Editor’s Note: Brass Band Corner is a new ITEA Journal regular column. If you would like to see a particular band from anywhere in the world featured, or to write about a band, please e-mail the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just over eighteen months ago, I received an e-mail from the River City Brass Band asking me if I “knew anyone” who might be interested in applying for the post of Music Director. I had heard of the band of course; two of my closest friends, Robert Childs and Philip Sparke, had worked with the band. So, I was intrigued enough to say “well, I don’t know anyone, but I’d be interested myself!” Suffice it to say that I was fortunate enough to win the post, and moving to the USA has proved to be the best thing I could have done. But what about the band itself?
Thirty years ago, a musical renaissance took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Under the baton of conductor Robert Bernat, the River City Brass Band took to the Carnegie Music Hall stage for its inaugural concert on November 21, 1981. It was an evening very much based on British brass band repertoire and no wonder- Bernat had travelled to the UK to study the brass band movement. He had visited the famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band, learning and assimilating that band’s style. It was there that he met Robert Childs, whom he invited to appear as guest soloist with the band. Childs played “Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms”in the first concert.
Although the initial influences and repertoire were decidedly British, Bernat’s aim was to revive a truly American tradition. At one point there were more than 20,000 brass or mixed brass and wind groups throughout the United States. In 1981, when Bernat founded the RCBB, it was a bleaker picture with fewer than 1000 bands still in existence. Throughout the rest of the world the brass band was flourishing, and Bernat was determined to foster a similar appreciation for the brass band sound here in the United States.
Bernat’s vision, dedication and perseverance have paid off. Thirty years on, the River City Brass, the world’s only full-time professional brass band, continues to go from strong to stronger, performing fifty-six subscription concerts each year all over Western Pennsylvania as well as more than thirty touring concerts in other parts of the USA.
It was into this august history that I stepped when I arrived in Pittsburgh, a city I knew nothing about, one cold, snowy February evening. I well remember my first impression of the city. All I can say is that if you have never visited Pittsburgh, do it! Leaving the airport by car, you will go into the Ford Pitt tunnel and exit to witness a veritable wonderland of illuminated high-rise buildings reflecting in the famous three rivers. It is quite stunning and looks as though the city is opening its arms in welcome.
At first sight, the RCBB resembles a British brass band. There is one Eb soprano cornet, four solo cornets, one repiano cornet, two 2nd cornets and two 3rd cornets. In the low brass there are two baritones, three trombones, two euphoniums, two Eb tubas and two BBb tubas. There are also three percussionists. But what’s this? French horns? Now that is a big difference from British bands where the middle harmonies are provided by alto horns. The sound is so different; it makes comparing River City Brass with British brass bands a futile exercise. River City has none of the vibrato so ubiquitous in Britain. The resulting sound is much cleaner, brighter, and to my ears more modern.
How does it all work? Well, the River City Brass has a small, dedicated, full-time staff printing and selling the tickets, marketing, and fundraising. My job is choosing the programs, rehearsing the band, and conducting. There is a lot of work to do but it is satisfying and inspiring, especially when the audiences give us the positive feedback they normally do. Some audience members have been subscribers for the entire thirty years the band has been in existence, which is as amazing as it is daunting. If they don’t like a tune, they soon let me know!
Let’s take a look now at some of the musicians in the band, focusing on the euphoniums, baritones and tubas. We employ eight musicians in the conical low brass family, perhaps the largest number in one organization outside of the U.S. military.
Koichiro Suzuki, 1st Baritone
Koichiro Suzuki is originally from Okinawa, Japan. He came to the United States in 1996 to perform with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps in Madison, Wisconsin. As a member of the Madison Scouts, he won first prize in various solo competitions for solo baritone and brass quintet. In 2005, Koichiro received his Bachelor in Fine Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he had studied with Alan Baer and Marty Erickson. As a soloist, he has appeared twice with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Symphony Band performing Philip Sparke’s “Pantomime” and David Gillingham’s “Vintage.”
Suzuki is currently a graduate student in the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University, studying with Lance LaDuke. He also teaches at the Fox Chapel Area High School as a marching band and brass instructor. When not teaching and performing Koichiro demonstrates his considerable talent as a tango dancer and has appeared several times as a solo dancer in River City Brass shows.
Ross Cohen, 2nd Baritone
Ross Cohen joined the River City Brass Band baritone section in 2007. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, Ross holds a BS in Music Education from Penn State University and an MM in Euphonium Performance from the University of Georgia. His primary teachers included Marty Erickson, Velvet Brown and Dave Zerkel.
In 2006, Ross performed the Horovitz “Euphonium Concerto” with the University of Georgia Wind Ensemble. While at UGA, he was also a member of the Graduate Tuba Quartet, which was a competing finalist at the International Tuba Euphonium Conference in Denver.
Ross has teaching experience in the public schools of York, PA and Silver Spring, MD. He has worked at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as an intern for the National Symphony Orchestra Education program and as a resident advisor for their Summer Music Institute. He also spent many summers working at Tower Records in Rockville, MD.
Matthew Murchison, Solo Euphonium
Matthew Murchison joined River City Brass as solo euphonium in June 2002. He was born in California but grew up in Arkansas, and while in high school, performed as soloist with the University of Arkansas-Ft. Smith Band. Matthew holds degrees from the University of North Texas (B.M.) and Carnegie Mellon University (M.M.).
Matthew has played solo performances a host of renowned ensembles. His solo performances with the River City Brass Band have been broadcast across the country through WQED 89.3 Pittsburgh, where Matthew has been featured on “Performance in Pittsburgh.” Matthew has also been a guest artist/clinician at the International Tuba/Euphonium Conference, US Army Band Tuba/Euphonium Conference, and many other conferences and universities. Matthew was named a Yamaha Young Performing Artist in 2001, and most recently was a semi-finalist for the Concert Artists Guild International Competition, among other competition successes.
Active in creating new repertoire, Matthew’s recent commissions include “Valtzz!” for euphonium and band by Charles Booker, “Prescott Poem” for euphonium and piano (also with brass band or wind band) by Drew Fennell, and “Folk Fantasies” for euphonium, string quartet, and percussion by Carson Cooman.
Matthew is the founder of Mainspring, a unique and flexible ensemble made up of euphonium, flute, guitar, bass, and percussion. Mainspring combines elements of folk, world, jazz, and classical music with an inventive instrumentation to create an exciting new sound. Much more about Matthew can be found at www.matthewmurchison.com.
Brian Meixner, Euphonium/Assistant Conductor
In addition to his membership in the RCBB, Dr. Brian Meixner, originally from Macomb, Illinois, is currently serving on the faculty at Slippery Rock University. There he teaches studio low brass and directs both the wind ensemble and brass ensemble. He has also been the band’s assistant conductor since 2010. Brian also plays euphonium and trombone with the River City 6, an active brass sextet composed of River City Brass Band members.
Brian has participated actively as a performer and conductor of various university and professional ensembles, including his duties as conductor and music director of the Myriad Brass Orchestra. His previous ensemble performing experience includes the Dallas Wind Symphony, Dallas Wind Symphony Tuba Quartet, Lexington Brass Band, Georgia Brass Band, Saxton’s Cornet Band, Four Horsemen Tuba Quartet, North Texas Euphonium Quartet, North Texas Wind Symphony, San Angelo Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra, and Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
Brian has numerous competition successes to his credit and is frequently engaged as a guest artist and solo performer. He can be heard on his solo euphonium compact disc Genesis.
James StillWagon and Sam Buccigrossi, Eb Tubas
Sam Buccigrossi’s tuba playing has been described as “astonishingly delicate and intricately detailed” by no less an authority than the Washington Post. He is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and began playing the tuba at the age of 13 in the River City Youth Brass Band alongside his current desk-partner Jimmy Stillwagon.
Before becoming a member of the River City Brass Band in 2008, Sam performed extensively with the Prism Brass Quintet, Grand Prize winners of the 1999 University of Georgia Brass Quintet Competition of the Americas. The Prism Brass Quintet was also a finalist in the 2002 Concert Artists Guild Competition. Sam has also performed with the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, the Washington Symphonic Brass, the Binghamton Philharmonic, and has been a featured soloist with the Eastman Wind Ensemble. Sam has taught brass chamber music at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and is currently the instructor of music theory and music technology at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. He serves as principal Eb tuba in the RCBB.
Jim Stillwagon has been attending River City Brass concerts since he was five years old, following his dad, founder member Jim Stillwagon Sr. during his distinguished 27-year career on BBb tuba. Jim junior started substituting with the band in 1998 and has played on and off with the group for thirteen years. This is his second season as a full time member of the group. Aside from playing the Tuba, Jim is the versatile clown of the RCBB, excelling as a singer, dancer and vaudeville character. His performances dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Sweet” have brought wide critical acclaim.
Jim is currently in his thirteenth year of teaching middle school and high school band, Intro to Piano, & Music Technology in the Pine Richland School District. He also conducts the Pit Orchestra for the Pine Richland High School Musical. His orchestras have won numerous Gene Kelly Awards for best all student orchestra, most recently won that award for their production of Les Miserables.
John Urling and Brian Kiser, BBb Tubas
John Urling moved to Pittsburgh to join the band in 1994. A native of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, John was born in Pittsburgh in 1971, just down the street from RCBB’s home base of Carnegie Music Hall.
John studied at West Virginia University under David McCollum, former principal tuba of the RCBB. John was a member of the Mountain State Brass Quintet and the award winning Monongahela Brass Quintet. During his senior year, John was a winner of the 1993 WVU young artist concerto competition. In 1994, John returned to the city where he began life.
Since graduation, John has studied with Ronald Bishop of The Cleveland Orchestra. He spends his working days as a computer systems administrator for a prominent Pittsburgh law firm and his free evenings and weekends practicing tuba, riding his mountain bike, and polishing his classic Corvette.
Dr. Brian Kiser joined the faculty of Youngstown State University in 2005, where he was recently promoted to Associate Professor of Music in the Dana School of Music. He teaches applied tuba and euphonium, directs Y-Tuba, the tuba-euphonium ensemble, and coaches creative brass ensembles. Brian has been performing with the River City Brass since 2006, and was appointed to a full-time position as the 2nd BBb Bass in the band in 2010. Also an active orchestral musician, Dr. Kiser is the principal tuba with the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra and has performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, and many others.
Brian has been a featured soloist at the International Tuba and Euphonium Conferences in Cincinnati, Ohio (2008) and Tucson, Arizona (2010). He has also been featured at the Army Tuba and Euphonium Conference and many other conferences. One of Brian’s more unique performances was with a tuba quartet, playing the national anthem for the Speedo International Swimming and Diving Championships. The group performed while standing on the seven-meter platform!
You will have gathered that I am passionate about the River City Brass Band, our uniquely American brass band. Please log on to www.rivercitybrass.org and listen to one of our sound clips.
James Gourlay is currently the Music Director of the RCBB. He has previously served as principal tubist of the Birmingham Symphony (UK), the BBC Symphony, and the Zurich Opera Orchestra. He has been head of Winds and Percussion at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and has served as conductor of the RNCM Brass Band as well as the Grimethorpe Colliery and Williams Fairey Bands, among many others. As a tubist, he has recorded five successful solo CDs including British Tuba Concertos on the Naxos Label.