You'd expect any artist with a career approaching its fourth decade to spend more time looking back than forward. Not so for the members of Canadian Brass. This pioneering quintet certainly has no shortage of past glories upon which to reflect, but they are way,
way too busy for that.
Now in its 38th year, the group has always followed its heart, performing and recording the music it loves, regardless of its genre of origin. Whether rooted in classical, opera, jazz, or pop, they tackle their chosen compositions with a potent combination of enthusiasm and technical virtuosity.
The sheer joy they find in playing music they love in the company of close comrades is instantly transmitted to the audience at Canadian Brass concerts. The result is an oft fun-filled atmosphere rather atypical in classical music circles, and this has been a key ingredient in the group's recipe for longevity and sustained popularity. It is one reason Canadian Brass keeps getting invited back to the major concert halls of North America annually, another rarity in classical music. The great halls of Europe also echo to their joyous strains on a very regular basis, and this is a source of genuine pride for the group.
The mix of the serious and the irreverent in Canadian Brass is neatly symbolized by their signature black suits and white running shoes stage attire. They're frequently known to further enliven their performances by adopting garb to match a piece they're playing. That can be cowboy hats (and a dress!) for "Hornsmoke (A Horse Opera In One Act)" or tutus for a ballet-based composition. The gold-plated Yamaha instruments are another
Their rare ability to both entertain and educate with their music dates right back to their earliest days. Chuck and Gene had met in Toronto, and took their newly formed Canadian Brass to the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra where they became artists-in-residence in 1971, and the players remained members of the orchestra until 1977. Their early performances were primarily for schoolchildren, and it was in front of this tough audience that the group honed their skills as entertainers. From there, their career took off at a rapid rate.
The current official lineup of Canadian Brass comprises Chuck, Gene, French horn player Jeff Nelsen (now back after an earlier five year stint in the group), and trumpeters Joe Burgstaller and newest member Manon Lafrance, well known for her work with the Montreal Symphony and National Arts Centre orchestras, and the first female musician to join Canadian Brass. "Were we ever surprised," jokes Gene with characteristic wit. "She came out from behind the screen at the audition and
it's a girl!"
As well as entertaining millions of music lovers around the globe with their recordings and concerts, Canadian Brass has performed an invaluable educational service. Their work has radically redefined the place of brass within classical music, and their example has inspired literally millions
of young players.
Chuck Daellenbach explains that "we did an instructional book for schools some years ago and there are now 500,000 of those around the world sold. That's a huge thing we created. We were either very lucky to be there right when this interest in brass was starting or we started it. Either way we're taking credit for it," he laughs. "When we started our mission was to create a way for brass and therefore ourselves. It is not a five year mission, and we think we are still blazing new trails."
Indeed. Back in 1970, the brass component in classical music was seriously undervalued. "String quartets have centuries of tradition, but no brass players had taken a big breath and said, 'Right, we'll stake a career on being a brass ensemble,'" recalls Chuck. "When were at school there was brass chamber music but nobody had figured out how to make a living at it. It was always a sideline. When we first met management in New York, they felt a brass quintet was a second class string quartet and priced accordingly."
By the end of that decade, Canadian Brass had toured China, the first Western ensemble to tour China after the "smashing of the Gang of Four", headlined Carnegie Hall in triumphant fashion, and toured Europe extensively, proving both the commercial and artistic viability of the Canadian Brass concept.
There has been no stopping Canadian Brass ever since, and a full list of career highlights, accolades and awards is simply too lengthy to repeat. Any single year out of the career of the Brass would read like the entire career of most performers.
Canadian Brass' continued open-mindedness in both a musical and business sense will stand them in good stead. They're as passionate about making music and entertaining audiences as ever, and their future looks bright. Look for the sound of Canadian Brass to ring clear, loud and proud for many years to come.
For that, we can be very grateful.