SCHENECTADY — There’s a lot of excitement around the Harmonic Brass’ concert on Sunday at First United Methodist Church.
“They’re so popular and such fun,” said Dominick Giaquinto, the church’s director of music ministries. “This will be their eighth time at the church. They always fill it up. We love bringing them back.”
Trombonist Thomas Lux agreed, speaking for the quintet.
“We like Schenectady. It’s like a homecoming for us,” Lux said a few weeks ago at the beginning of the group’s three-week tour. “The audiences are very energetic and the relationship with Dominick is pleasant and very professional.”
That kind of reception has become a world-wide hallmark for the brass quintet, which was founded in 1991. Often compared to the famed Canadian Brass, whose humor and musical high jinks have long been part of its presentation, the Harmonic Brass makes having a great sense of humor as much a requirement as technical brilliance for its players.
Harmonic Brass Munich
WHEN: 3 p.m. Oct. 6, Sunday
WHERE: First United Methodist Church, 603 State Street
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-4403; www.fumcschenectady.org
“Music comes first, but one of our goals is to take an audience by the hand and pull them from their daily routines, for them to forget their troubles,” Lux said. “We do this with humor. It’s very important for us to be on the same wavelength with the humor.”
So should an opening come up in the quintet, the group carefully sifts through applicants not only for their background but to talk to people who might know them. Turnover is rare, but it does happen, he said. Tubist Manfred Haberlein is the only founding member who still plays with the quintet. French hornist Andreas Binder joined in 1992; trumpeter Hans Zellner joined in 1997; Lux himself joined in 2004 and the newest is trumpeter Gergely Lukacs, “the Hungarian guy,” who joined in 2008.
Lux remembers his own audition. He was still studying at the music conservatory in Mannheim and substituting in the Heidelberg Philharmonic when he got a call from Munich to help the Harmonic Brass at a recording session for its 17th disc, “Bolero.”
“That went well and so I did 10 concerts with them and the guys asked me to stay,” Lux said. “It was an easy choice because I liked the guys. I have no regrets.”
When Lukacs was hired, it was only after four other trumpeters had each played several concerts with them. But Lukacs’ sound blended better in the quintet, Lux said.
On the road — a lot
They are on the road for up to 120 concerts a year, which includes performing for diplomatic receptions, movie scores, television programs, conservatories, and at special workshops as cultural ambassadors for the Goethe Institute since 2000. They have been everywhere except Australia and do all their own bookings and travel arrangements with each player having specific duties to fulfill — “We’re a good team,” Lux said.
They all speak at least some English and have learned to be extremely patient with airport security.
“It’s a drag, but you can imagine what traveling with two tubas at an airport is like,” Lux said. “We always are prepared with all the right custom papers.”
The players always carry their own medicines, but they are willing to risk feeling queasy on occasion because they like to try each country’s food.
“The guys tell me they had some stomach problems in the Middle East,” Lux said laughing. “But we always bring colas.”
It’s the playing and the people that make the difference.
“We’ve gotten to know a lot of nice people worldwide and work with many talented players to encourage them to go out and play,” Lux said.
Master class at Skidmore
In fact, the day after their Schenectady concert, they will give a public master class at 3 p.m. on Monday to brass players at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
Back in Germany, they often perform concerts several days each week with Wednesday reserved for rehearsals or go into recording sessions. To date, Harmonic Brass has 28 discs, with the 29th disc, “Highlights in Brass,” to be out in November. The three latest discs (“5 Jahreszeiten,” “Joy to the World,” “One Day of Music”) will probably be for sale at Sunday’s concert where, according to Giaquinto, they do a handsome business at intermission.
The quintet’s program on Sunday is also a departure. Usually they do themed programs, but because one of their gigs is to work with the brass players at the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, they decided to present music that will be on the upcoming disc. This will include works by Handel, Bach, Ravel, Puccini, Bizet, Bernstein, and Piazzolla. Zellner does all the arrangements, which are geared to each player’s expertise.
“We’ve very lucky to have Hans,” Lux said. “He sticks to the original score and doesn’t add a lot of syrup. It enables us to develop our own sound and do more different programs with stuff written for orchestra.”
Playing in an orchestra is something none of the musicians miss, Lux said.
“Many years ago they used to play in orchestras,” Lux said. “But in 1997, the players decided to only work as a quintet and to teach only in master classes. In orchestra, you are just one wheel of many wheels. You’re not so free to play as you like. The conductor orders how they want it to go.”
In orchestra performances, brass players don’t get to play that much. Unlike string players who play almost constantly, brass players must count long bars of silence before they must enter for a few notes, he said.
“But in a quintet, you can develop your own ideas and meld in a group sound. It’s more challenging and you play all the time,” Lux said.