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Wisconsin Brass Quintet Explores New Sounds and Styles

Wisconsin Brass Quintet tacks contemporary by adding percussionist Anthony DiSanza

On October 25 and again March 14 at the Mead Witter School of Music, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet, a resident ensemble now in its 45th year, will expand its sonic and stylistic range with the addition of percussionist Anthony DiSanza, professor at the School of Music. The music will include contemporary works as well as classics, some newly arranged by WBQ musicians.

Learn more about the program here.

Purchase tickets here.

The sextet will also perform beyond Madison, with concerts planned for October 28 in Fort Atkinson and March 29 in Ashland.

The Wisconsin Brass Quintet, 2017-2019. L-R: Daniel Grabois, horn; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Matthew Onstad, trumpet; Tom Curry, tuba; and Alex Noppe, trumpet. Image by Michael R. Anderson.

We asked the musicians of the WBQ to tell us the history of brass quintets and how the Wisconsin Brass Quintet fits into that picture.

What is a brass quintet? Have these existed for centuries, similar to a string quartet?

A brass quintet comprises two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba (or, in some cases, bass trombone, but the WBQ has always had tuba). Anchored by the vast tuba sound, and capped by the ringing power of two trumpets, brass quintets can play with bold passion, with sweet delicacy, with the liveliness of a dance band or the songfulness of a string quartet. The instruments can blend seamlessly, but each can stand out when it needs to.

After World War II, there was a huge trove of brilliant musicians departing army bands and seeking work for themselves. Many began to populate US orchestras, but others had the itch to play chamber music. There wasn’t a such thing as brass chamber music, so two groups were formed, the New York Brass Quintet (NYBQ) and the American Brass Quintet (ABQ), inventing the concept of brass quintet. Later, the Empire Brass Quintet and the Canadian Brass were formed, and at that point brass quintet had become an accepted standard group.

At the beginning, the NYBQ and the ABQ played arrangements of Renaissance choral and instrumental music. After all, when developing repertoire from scratch, it is faster to create arrangements than to commission new works. However, these brass players also wanted to play more current music, so they commissioned new works. Some pieces, like the quintets by Gunther Schuller and Alvin Etler, are now staples of the repertoire.

The WBQ was founded in 1972, making it one of the longest-running brass ensembles in the country. We fulfill the Wisconsin Idea by touring regularly throughout the state and beyond. Our affiliation with the university provides us the freedom to pursue creative avenues which challenge traditional notions of brass chamber music.

Anthony DiSanza. Image by Katherine Esposito.

Interestingly, current and past members of the WBQ are very closely tied to the NYBQ and the ABQ. Emeritus trumpet professor John Aley played with the ABQ. Mark Hetzler studied trombone with John Swallow of the NYBQ, and later become a member of the Empire Brass Quintet. Horn professor emeritus Doug Hill studied with Paul Ingraham of the NYBQ, as – amazingly – did Doug’s successor, Dan Grabois. Dan also studied chamber music with the afore-mentioned John Swallow and with trumpeter Robert Nagel and tubist Toby Hanks (both of the NYBQ). Now, current members Hetzler and Grabois are passing down their experience to newer and younger group members like tubist Tom Curry, and the tradition will live on. The WBQ always fields a graduate student in the second trumpet spot, as well, and that further passes on the tradition and knowledge of the first generation.

How has the art form evolved?

Dozens of contemporary works for brass quintet have now been composed, and many brass quintets function largely as new music ensembles. At the same time, the Canadian Brass began exploring another path, in which brass quintets, often of an extremely high caliber of performance, created more of a “show” – the music was lighter, humor was incorporated, and an effort was made to create more mass popularity for brass chamber music. These two can be seen today, with many ensembles choosing one or the other of these directions.

Several brass ensembles began exploring more popular styles: jazz, rock, Latin music, and so on. In order to create a more authentic sound, they added a percussionist to their performances.

One ensemble that added percussion for these and other reasons was the Meridian Arts Ensemble (founded in 1987 – Dan Grabois joined the group in 1989 and continues to be the horn player). Meridian’s idea was to continue to branch out into different styles: not just early music and contemporary music, but jazz, rock, various ethnic styles, and often new amalgams of all of these. In this case, the percussionist becomes not an add-on but an actual sixth member of the group. Meridian has created a vast repertoire of music for quintet and percussion. Now, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet will start to experiment with these new styles of music.

Tell us about a few works on your program.

We’ll start with Corpus, by David Sanford. This piece was a Meridian commission. When Dan brought the work to the attention of the WBQ, they immediately wanted to play it. David Sanford comes from a big-band-meets-contemporary-music mindset, and the piece is both experimental and immediately accessible. The other long piece on the program is Street Song, by the conductor/composer Michael Tilson Thomas. This is a brass quintet piece, but Mark Hetzler had the idea that it would sound great with percussion. Tony DiSanza created – brilliantly – a percussion part, which makes the piece even more vivid than it is for quintet alone. Again, this is a developed work of some length that is still very accessible to audiences, and that explores many styles. One other piece to discuss is Pat Metheny’s First Circle. Pat Metheny is one of the all-time great jazz guitar players, and our own trumpeter Alex Noppe did the arrangement. Again, using percussion in a jazz piece is a natural. But the arrangement also gives Alex a chance to improvise, something he does brilliantly.

Can you describe briefly how individual personalities have contributed to the WBQ’s own flavor?

Each member of the WBQ brings a diverse set of musical experiences and eclectic tastes to the group. From classical music to rock, jazz to heavy metal, world music to hip hop, the members of the group simply love music of all kinds. Developing an appreciation for such a wide array of music has direct benefits for the group, as the ensemble’s collective “anthology” affords them a wealth of styles, artists, and genres from which to draw when engaging with repertoire. This diversity of musical influences has also been a guiding force in the creation of new repertoire of the WBQ, as the group members constantly bring in new original arrangements, transcriptions and compositions. In doing so, the repertoire stays fresh and vital, and the WBQ plays the kinds of music they want to play, rather than simply the music that already exists for brass quintet.

What do you say to young brass players who are concerned about performance as a career?

There is no doubt that music is a difficult career. However, it is hard to imagine a more rewarding, not to mention fun, profession. If you are passionate about becoming a musician, here are a few bits of advice to keep in mind:

  • Be great at what you do. This may seem obvious, but it is absolutely essential. You must put in the time it takes to become a fantastic musician.
  • Be versatile. You never know where your career might take you. Develop a diverse set of skills, and be ready to say “yes” when you get the call.
  • Be proactive. The music business rewards those who are willing to reach out, put themselves on the line, and take risks. Make connections. Meet people. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Stick with it. There will be ups and downs as you pursue a career in music. To make it, you will need to display grit and persevere through difficult times.

For many young brass players, it is hard to see beyond the orchestral career path. You may have the skillset, interest, and commitment that will win you the big audition. However, these jobs are fairly few and far between. For many musicians, a balance of many kinds of playing jobs and teaching tends to be the best way to make a living. So, cultivate your own musical voice, set your goals high, and forge your own path.

The musicians of the WBQ are Alex Noppe and Matthew Onstad, trumpets; Tom Curry, tuba; Mark Hetzler, trombone; Daniel Grabois, horn; Anthony DiSanza, percussion.

Below: The Gaudete Brass Quintet performs Michael Tilson Thomas’s “Street Song.” For their October 25 concert, the WBQ will add percussion.