Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Question

Singularly, the most frequent question I’ve received in my international travels and in my many opportunities to know large numbers of diverse students, has been, “What is the difference between brass players in various countries”? It’s a very good and interesting question; in fact, it’s exactly the same question I asked myself 60 years ago while attending the Eastman School of Music and playing in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s the question that moved me to write twenty letters to various European orchestras. Consequently, in 1961 I auditioned and was accepted for both the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Netherlands, and the Suisse Romand Orchestra of Geneva, Switzerland. I choose the Concertgebouw.

The answer to that question then was much different then than it is today; in that span of time from then to the present, the brass world has seen a huge evolution in the way of playing, the equipment played, and in the mentalities of the players.

Classical musicians in the middle of the last century were hugely more nationalistic and territorial than they are today. As the global community proceeds to emerge, the musical communities are experiencing much more difficulty in maintaining their isolationism. Although there still exists cells of a dogmatic ‘closed shop’ territorialism, it’s visibly disappearing quickly. The premium example of this trend is the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Because their artistic integrity has grown with the times, they now seek the best available players worldwide and consequently enjoy the highest level of music making.

Part of the nationalistic tendencies from the last century came from the type of instruments that were played largely because of the simple fact that they were available. Musicians then were quite resistant to change, especially on something so personal as the type of instrument they played and the kind of sound that they were used to. Instruments are essentially an extension of our body. In the Concertgebouw Orchestra, for example, in the early 60s the trombone section played on very small French instruments, which had a bore size slightly smaller than the symphonic trumpets of today! Very quickly and personally, I want to say that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when used on the right repertoire, these, now nearly obsolete trombones sounded wonderful. Similarly, in 1989 I had the opportunity to hear the Maggio Musicale Orchestra (the Symphony orchestra of Florence, Italy,) while playing for conductor who was 84 years old and who requested a section of valve trombones (the traditional old Italian style) in a Donizetti opera; it was so right, it was so beautiful.

This begs the question: Should the modern symphony orchestra use the finest most sophisticated instruments available to play the masterworks of past centuries or should it play from the viewpoint of a ‘sonic museum’ and use the instruments of the repertoire’s period?

There are rumors the Vienna Philharmonic, a very traditional orchestra, is dealing with exactly that question, there are those who want to keep the true Vienna sound at all costs, and those who want to move one to the finest modern and most sophisticated instruments available. It’s a difficult question; is it possible to have it both ways?

But that’s answering the question, as it would have been perceived 60 years ago. There were huge differences then in both nationalistic and individual performance development. Today, wherever we go, we encounter great players and great ensembles. There are highly developed individuals and ensembles everywhere and it is no longer national tendencies that lead these high levels of performance, it is far more the personal qualities and universal musical influences that have led this development. Of course, as in all aspects of our lives now, we have the Internet showing us the best, (and worst) in our shrinking global community, particularly, the Internet is reaching musicians.

Today there is excellence everywhere and it’s becoming clearly evident that superb excellence comes in many verities; just think of the variations that can appear in one brass quintet. A brass quintet, for example, has 31 collective personalities; each individual, each combination of 2, each of 3, of 4 and the complete 5, that opens doors to a lot of stylistic ideas, and of course, there will be no two brass quintets that will sound the same. A superb world-class quintet in Hungary and another in Italy will certainly sound completely different yet absolutely beautiful in their own way. The time of nationalistic characteristics is passing and the time of unique collective and personal characteristics and musicality has arrived.

Since the last tuba symposium I attended I was struck by the change that has happened in the last half century. Instead of perhaps one or two players out of twenty-five that may have sounded musical 50 years ago, today the number might very well be the whole twenty-five are musical players.

So back to the question: “What is the difference between brass players in various countries”? Today’s answer is that there is excellence everywhere, the language will change, the mentality will be different, the sense of humor will strikingly differ from place to place but excellence in performance is a worldwide thing now and it’s spreading. Let’s hope this evolution continues and let’s remember we are all a part of it.

Keep asking questions.

June 29, 2015, Xochimilco, Oaxaca, Mexico