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The Canadian Brass

The Canadian Brass has been performing music for nearly a half-century, and the group certainly is not showing any signs of stopping now.

Canadian Brass

Photo: WFIU

L-R: Jeff Nelsen, Gene Watts, Brandon Ridenour, Christopher Coletti, WFIU's Scott Witzke, WFIU's Annie Corrigan, Chuck Daellenbach.

Few chamber groups can boast the accomplishments of the Canadian Brass. They have released over 90 CDs. Some 80 compositions have been written for the group. And, they’ve been performing music all over the world for nearly a half-century. With three young musicians joining the ranks with two original members, the group certainly is not showing any signs of stopping now. They were in the middle of a nationwide tour that brought them to Bloomington, Indiana in early 2010. While here, they stopped by the WFIU studios to talk to Annie Corrigan about the history of the group, the origins of brass quintet as a chamber ensemble, and their advice for young musicians.


You’re celebrating 40 years as the Canadian Brass. First of all, congratulations to the two of you (Chuck and Gene) – you were there at the very beginning. So, how many more years do you think we have of the Canadian Brass?

Chuck Daellenbach: We think we passed a critical moment where the Canadian Brass could have had a certain time span, timed out, where a certain group of guys got together to make music, and it would have a certain length of time. But I think we passed a critical moment where, at his point, with the legendary status of the group and the youth of our new members, it has an opportunity now to really make significant contribution to the future of live performance and the musical world in general.

You’re right. You have two very young members. We’ll talk to you guys in a second. Gene, so many members have come and gone – 8-10 members. How do you pick new members?

Gene Watts: The last ten years we’ve had a few changes because it’s really difficult to find the right people that will really dedicate themselves to an art form such as brass quintet (or ensemble playing) is and really make a full-time job of it. You can look at it on one side that you give up a lot, but you also gain a lot. I think it’s a blessing to be able to perform 100-200 concerts a year for forty years. After forty years, you might say maybe that’s enough. But it is a blessing, and it changes you and it changes your whole status. Performance is a magical thing that happens between performers and audiences. And it’s well worth it.

Jeff Nelsen… You played a selection by Paganini arranged for brass quintet and featuring the horn. Talk to me about playing these sort of warhorse pieces.

Jeff Nelsen: A great opportunity to ground-break new repertoire, which is what Canadian Brass has done for their whole forty years, and we get to be the ground-breakers in creating new repertoire. To hear a piece on the radio and go “We should do that!” And one of the great things about a forty-year history of a group is the way we select that repertoire and really how many filters it goes through in the group – and then before it gets to a public stage – there’s so many filters, and this group is just genius-level at filtering. When I joined the group, I said “We should do Mahler 1,” but you know, why redo stuff that’s better in its original form, and we understand that as well. So, that selection process is done very well.

In addition to the arrangements, you guys have commissioned a lot of new works for brass quintet. You play all these arrangements and things, but you say that the music of the Baroque is really what touches you guys the most, and especially the music of J.S. Bach. What is it about the music of Bach that works so well with the Canadian Brass?

GW: Well, a lot of it is organ music, which sort of imitates the brass in a certain way… very straightforward, very solid.

CD: And equal voicing. From my point of view as a tuba player, what Bach immediately brought to the experience of playing in a brass quintet is equal voicing.

Chris Colleti: Of course Chuck would say that as the tuba player! Particularly Bach, sounds amazing even on a cell phone. It’s the line that, as Chuck was saying, works so well. It’s beautiful to hear it on an organ, but playing it on brass, each line gets to express itself as an individual line.

There are some critics out there who question the legitimacy of the brass quintet as a serious chamber ensemble. Talk to those people who say you’ve got nothing on string quartets or piano trios for instance.

GW: Well, we don’t really. The string quartet has a lot going for it, and there’s no way we’re out to replace a string quartet – but they’re not brass players. But it’s still chamber. It’s still four or five people who have to play together in time and agree on what you’re performing so you’re doing something that reaches an audience. Some people like Strauss and some people like Mozart. You don’t say Mozart just wipes out Strauss.

CD: String quartet has three hundred year’s history. A brass quintet has maybe forty year’s history. When we started in 1970, it was already established as two trumpets, French horn, trombone, and tuba. If you think about it, we have created an opportunity with Canadian Brass. We’ve made it a legitimate ensemble. We’ve brought it to all the major concert stages. Now, the development can start. Now the music starts filling in. While we were busy creating a repertoire we could take out to the public, and making sure we had Bach… We actually took a masterpiece approach. If we were going to arrange or adapt a piece of music, make sure it’s the finest music possible. Meanwhile, in the background from our point of view, we were commissioning constantly. We have over 80 major compositions that have been written for us. But as you might expect, of that, a masterpiece would be a hand full of pieces that might be played ten years from now. So, the opportunity now is to create a repertoire that becomes a core standard repertoire. We need the Haydn and the Brahms and the Beethoven like the strings have; the brass need a core repertoire, and it’s still searching. That’s one of the missions for sure.

Let’s talk to young musicians now, since we are at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. There are hundreds of people over there who want to make a life in music as the five of you are. Give advice to these young musicians. What do you have to do?

Brandon Ridenour: Most importantly, stay on course. There are so many things throughout your life, throughout high school, throughout college, that get thrown in your way that can be very easy and big distractions. And some people let those things get the better of them, and then some people don’t let those things bother them.
CC: And it’s also very important to be honest with yourself as far as what’s working and what’s not. The only real solution is doing what you really like a lot. You’re not going to fake anybody out by doing something you think they like, that you’re not committed to. It really has to be what you’re passionate about.

The IU professor, give advice to your students on how to make a life in music.

JN: Go practice right now! Get up go get your horn! I think another most important thing – my students know I have many most important things – is to be performance training. And everything in your performance must connect to the audience. If you ever find yourself getting nervous, one thing that causes that is deciding that this performance matters more. But I say if you ever have room to make it matter more, you just haven’t made the other notes matter enough. And make excellence your goal, and if you don’t end up doing music, you’re still set to succeed because you’ll be excellent at whatever you do. That’s a simple way to wake up in the morning.

One thing Canadian Brass is good at – one of many things – is connecting with the audience. You guys have such a shtick, and it’s comedic and it’s fun and you befriend your audiences. Why is it important to connect with your audience in that way?

CD: We’ve made a point of being ourselves on stage. When we started out, there were a lot of families and friends in our audience, so we’d just talk to them. And we realized that a lot of things that we found very normal and common, like putting a piece of brass on our lips every day, was very unusual to someone in an audience. We realized that we had unique things to talk about, that it wasn’t as normal as we thought. What we tried to do is not limit personality, in other words, we let our personalities into what we were doing. We’re not actors, we’re not comedians – we’re just who we are, and what we try to do is just be ourselves on stage and share that. If people find some things funny or humorous, we’re lucky.

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