50th, a 50th season, and a planning process that lasted a few years. So while the group’s recital, at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27, at Harris Hall, isn’t technically a part of the anniversary proceedings, the concert should still have a celebratory air. The program includes the world premiere of David Sampson’s “Chesapeake,” as well as Michael Tilson Thomas’ Street Song for Symphonic Brass. The concert also marks the 31st anniversary of the American’s summer residency in Aspen.
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When trombonist Arnold Fromme began assembling a brass chamber group more than a half-century ago, he was in essentially new territory, and so had to confront fundamental issues: What music would such a group play? What should the instrumentation be? How many pieces in the ensemble?
“In the late ’50s, when brass chamber music was still in its formative stage, it was a little unclear if it would be a quartet or a quintet or a sextet,” Rojak said. “There wasn’t enough music around to solidify it.”
Fromme eventually settled on a quintet of two trumpets, horn, trombone and bass trombone, and either these were just precisely the right choices, or his group, which he called the American Brass Quintet, was so musically accomplished and ambitious that the size and configuration didn’t matter. In either case, the American, which debuted in December of 1960, has had an outsize influence on the course of brass chamber music. The quintet has become the standard size for brass ensembles, and while the tuba is the more common low-register instrument than bass trombone, the format of horn, trombone and two trumpets is likewise standard.
The American has also been responsible for building a good portion of the brass repertoire. The group has commissioned some hundred pieces, with another hundred or so having been written expressly for the quintet. Among the composers whose works the American has premiered are Joan Tower, Elliott Carter and William Bolcom. Their discography roughly matches, in number, their years, and their web presence includes the Brass Quintet Database, a comprehensive listing of music written for brass quintet over the last 60 years. The recorded output, plus the database, has increased the accessibility of brass chamber music, especially new repertoire.
While the American has been influential, they have also remained nearly unique. Most brass chamber groups venture well outside material written as brass repertoire. But Rojak said his eagerness to join the American has been validated not only by tours around the world, getting to spend summers in Aspen, and a faculty position at Juilliard, but even more so by the artistic integrity he finds in the quintet’s approach.
“Chris Gekker” – a former trumpeter with the American – “remarked that as brass chamber music evolved and became more popular, the more we stayed the same – and the more unique we became,” Rojak, a 55-year-old who lives in Greenwich Village and in a country house an hour north of the city, said. “We stuck to this principle of playing music written for brass. We don’t play popular transcriptions, don’t play rags.”
Rojak added that there are a few brass groups that take roughly the same view (including the Meridian Arts Ensemble, which came up through the American’s classes at Juilliard). To Rojak, this approach puts brass groups on a level with chamber groups that center around string instruments or piano.
“We like to perform on chamber music series that also have the Emerson String Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet. That’s what really validates our mission,” he said. Performing pop music in a brass format is “like a concert of all dessert. We like to present music of substance, that allows an audience to enjoy it, but also remember it for a while, and learn something.”
The American got another form of validation last fall in Japan. They performed, and then had an autograph signing session that lasted as long as the concert, with audience members offering up purses and denim jackets to be signed.
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Expanding the repertoire by commissioning new works has been practically a necessity for the American. When the group began, there was a shortage of material, and virtually no repertoire from brand-name composers.
“Our largest handicap is that the great composers – Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms – didn’t write for brass quintet,” Rojak said. “They forgot about us. After the Renaissance, there was all this music written for brass. But they figured brass must be outdoors instruments; strings and piano are more appropriate for indoors.”
The field lay quiet for a couple centuries. But World War II provided a demand for brass music; soldiers’ spirits were kept up by the buoyant sound of brass. When the war ended, there was a big supply of brass players putting together groups. Composers addressed this new niche; Rojak estimates that 1,500 pieces have been written for brass quintet since 1950.
Creating new material has also been a pleasure for the American; Rojak said that the group’s pace of premiering three or four new works a year is what has kept the American fresh and engaged. When the concept for the 50th anniversary album came up, the quintet considered a retrospective project, where they would re-record pieces from each of their past decades. Too backwards-oriented, they decided. Instead, “State of the Art” is two CDs of material written since 2000 and never previously recorded.
“Rather than resting on our laurels, we were going forward, reaching, keeping music alive,” Rojak said. “That very much in line with the American Brass Quintet. This is what we’ll continue doing. For another 50 years, or whatever. We’ll continue seeking music from the best composers of our generation, and bringing that forth.”