Picture this: Super Bowl Sunday in Chicago, a frostbitten wind chill factor of minus 78 degrees, and The Canadian Brass concert at Orchestra Hall sold out! Troopers who braved the cold were not disappointed when, quite unexpectedly, The Brass made their entrance from the back of the hall, playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” reminiscent of a brass band strutting through the paces of a New Orleans Jazz Funeral Procession. Approaching the stage, they suddenly cut loose with a wild Dixieland outburst on the old hymn tune. “This is our first encore of the evening. We thought we’d play it before the concert – just in case we run out of time later,” they explained.
Trying to describe a Canadian Brass concert, however, is a little “like explaining a juggling act over the phone,” they admit. Their performances range from the dazzling virtuosity of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to the hilarious hijinks of their Tribute to the Ballet (link to a 1985 performance), replete with trombonist in tutu and tubist as dying swan, Playing largely from memory, they are oblivious to dramatic light changes that enhance each movement’s mood; and, unfettered by printed music, they are free to communicate with the audience. For instance, in a Gabrieli Canzona, each musician played from different points in the hall, producing thrilling antiphonal effects that might have impressed the composer himself. The tuba player, Charles Daellenbach, explained their aim: “It’s important to us that people get involved in the music. We feel a responsibility to see to it that the audience has fun. A good performance isn’t enough; people have to go out feeling happy.”
When this Toronto-based group first formed in the early 1970s, they faced a limited repertoire for brass quintet. By commissioning contemporary composers and arrangers to write for them, these pioneers in the field of brass ensembles today are able to program works ranging from the Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Debussy, to the early jazz of Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and Scott Joplin, extending to avant-garde compositions by Lukas Foss and Michael Colgrass. Their skillfully arranged crossover material opens listeners’ ears to exciting new sounds and proves that it is possible to mix comedy with classical music. They even challenged James Galway’s 52 and 3/4-second-long Flight of the Bumblebee with their own rendition that flies by in 42 seconds flat. Their transcription features a fleet-footed tuba solo, making the piece sound like a giant killer bee – the kind you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark practice room.
Like a hockey puck headed for the goalie’s two front teeth, these are musicians who force audiences to stand up and cheer. Their eclectic musical escapades have earned them such dubious epithets as “The Marx Brothers of Brass” and “Court Jesters of Chamber Music.” Critics, though, sometimes focus on surface rather than substance, forgetting that all the members of The Canadian Brass are experienced professionals drawn from North America’s finest orchestras. The talented cast of characters in this quintet includes two trumpet players (Frederic Mills and Ronald Romm), who collectively have played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Symphony, New York City Opera Orchestra, Houston Symphony under Stokowski, and the Marlboro Festival under Casals; a virtuoso horn player formerly with the Vancouver Symphony and Calgary Philharmonic (Martin Hackleman); a philosophical trombone player (Eugene Watts) who was equally at ease playing principal trombone with the Toronto Symphony or with the Dixieland band of his college days, “The Missouri Mud Cats”; and finally the learned Charles Daellenbach on tuba whose pseudo-musicological monologues would elicit snickers even from Prof. Peter Schickele.
The Canadian Brass represents a tolerant, open-minded marriage of musical minds, and consequently they have allowed a “few Americans in the group,” as Gene Watts freely concedes. Actually Fred Mills is the only born-and-bred Canadian, the other four being products of American musical education; but they’ve all lived “up north” for so long that Canadian vowels and expressions pepper their speech. They make three major concert tours of Canada every year and have been artists-in-residence coaching brass ensembles at the Banff Center. They were the first Western chamber music ensemble to tour the People’s Republic of China; and their worldwide concert tours have taken them from Australia, Japan, and the Soviet Union, to visits with Johnny on The Tonight Show and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Musicians and audiences alike marvel at their phenomenal success.
The Canadian Brass appeared on our cover the month this interview was published.
How did you get started as a group?
Gene Watts (Trombone): We were all standing in line down at the unemployment agency – should we use that story or should we use another one?
Chuck Daellenbach (Tuba): Let me tell the history because it really starts from my vantage point. Gene was playing principal trombone with the Toronto Symphony. He loved chamber music and wanted to put a group together, but it never quite worked. He’d get three guys together but couldn’t find the other two guys. When he’d finally get five guys together, then one of them would get a better job. In fact, one of the guys was Fred Mills. Gene had convinced Fred that he should play in a brass quintet in Toronto; but when Ottawa started an orchestra Fred went there to play principal trumpet.
Then I moved to Toronto in 1970 with a briefcase full of brass music, and this was the turning point. I said to Gene, quite unknowingly, “Why don’t we sit down and play some quintets together?” I didn’t know that he had been living quintets for three years. We got together to play and he was actually auditioning me, but I didn’t realize it. Then I said, “I took some lessons from Arnold Jacobs.” Those were the magic words because Gene was a Jacobs student.
We needed a really hot trumpet player, so we consulted with Fred in Ottawa, and he recommended Ronnie Romm. When Ronnie came to Toronto in 1972, his wife fell in love with the beautiful scenery of Canada. As the group became established, Fred could resist no longer, and he joined the group. Two summers ago the original horn player who was with us, Graeme Page, decided to do something else with his life. He got married and sold his French horn. We were looking for a replacement when I got a wrong number and it turned out to be Marty.
Marty Hackleman (French Horn): Actually you called out for pizza. I said I don’t have any pizza, but I do have a horn. You told me I could bring my horn over as long as I brought the pizza.
What sort of concerts did you play when the group first started?
Gene: We did a lot of educational concerts for Young Audiences; we were also members of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Hamilton, Ontario. It was an unusual situation: the orchestra rehearsed once a week and the rest of the time the different ensembles within the orchestra would be out playing in the schools. There was a woman who supported the orchestra and had a vision of giving every school child the opportunity to hear a professional concert every year. We felt as if the children’s concerts were the most important things in our lives at that time. It gave us the opportunity to learn repertoire, relate to audiences and develop as a group. One year we did 300 children’s concerts. Instead of saying, “Oh no, I can’t stand another one of these concerts,” we said, “What can we do that will make it interesting for us and unusual for the kids?” We would see how far we could go to get the kids excited about the music. Children are a very fast audience. They’re quick to identify what is or is not interesting to them. Pacing is very important.
While we were in Hamilton, we started a group called the Institute in which we tried to show university musicians that there are more opportunities to perform than they realize. We encouraged them to become involved in the community and learn to put something together that people need and want to hear.
Besides performing the standard works for brass quintet, you’ve developed a unique repertoire. Were your earlier concerts just as unusual?
Chuck: From the first we believed in taking some of the money we made performing and investing it back in the group by paying a friend to arrange a piece for us. Just as most companies have research and development, so did The Canadian Brass. We always apportioned a good amount of our time, effort, and money toward developing the group. Last year we invested $20,000 in music, and that’s about what we spend every year.
Hasn’t each of you done some arranging as well?
Chuck: Fred has done some of our most popular arrangements, such as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Wachet Auf, Handel’s “Suite” from Water Music, the Pachelbel Canon, Flight of the Bumblebee, and “Musetta’s Waltz” from La Boheme to mention only a few.
Ronnie Romm (Trumpet): Earlier on we did a lot of our own arranging, but now we’re at the point where every year we’re performing 120 concerts, doing radio and television appearances, recording a couple of albums, and rehearsing, so there really is not a lot of energy left for us to do our own arrangements. Our team of arrangers knows us well enough that we can tell them specifically what we want and actually get it.
Marty: We can use only about half of the music we commission. Most are good arrangements but may not be right for our purposes. Some of the music we publish. Sometimes we will invest $2,000 in a piece of music; eight months later someone can buy the same piece for about $12 or $15, and then they say, “Why is it so expensive?”
In our library there are four or five file cabinets about five feet high filled with music, and at least 90 percent of it is original; and that’s not counting the boxes and boxes of what we’ve already given away over the years that we really didn’t need for one reason or another. Some of the music we donated to the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, which is a tuition-free summer training program for young Canadian musicians.
What’s an example of original music that you have that you don’t feel is appropriate for the concerts you perform?
Marty: Some of our arrangers become overly enthusiastic about arranging for brass quintet. We have one piece that is Beethoven’s own piano arrangement of the “Eroica” Symphony rearranged for brass. Napoleon would have loved it! It was fun to play and nicely written, but what can you do with it?
Chuck: We have commissioned over 30 brand new contemporary pieces that are major works for brass quintet. In the early years we had a lot of help from the Canada Council. They would put up commissioning money of anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, usually with the stipulation that the composer must be a Canadian. This large quantity of music we commissioned is available through Canadian music centers.
The Canada Council is a unique organization different from anything we have in the United States.
Chuck: The National Endowment of the Arts in the states has approached many of the things the Canada Council set out to do. Because of the smaller size of Canada, though, the Council has more direct contact with the recipient of the service. You can almost pick up the phone and talk directly to the person involved. The Canada Council is set up with a mandate to establish Canadian repertoire and to establish Canadian attractions such as orchestras and ballet and theatre companies, as well as a limited number of smaller groups. When the Council started nearly 17 years ago, Canada had little to offer the world in the way of music, and since that point the ballets have certainly stood up with the best in the world. We also have a string quartet that the Canada Council financed, and now it has established a reputation as a leading quartet. When commissioning new works from composers, the Council does it through an established ensemble such as an orchestra or The Canadian Brass.
It is amazing to see what the Canada Council does for students. There are usually two or three Canadian students every year who have received aid from the Council to study trumpet at Northwestern University.
Chuck: Yes, it is. They will give students stipends to study out of the country. They will give them full travel expenses to go to certain auditions. I know that some schools, such as Juilliard and Eastman, have funds to send certain students to competitions; but in Canada it is the government that has established that for students throughout the country.
How did your style as a performing ensemble evolve?
Chuck: There has been a gradual evolution in our performances. There have been no role models for us to pattern ourselves after. Before us there was no brass quintet to break the major hall barrier. We’ve played all the big halls – Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, the Boston Pops, Minneapolis Orchestra Hall, and Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. Last summer was a major breakthrough for us when we were booked into the Hollywood Bowl; 13,000 people bought tickets to hear us. It was thrilling for us and in many respects it must be thrilling for all brass players to see that this kind of success is possible for a brass quintet. There is an extremely bright future out there for brass players. Sometimes we wish we were the guys 30 years from now who will be profiting from all of this.
Marty: Our performances require a remarkable musical facility. Because we don’t want to play down to anybody or above anybody either, we end up covering everything – serious, classical music, early jazz, comedy, blues – we include it all in our concerts. It’s actually easy for us to interest our audiences, because we feel our audiences seem to be like us; generally the music that we really like and respond to our audiences also enjoy.
Now we are trying to do more early music such as Renaissance music with percussion instruments. We are also trying to expand our repertoire of pieces for brass quintet and orchestra. There is a new arrangement being done by a Russian immigrant living in California of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for brass quintet, strings, and percussion. The arranger feels it’s more authentically Russian than Ravel.
Gene: I think there is a musical heritage that brass players have that is different from any other family of instruments. For instance, string players have an incredible wealth of music; if they only had Mozart to play for the rest of their lives, that would be enough. Because brass players have had to play in stage bands, brass bands, and jazz bands, our background is quite varied. We can do Fats Waller or a jazz piece because it’s part of our heritage.
Marty: That’s an advantage we have when programming our concerts because a string quartet could not get away with playing a piece like our Doggone Blues. While the music for brass quintet is more limited than that of the string quartet, our brass heritage is more varied. The color of brass instruments can create an incredible subtlety or lack of subtlety that is stimulating for an audience.
Chuck: In addition to Dixieland and jazz as part of our heritage, all of us grew up in American band programs, starting in fourth grade beginning band, junior high band, high school band, and marching band. In a sense, we are good examples of the successful end result of all the training we had in band programs while growing up. Some people have remarked after seeing our show, “it’s quite obvious that you guys have been in marching bands because you’re not afraid to do a little choreography while playing.”
Gene: In fact, if anyone is having trouble with their students in marching band, just send them to see one of our concerts.
How did comedy work itself into your concerts?
Chuck: A lot of things happened spontaneously and we decided to keep them in the act. In an orchestra a brass player is responsible to play music that’s often very difficult, but you usually play for only a few minutes at a time; then you rest for awhile (a couple symphonies) until you play again. Our concerts are different because suddenly we as brass players are responsible for a whole evening of playing. Because it’s so physically demanding to play a brass instrument we need good endurance. When we had a period of time between two pieces, instead of just looking at the audience and resting, we figured we’d say something to the audience. One thing led to another, and we haven’t stopped talking since.
You have such an unusual rapport with your audiences that when you make your first appearance at a concert they often cheer as though you were their victorious hockey team making an entrance. How do you explain this enthusiasm?
Ronnie: Our audiences know that we are not going to do anything boring because we don’t want to sit through anything boring. We have to satisfy our demands first before we present something to the public, and our demands are quite high.
You have some interesting theatrical aspects to your performances that add an important dimension of audience contact. How did you get into that?
Gene: Rather than approaching music with the idea of simply faithfully reproducing something that Beethoven did, we present ourselves as people who talk, think, have feelings, and relate to our audiences as people. Just as ballet is a combination of music and dance, and opera is a combination of music, theater, and art, what we are doing is combining everything that we can do. It’s not just a concert or a recital; it’s really a very special presentation of our talents.
There is a contemporary piece that we do called Flashbacks by Michael Colgrass. It’s a musical theater piece that tells our own life stories both musically and verbally. It’s also quite a wonderful composition for brass quintet.
How did you develop the choreography for your Tribute to the Ballet?
Chuck: Gene was convinced we should do some ballet pieces. We had all played in ballet orchestras at one time or another. From the pit we couldn’t see the dancers, but the music was always beautiful. We started playing arrangements of the ballet music and it was so exciting we just couldn’t sit still. Because the music is so great to dance to, we figured why not do original choreography for our group? The rest is history. About five different people helped us put the music together with the dancing. We worked with several choreographers, but our best movements came from a girl who was a corps dancer rather than a soloist. At first, the ballet was difficult to perform because it’s so physically demanding, but after a while you get used to it.
Have you ever had any mishaps while performing all that crazy choreography?
Chuck: Actually, I haven’t had any accidents during the ballet, but I got pinned under my tuba during a performance of Hornsmoke, the first horse opera ever written for brass quintet. It was composed by Peter Schickele. I was using an extra large tuba for that performance. The horn I use now weighs about 16 pounds, but that horn was unusually large; it weighed 30 pounds! In the performance I realized I hadn’t rehearsed with it. Suddenly, there I was racing around the stage with the thing, and I went down for the fall and I couldn’t get up. This horn had pinned me to the floor. No one had any sympathy for me struggling to get up; the audience thought it was part of the act.
Gene: Another time we were playing at the University of Massachusetts. They have a tradition there where the brass players come out during the intermission to play. Everyone was applauding them, so we thought we, too, would show our appreciation. We put our hands outside the curtain and clapped. Chuck, who was dressed in a black habit for his part as the preacher “Tuba Mirum” in the Hornsmoke, went right up to the edge of the stage to put his hands outside the curtain to applaud. As he clapped he slipped and fell right over into the orchestra pit. It all happened so fast and he was so shocked that he didn’t think about whether he was hurt; he just turned around and tried to scramble back up on stage. It looked ridiculous as he crawled back onstage because he had this white cross emblazoned on his back. For a moment the audience didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp in horror. Then they decided it must be a joke so they all applauded.
Chuck: The worst of it was at the reception after the concert somebody said, “Did you see that at the end of intermission? It looked like a sack of potatoes was thrown off stage, and then there was this ascending cross. I don’t know what it was, but I bet it was that tuba player.”
You play on a special matched set of instruments, don’t you? How did that come about?
Chuck: It was Renold Schilke’s idea. Schilke is probably one of the most interesting men that has ever been in the brass world. He worked on the Manhattan Project, developed the M-l rifle for the U.S. Army, discovered delrin for use in mouthpieces, and was quite an instrument maker himself. He started making instruments when he was 12 or 13 years old in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and he also played trumpet with the Chicago Symphony for many years.
He used to have students stay at his big house in Evanston; they would take lessons and work in his shop. One of those students was Gene. The first thing Gene did in the shop was to move some mouthpieces that were all buffed and ready for playing. As he handed them to Schilke, he stumbled and the mouthpieces sprawled all over the concrete floor. Of course, Schilke never forgot Gene after that.
Whenever we were touring through Chicago, we always stopped at Schilke’s shop to have work done on our horns. All five of us were in the shop one day, and Schilke came out and started reminiscing. In 1957 Fred recorded a composition on a Schilke trumpet with the Houston Symphony under Stokowski, and he was the first professional trumpet player to ever record on a Schilke instrument. That was an important time for Schilke because it was before he was well known, so he never forgot Fred. He really liked our group. He said, “It’s really great what you guys are doing; I always wanted to have a quintet but it never materialized – never the right guys at the right time.”
Ron and Fred had just purchased Schilke’s gold-plated trumpets, and Schilke came up to Gene and challenged him, “Why don’t you play my trombone?"” We didn’t know he had one, but apparently through his connection at Yamaha, he had been involved in developing the Yamaha custom trombone. One thing led to another, and someone quipped, “Well, we should have a gold French horn and a gold tuba.” Schilke always loved challenges. He said, “A gold tuba, wouldn’t that be incredible?” His mind started working and was racing so far ahead that we could hardly talk to him for the rest of the day.
Gold-plating the French horn was easy because he was making them in his shop at the time. The tuba was a special problem because the plating tank was not big enough to accommodate a tuba. The first tuba was done in two parts, and then put together carefully enough so the joints weren’t visible. All five instruments do seem well matched, and we liken them to the Stradivari or Guarnieri of brass instruments.
You’ve been active as clinicians and even spent seven summers at the Banff Center. What do you stress when working with ensembles?
Chuck: Our approach is different in that we help them develop their ability to perform. We encourage them to perform as much as possible to get used to what it feels like to perform. We get them to experience what it’s like to face an audience the night after you did something terrible in front of an audience. You have to go do it again the next night. That is when you really start to learn. Young players need to get that immediate reinforcement with the chance to try something again right away. This kind of coaching is a beautiful adjunct to university courses.
Of course, we all believe that chamber music is the best way to develop the ear and the ability to play well in an ensemble. In the teaching we’ve done we always felt there was no ensemble music for young brass players available. We went into partnership with a brass teacher in Toronto, Walter Barnes, and developed a brass quintet method where your students can work with or without an instructor. The books include our suggestions for warming up, breathing, tonguing, and practicing, and there are comments and background material on each composition. Each book comes with a cassette tape so young students can hear the music they’re striving to play.
The Canadian Brass Educational Series now contains two books of easy brass quintets and a third book is in the works. After a brass student’s first two lessons he can begin immediately to play in a chamber music ensemble. We think that these books are a unique contribution to education. From our teaching experience we know this material is so necessary. When I was teaching beginning students I would have given anything to find a wealth of beginning brass chamber music all in one book. This has really been the driving force behind producing these two books. Based on the feedback we’re getting from teachers the series is fulfilling that need.
Have you been criticized as not being a serious chamber music ensemble because your performances are so varied and include so many transcriptions?
Chuck: Not by anyone qualified – just music critics; but seriously, it is a problem for some critics to review our concerts because they aren’t trained. Just as musicians aren’t trained to do what we are doing because it is too new, too much a combination of so many allied arts, so the music critic is in a similar position. They are trained to review Bruckner or dance or pop music, but not some innovative combination of all of these things in one concert. Actually, the only thing we haven’t tried is performing while riding unicycles, but Marty rides one, so we may just work that into the act somehow.
Ronnie: What I like about this group is that it’s wonderful to play great music. Most trumpet players realize that we don’t have great solo or ensemble repertoires. The transcriptions we perform are challenging and rewarding. For example, it’s fantastic to sit in a brass quintet and play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’m tickled to play such beautiful music, and I don’t care who wrote it.
Do you have any closing words?
Chuck: As Bill Bell used to say: Tah-Tah-Kah-Tah!