Brass and Britten

For its next program on December 7 and 8, 2013, at National City Christian Church, Amadeus Concerts will present brass quintets for the season performed by members of the Amadeus Orchestra brass section and the Children’s Chorus of Washington, Joan Gregoryk, Artistic Director and Conductor, paying tribute to the holidays and the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) with “A Ceremony of Carols.” Susan Robinson, principal harpist of the Washington National Opera, will be harp soloist in the Britten.

As background for our audience members, we asked Maestro Scott Wood of Amadeus Concerts & Orchestra why brass ensembles and brass music seem secondary to string quartets and quintets. Turning to the vocal part of the program, we asked Children’s Chorus of Washington Artistic Director, Conductor and Founder Joan Gregoryk to discuss how she prepared the Chorus to sing Britten’s Carols.   
Question: We see string quartets and quintets performing frequently on concert stages but it’s rare to find a brass quartet or quintet. In addition, the standard repertoire is full of music for strings by the major composers but brass ensembles seem to lack the same volume of works from well-known composers. Is this a function of the limitations that brass instruments had until keys, pistons and later valves were added to them in the 1800s?
Maestro Scott Wood: Yes. During the Baroque period [roughly the time of J.S. Bach, 1685-1750], only the highest trumpet parts [and most skilled players] were capable of anything except outlining the chords. Even that specialized skill [of high-note trumpet playing] was basically a lost art through the Classical period [1750-1820, the era of late Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven]. It isn’t until the Romantic era [think Chopin, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and others] that brass instruments got valves and became fully-functioning instruments, capable of all the chromatic notes.
Question: And what about brass ensembles? Are there other reasons that they seem to lag behind the string quartet and quintet in terms of musical output and popularity?
Wood: During the Civil War, brass ensembles were used for military purposes. The instruments were well suited for the outdoors because they were sturdy and capable of being heard far away. But the brass quintet only emerged as the standard “chamber music group” in the last half-century or so as brass instrument manufacturing and playing standards both rose dramatically. And though there’s been a lot of great music written for brass, it will take many more years before the brass ensemble repertoire can catch up to the great music written for strings.
Question: Now let’s talk with Ms. Gregoryk. It is a joy to be able to hear Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols” this weekend. How did you choose this piece?
Artistic Director and Conductor Joan Gregoryk: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to join Amadeus Concerts. Since this is the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten, I was eager to have the choristers learn one of the most famous works for children’s chorus.
Question: How did you prepare the children to sing this piece? Did they study the text extensively?
Gregoryk: Yes, we needed to study the text of the carols because many of the words are in old English, such as “wight” for “white.”
Question: Take us behind the scenes with the Chorus. How long did it take the children to learn this piece? What was the most difficult part of the piece for the chorus to learn? Had any of the children sung Ceremony of Carols previously?
Gregoryk: We were working on Britten’s “War Requiem” at the same time as we were learning the “Ceremony of Carols,” so it was necessary to learn the Carols with very few rehearsals. The most difficult piece to learn was “As Dew in Aprille,” because the entrances all begin on a very high pitch, so the singers needed to be prepared with their inhalation to sing those pitches with an open and un-pinched sound. None of the students in this group had previously sung Ceremony of Carols.