CHAMBER MUSIC CORNER
by Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
This edition of the Chamber Music Corner will feature a unique ensemble that is probably the only active septet known. For those of you who have never heard of Proteus 7, here is some biography information:
“From Bach to Bacharach, Proteus 7 breathes new life into chamber music with their dynamic, creative, and free-ranging approach to styles and repertoire. The first ensemble to mix this versatile, captivating combination of instruments, Proteus 7 is creating a new repertoire of original works and arrangements that highlight its unique strengths and abilities. Members of Proteus 7 perform on Broadway, record for television and motion pictures, and can be heard in major concert halls throughout the world. Their programs and recordings are as diverse as their musical talents, balancing intricate works of Baroque masters in tandem with contemporary classical and jazz counterparts. As exclusive recording artists for Dorian Records, these seven players bring the tonal palette of a symphony orchestra, the excitement of a big band, and the intimacy of a chamber ensemble to both their recordings and concerts. Together they combine their unique talents and artistry to create an extraordinary new sound.”
I had a chance to chat with Proteus 7’s tubist, Matthew Gaunt, who is also the Visiting Assistant Professor of Tuba/Euphonium at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I asked him how such a unique group of musicians came together to form this new septet that not only involves brass and percussion but a saxophonist as well!
“The original idea for Proteus 7 came from Scott Hartman,” Matt explained.
“His concept was to have a brass-based chamber group with some different instrumentation and sound possibilities. It was slow getting the group off the ground; in the first few years there were many changes of instrumentation and personnel, and the meetings were only a couple times a year due to the fact that the players ended up coming from different parts of the country. As instrumentation and personnel changed, people would mention other players they loved working with over the years from other quintets, orchestras, festivals, etc., and we decided that we would work around the geographical issues. We really were a ‘garage band’ the first years, then cut a short demo, and did a couple of concerts. I played a concert tape for a friend who also was a producer and engineer for Dorian recordings, and he thought we should send our materials to the folks in charge there, and we ended up releasing four recordings on their label, getting management, giving more concerts, etc. We became interested in trying to present a wide variety of music, and not specialize in one genre, and to try to get as many different types of colors, moods, and sounds as we could out of our combination of instruments. It has actually made it hard for us at times, because some people think we are a jazz group, others think we are a classical group, yet others think we only play Latin music. We had quite a chuckle seeing our first disc shelved in the ‘pop’ section next to the Psychedelic Furs in a Tower Records store!”
I asked Matt if the genesis of Proteus 7 was financial (i.e. gigs) or something larger than that. “We never were really interested in gigging or playing at functions,” Matt added, “we were interested in giving concerts and providing a real artistic outlet for ourselves. We were also a bit older than most groups when we started; the players already had established individual careers in orchestras, other quintets, broadway, composition, and teaching; so we had additional logistical obstacles but had more experience and also a focused vision for what we wanted to do.”
The current members of the septet are trumpeters Anthony DiLorenzo (Curtis) and Geoff Hardcastle (Cleveland Institute), trombonists Scott Hartman (Eastman) and Hans Bohn (Eastman and Northwestern), tubist Matthew Gaunt (Boston University), percussionist Feza Zweifel (Curtis and Cleveland Institute), and sole woodwind player, Paul McCandless (who plays a variety of instruments on a concert that include oboe, english horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, all saxes, and even pennywhistle). As with any group made up of such talented musicians, there are bound to be unique connections and networks. Matt explains that, “Scott and Hans were at Eastman together. Hans and I played in a quintet together and many freelance gigs in Boston. Scott was my first quintet coach in high school and coached my college quintet. Geoff and Feza were in school together. Feza, Tony, and Hans were in the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra together!” As for the woodwind player, Matt says that “…we had called Paul for his input on possible woodwind doublers, and we were surprised and delighted to find out he was interested himself! Part of the idea of the group was to play with people that you really connected with musically and that you enjoyed to be around personally.
Matt explained to me that “…P7 never did any competitions; we were either too busy or too old (most competitions have age limits that we already had passed since we started the group later in life). Another obstacle for us early on for competitions would have been that we had to create our own repertoire since none existed for our instrumentation.” Which brought me to wonder about the repertoire for such a unique ensemble. While tuba-euphonium quartets are still striving to add to their repertoire, there is, however, a fairly established group of arrangements and compositions for such a quartet. I can only imagine that for a group like P7, one has to start from scratch, which could also be a real feather in their cap as well!
Matt indicates that indeed this was the case, “Scott did some arrangements, Feza has done a TON of arrangements, and we are so lucky to have Tony’s original compositions! His music is so much fun for us to play, and audiences really love to hear his pieces; they have a great combination of being quite original and are accessible so that you feel familiar with them after one hearing.”
I inquired with Matt about what role Proteus 7 plays in each of the different members’ musical life; whether it is the main thing, or does it take a backseat to other gigs? And if so, how do the musicians juggle this tough reality between art and financial survival? Matt’s answer was very sincere, “P7 is very close to our hearts, and it is a highlight and joy for us to work together. Every year is a different jigsaw puzzle; some years have been pretty lean, while others have had 70 concerts or more. It is complicated since some members play in orchestras, some are very active freelancers in major cities, some have teaching gigs, Tony has writing in addition to playing, Paul’s group Oregon is still very active, and some members have families in addition to all of that.”
Juggling schedules with a group like this must be a mess; Matt agreed. “There are times that we do have to use subs, it is simply unavoidable since P7 is not our sole source of income, and the members need to juggle multiple obligations. We have been lucky to use great subs: Charlie Pillow, Mark Hetzler, Pete Ellefson, Justin Emerich, Ryan Anthony, Steve Campbell. A few years ago we were very active in the Community Concert circuit (which helped launch groups such as Atlantic Brass, Boston Brass, Empire Brass, Canadian Brass); it was a great way to see the country and play a lot of concerts. We had just completed our first big season with them and were poised for a great second season when some issues with management resulted in drastic changes to many of those concert series and that entire network had been greatly affected and changed. There were numerous articles about the situation in papers all across the country including the New York Times. This has always been a difficult business, especially for brass groups, which is now even harder with the changes in the landscape of presenters in the last few years.
Marketing also has been a little problem for us since our name does not easily communicate who we are or what we do (Proteus was a mythological figure who could change his form or shape at will. We took the name since we can sound like a brass quintet, big band, etc. and 7 since we have 7 members). This year we are back up to around 30 concerts or so. We are always working to find the right balance of number and types of concerts.”
In the last Chamber Music Corner column, we learned about the Meridian Arts Ensemble’s very different approach to art and concerts, and it is interesting to see how P7’s vibe differs. “We try to give listeners a wide, varied, and enjoyable concert experience,” notes Matt. “We always make time to talk to people after the show, and find that some people are moved by Bach, others enjoy the high energy of Tony’s music, some enjoy the mood of a [Astor] Piazzolla “milonga,” and even some are almost dancing in the Latin set.”
Matt continues, “We really have a very basic idea: take great music (which can be anything: cerebral, emotional, accessible, strange, etc.), and play it really well. We try to combine our classical background and sensitivity to details and sounds with a pop sense of fun and style. We try to be true to the individual pieces and styles. Our concerts have a lot of variety and range so that there is something for everybody to really enjoy. We often hear from audiences that they can’t believe how quickly the two-hour concert can pass and that they don’t remember having so much fun at a concert! I think that it’s easy to forget what a great service we can provide as musicians in today’s world: to give people something to enjoy, be moved by, or get outside of themselves for a few hours is such a great gift.” Matt reiterates, “We try to have something for everybody: both the most inexperienced concert-goer and the most refined ears as well; we also don’t only want to play big cities; we have such fun bringing music to small towns. Audiences also always remark on the fact that it really shows that we are having so much fun on stage—that’s pretty contagious too!”
As for the future goals of Proteus 7 , Matt tells me that “…we do have some interesting ideas, but have to keep them ‘in house’ for the time being!”
As I often do in these columns, I ask the tubist or euphoniumist of a given group what advice they may have for younger players who desire to make a living as a chamber musician. While the remarks usually carry a great deal of similarities, I think the differences are especially intriguing. Matt’s view on this topic is profound:
“I think there are some things that are important no matter what you want to play: chamber music, orchestra, solo, jazz, rock; great basics of tone production, intonation, time and rhythm, dynamic, articulation, etc. As a brass chamber player today we encounter so many different styles! You really need to be able to play Bach, Mozart, Modern Classical, Crossover, Dixie, Swing, etc. and sound idiomatic in those styles and not just like a tuba player. I think it is so important to listen to and experience so many different types of music both live and recorded. Can you function as a soloist, bass player, cellist, or vocalist? Can you make an attack that sounds like a string player playing a down-bow one moment and a controlled explosion moments later? When someone asks you to make that lick sound like a bass player do you have a library of those sounds in your imagination and at your disposal? To me that is where the real fun is! I also think it is vital to have great ‘radar.’ Can you play and fit in with different people and sound like you have played together for a long time very quickly. I have been so lucky to play with great groups that all play differently from each other (P7, Burning River Brass, Rhythm and Brass, Center City, Boston Brass, Empire); it is so important to fit into the sonic blend and identity of the group. Every group is its own organism. Knowing when to lead, follow, match, contrast, blend, and compliment is where the fun and art is. You have to develop both the physical tools and the ears too: never stop listening!”
Having a great deal of experience in this business, Matt continues with intensity,
“On the business side, you need to have an identity. Does your group want to be Canadian Brass Jr., Son of American Brass Quintet, or the brass version of Boyz2Men? Are you interested in only baroque music? Do you want to play only pieces written for your group? Do you want to spend weeks on the road? How do you get ‘in’ to the business and get your music out there: competitions, management, recordings, etc. Some competitions don’t even allow for brass groups; management firms often want to see that you have done many concerts and been reviewed, but you often can’t get those kinds of concerts unless you have management— ugh! Recording is expensive and distribution is difficult too. Sadly, brass quintets are still not accepted fully into the concert series and a string quartet can get booked just on merit. Many series won’t touch a brass group, and those that will are often looking for your ‘gimmick.’ Hopefully that will change and groups will find it easier to find an audience. Unless you can get your group many, many concerts a year or a teaching residency (or both) you will need to do something else. Be prepared to freelance, teach, etc. and if you are lucky: have a bunch of schedule conflicts!”
While these statements come off as dim as so many other tubists’ comments about the chamber music “business,” Matt does have some consoling final thoughts. “I don’t mean to sound so dark, but it is a difficult endeavor but can be so worth it! Life is short. If you really love it then jump in, work hard, and enjoy the ride. It is such a great buzz to play great music with great friends and help your audiences experience something new and different. I have been so fortunate to experience the music and people that I have in the last 15 years of doing this (wow, can I really be that old?!). There is always room and a need for more great music!”
To learn more about Proteus 7 and its members or order their recordings, visit their website at www.proteus7.com.