Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Tuba in Brass Quintet

Last week I was privileged to have attended a concert in Tokyo of Les Vents Françes, a woodwind quintet with an extraordinary list of personnel. It starts with Emmanuel Pahud, first Flute with the Berlin Philharmonic and the list continues with equally prestigious artists: François Leleux, Oboe, Paul Meyer, Clarinet, Gilbert Audin, Bassoon and Radovan Vlatkovic, Horn. This was certainly one of the greatest ensembles I’ve ever heard, not only because of its prestigious individual members but because it was simply an extraordinary ensemble of the highest musical quality.

Slovenian horn soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, especially impressed me. I had worked with Radovan several times in various European venues and I was aware he was a great horn player but in this concert he singularly displayed  the best horn playing I have ever heard; it had the beauty of sound that I was used to from the great horn players in the film industry in Hollywood but with a little bit of “bite” that I sometimes missed in Hollywood. The sound was even and stable in all registers, it was dynamically alive and Radovan was always beautifully musical. It also occasionally overpowered the other four instruments, not frequently but enough to take note.

Of course, that’s not the first time I’ve heard a horn overpower the other instruments in a woodwind quintet, it happens all the time; the horn is very different from the other four instruments in the ensemble and there is always that possibility that it could over balance the other four woodwind instruments. But this is not a review of Les Vents Français, if it was I could write pages on how excellent it was.

In the very interesting thread on (The now defunct) TubaNews of the last two months regarding the use and idiosyncrasies of various instruments, someone asked the question why does the tuba frequently sound too loud in brass quintets; a very astute question.

It’s very much the same reason that we so frequently hear horn sounding louder than the other instruments in a woodwind quintet; quite simply it’s different from the other instruments, except for two things. Unlike horn in a woodwind quintet, tuba in brass quintet is definitely another brass instrument. Also unlike the horn, the tuba has a larger variety of instruments with which to choose to blend.

The tuba is blessed (or damned) with the biggest sound of any instrument in the symphony orchestra family. This is not just the opinion of one enthusiastic tubist but it is a fact. Examine the sound produced by the tuba compared to other traditional instruments on an oscilloscope and it is easy to see that the sign wave made by the tuba is considerably larger. If the tubist uses an instrument that produces a sound too much larger than the other four instruments in a brass quintet he will not blend and most likely be too heavy for the other four.

This was proven many times to me while judging brass ensemble and particularly brass quintet competitions. From those experiences it was evident that BBb and large CC tubas did not work well, and large Eb tubas also leaned clearly in that heavy direction. The instruments the judges noticed were particularly outstanding were smaller CC tubas (we’ve all heard how the small Yamaha CC Chuck Daellenbach plays in the Canadian Brass Quintet blends very well), The smaller Besson BE980 Eb and a number of F tubas, especially the Yamaha 822 and the original B&S. There was one other remarkable quintet F tuba we heard, which was a small B&S made especially for the son of Hungarian tubist Josef Bazsinka (Now fully grown and a highly successful tubist). Perhaps it could be said it was an appropriately small tuba for a growing young man but it was also a very acoustically sophisticated and perfect quintet tuba.

Equally important to the amplitude of the tuba sound; It’s also important and necessary to discuss the tone quality, the timbre of the sound. To blend with the other brass instruments we need an instrument that has sufficient overtones to avoid sounding like a sonic misfit in the quintet setting. The instruments mentioned above work well in quintet, and although they all have quite different timbres, all have the richness of higher overtones to blend well with the other brass.

Years ago while playing with the Los Angeles Brass Quintet, in order to find the right instrument for early music, particularly Italian renaissance music and more particularly Gabrieli, I learned some very interesting things. First of all my CC tuba did not sound right. Although it was a small CC, it seemed to be much too thick and heavy for that music so I switched to F tuba. It was better, but again it did not fit the style and this caused me to start experimenting. When the trombonist in our quintet switched to bass trumpet, he sounded much more homogeneous with the trumpets but caused the F tuba to sound even more foreign to the rest of the group. It was clear; I needed something cylindrical to blend. For a short period I used my contrabass trombone but the tessitura of most of that repertoire was too high for a BBb contrabass trombone. In that period of time, also to better blend with the cylindrical brass, the horn player bought and learned how to play an Eb alto trumpet, which worked beautifully.

At that point logic told me I had to get a contrabass trumpet in F to do Gabrieli justice; if only one was available! Short story: I organized all the parts and had one built! It worked very well and some of the Italian renaissance music we recorded 35 years ago still sounds very right to me today. Retrospectively, I think a good cimbasso might have been at least equal to the contrabass trumpet but in the 70s very little was known in the United States about cimbassi.

Choosing the correct instrument for any situation is like planning a dinner: for example if you are going to serve an elegant Japanese meal you would not serve pizza as one of the courses, even though pizza is great!

November 1, 2005, Tokyo, Japan.
Revised November 26, 2012, Tokyo, Japan