Skidmore Brass Festival
WHERE: Zankel Music Center
Saturday: Principal Brass Quintet. 8 p.m. $8, $5, free for students and children
Sunday: Principal Brass Quintet and all participants. 3 p.m. Free.
MORE INFO: 580-5321, cms.skidmore.edu/events
This weekend, Skidmore College will host its first Brass Festival and the New York Philharmonic’s Principal Brass will provide the star power. Being able to play the two-day festival is a rare event for the brass quintet.
“If it’s on a Sunday, that’s OK,” said trombonist Joseph Alessi, who was in Miami coaching the Symphony of the New World’s trombones before heading to Atlanta for a recording session. “But if it’s on a Saturday, we have to get excused from our jobs. It’s tough to get five principals together and have everything line up.”
Yet that’s what happened for this weekend. Since the New York orchestra is doing an all-Beethoven concert, which is light in the brass department, on Saturday and there are no Sunday concerts, the quintet was able to get out, Alessi said. The members are Philip Smith and Ethan Bensdorf, trumpets; Philip Myers, French horn; Alan Bauer, tuba; and Alessi on trombone.
“It took a year to get it [scheduled],” he said.
That’s about when Mike Meidenbauer, the trombone teacher at Skidmore, contacted Alessi.
“I’d known Joe from other concerts and I wanted a first-rate group to come,” Meidenbauer said.
In the past, the college has had several wind festivals but none just for brass. With the Principal Brass, Meidenbauer said, he was hoping to create interest and excitement in playing brass instruments. As of last week, it looked like that dream would be realized. More than 110 brass players had registered for the festival, which is open to any age and level of player.
The fact that so many brass players were participating thrilled Alessi.
“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Any chance to work with young players is an opportunity to pass along what we’ve learned from our teachers.”
Alessi said he first heard a brass quintet play when he was in high school in California.
“It was the Los Angeles Brass Quintet and I couldn’t believe what I’d heard,” he said. “Then I formed a quintet in high school called the Bay Area Brass Quintet and we did a lot of school concerts all over the San Francisco area for very young kids. We’d show them how to buzz [to get a sound on the instrument’s mouthpiece] and even use a garden hose and a plastic funnel.”
This festival, however, will be for older students, some of whom will later be auditioning for the Juilliard School, he said. During the two days, the members of the quintet will give masterclasses and there will be sectionals with the college’s brass teachers, at which the participants will prepare a large ensemble piece that they’ll play with the quintet in a side-by-side concert, Meidenbauer said. College brass students will each get a private lesson and there will be coachings of college brass chamber groups.
“It’s all to share the experience of playing with multi-ages and levels with the quintet — to make music together and to create excitement and have fun,” Meidenbauer said.
Alessi said the quintet was up for it, especially since their usual educational outreach is done on tours. The group first formed in 1983 — the members are still the same although Alessi didn’t join until 1985. From time to time they’d get together, until Kurt Mazur, the orchestra’s music director between 1991 and 2002, asked them during a tour if they’d be interested in doing an encore.
“That started us,” Alessi said. “Five guys in tails having fun on stage after playing a Dvorak symphony — the audience gets a kick out of that.”
Since then, the quintet has continued to be the encore arm of the orchestra when it tours and even recently played the national anthem before a New York Giants game at MetLife Stadium. They’ve learned to keep those encores light. One of the most memorable ones was at a Proms concert in London.
“Audiences can get wild there and they throw paper airplanes with messages inside, especially during warm ups,” Alessi said. “We did ‘That’s a Plenty’ with a little choreography. The volume level of the applause was deafening. It was a great moment for our group.”
Music directors Loren Maazel (2002-2009) and Alan Gilbert (2009 to the present) also have asked for encores. Gilbert uses them frequently.
“We can make a lot of sound — it’s the closest thing to rock guitar volume,” Alessi said. “But it’s quite an honor and our colleagues in the orchestra appreciate it.”
With more work, including recording a disc, “New York, New York,” the quintet has had to rehearse more, which has yielded its own rewards.
“I love playing brass quintet and stepping out of the orchestra has improved our skills together as an ensemble,” Alessi said. “It’s very challenging ... we’re playing all the time, especially the trumpet, which has more of the melody lines. We’ve become familiar with each other’s instruments better and come together personally and intimately with musical ideas and sharing those. It’s not just one person coming up with an idea but everyone talking about it and coming up with a good solution. That’s fun.”
The program for Saturday’s concert will be some Bach, an arrangement of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” Eugene Bozza’s Sonatine, Bernstein’s “On the Town Suite,” and two new works: “Nexus” by Anthony Delorenzo commissioned by the Dallas Symphony’s quintet and “Music for Five Brass” by Brian Balmages commissioned by the Boston Symphony’s quintet.
This won’t be the first time the quintet has visited the Capital District. About 10 years ago, it performed on the Renaissance Musical Arts series, which then was held at promoter Richard Balsam’s home. And Alessi came to the college campus in the 1980s when he was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s trombone section during its summer residency at SPAC.