Horns of plenty: the Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

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Horns of plenty The Canadian Brass blends harmony and humor

They are almost certainly the only internationally renowned classical ensemble to have posed for an album cover in flashy sunglasses. And when the Canadian Brass performs ballet music, its five members leap about the stage. Such antics have earned them some backhanded compliments – one critic described them as “the Harlem Globetrotters of brass ensembles.” As the Toronto-based quintet approaches its 20th anniversary next month, the group is striving for more respect. For its most recent recordings and its current tour, the group has teamed up with the principal brass players of the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony orchestras to play works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Venetian Renaissance composers. But in concert, members of the Brass still preface numbers with lighthearted patter. It is a way of reaching out to people who find classical music intimidating – or those who equate brass instruments with marching bands. Indeed, the group’s tuba player, Charles (Chuck) Daellenbach, describes the five musicians as “missionaries of brass.”

The group has attained a level of commercial success that some pop stars would envy. Last month, an estimated 65 million television viewers watched them play the Canadian and American anthems with U.S. trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the start of major league baseball’s all-star game in Anaheim, Calif. And on Aug. 18, the musicians will perform another sold-out “triple-brass” concert with their New York and Boston colleagues at the prestigious Tanglewood summer music festival in western Massachusetts. According to one music industry executive who has worked closely with the group, the ensemble earns more than $2 million a year, before expenses, through concerts and sales of more than 20 albums. When the musicians first came together, the repertoire of music written for brass ensembles was small. But the group has proven that it can dazzle crowds and even critics with everything from Johann Sebastian Bach fugues to George Gershwin show tunes.

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Daellenbach and trombonist Eugene (Gene) Watts, the American-born founders and only remaining original members of the group, are the ones most likely to step up to the microphone and crack a few jokes. Watts, who had put himself through college by leading a Dixieland band, came to Toronto to become the principal trombonist of the Toronto Symphony. There, he met Daellenbach, a graduate of the University of Rochester’s renowned Eastman School of Music who had accepted a music teaching position at the University of Toronto. The other members of the ensemble also have strong ties to the United States. The lone Canadian-born member, Fred Mills, originally from Guelph, Ont., was the principal trumpet player of the Houston Symphony Orchestra early in his career. He and the other trumpeter, Ronald Romm – who was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic by the age of 18 – have been with the group from the early 1970s. French-horn player David Ohanian performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 11 years before becoming the Brass’s newest member in 1986.

In the early years, most of the Brass’s performances were children’s concerts in southern Ontario schools. A breakthrough came in 1977 when the quintet became the first Western chamber group to tour mainland China. Two years later, they appeared at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Since then, they have also had considerable recording success. Their 1987 Dixieland album, Basin Street, remained for 42 weeks on the crossover chart – the top-selling albums in a pop vein by classical musicians – of the U.S. music industry’s Billboard magazine and sold an impressive 120,000 copies. Last year, defying all conventional wisdom, the group recorded the first complete brass transcription of Bach’s demanding Art of the Fugue, usually performed on solo organ. The album received rave reviews in Europe and North America – and sold 40,000 copies.

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With more than 150 concerts a year and many long days in the recording studio, the Brass’s schedule is hectic. Their latest release, on CBS, is a triple-brass collection of Venetian Renaissance music titled Gabrieli/Monteverdi: Antiphonal Music. As a result of a bidding war, their next recording will bear the Philips label. Expected by December, it will feature triple-brass versions of Beethoven orchestral works, including the Fifth Symphony. Members of the Brass point out that the classical community has traditionally frowned upon the adaptation of musical compositions to instruments for which they were not originally composed. “But we have proven that audiences want this,” said Daellenbach. “You’re viewing a great masterpiece from another angle, and it has its own validity.” Another project in the works is an album of Kurt Weill music. Beyond that is anyone’s guess. “My nephew is into rap music and he is convinced he could write something for us,” said Daellenbach. For the group that has won over millions of listeners, success is a theme with seemingly unlimited variations.

PHOTO : Canadian Brass (from left) Ohanian, Mills, Daellenbach, Romm, Watts: reaching out

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