CHAMBER MUSIC CORNER
by Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
Nothing But Valves Brass Quartet
According to the biography for the brass quartet Nothing But Valves,
“The music for four brass players written in the last five-hundred years has been largely ignored. From such composers as Purcell, Gabrieli and Glazounov to twentieth century giants like Hindemith and Bernstein, brass quartets have played an important part in the history of chamber music. The Nothing But Valves brass quartet uses music from this vast catalog along with newer works and transcriptions in a diverse and entertaining way.”
Formed in 1994, NBV has had tremendous success in many performances throughout the United States. They have performed in such notable Washington, D.C. locations as the Kennedy Center, the Pentagon and the Philips Gallery. Additionally, they have been featured performers at the International Trumpet Guild Conference, the Skyline Brass Festival, and The U.S. Army Band Tuba Euphonium Conference.
I had a chance to speak with the euphoniumist in the group, Lance LaDuke, about this unique brass chamber group’s background. I hope that this article is especially interesting to the ITEA membership since it involves a chamber music group using euphonium other than the tuba-euphonium quartet.
The group formed when Lance was in the United States Air Force Band in Washington, D.C. All four of the original members worked together in the concert band section of that premiere band. The original quartet included trumpeters Bill Adcock and Andrew Wilson, hornist Sam Compton, and euphoniumist Lance LaDuke.
“I think the original idea came from Bill and our first gig was actually a church gig while we were on the road with the band,” explains Lance. “We worked both as Nothing But Valves (civilian gigs) and as Top Brass for military gigs. Actually, the name Nothing But Valves also came from Bill. He doesn’t much care for trombones (or maybe it’s the [trombone] players) and envisioned a group that had ÔNothing But Valves.’ As an aside, we had a number of instances of being introduced as the ÔNothing But Values’ brass quartet, something of a misnomer,” chides Lance.
NBV founder, Lance LaDuke (euphonium)
The more NBV played together, the more they explored greater repertoire, thus they began to increasingly enjoy the soundÉand it must have been fascinating to peruse through a rather abandoned repertoire. With regard to the sound of the ensemble, Lance explains that, “it was more akin to a string quartet in terms of a blended sound and approach. Most of the pieces we started with were transcriptions or short pieces. There’s a ton of stuff that had been transcribed or arranged by Robert King that we played and that’s where we found the Ramsoe Quartets.” To demonstrate the isolation of the brass quartet repertoire, Lance admits that he knew the Ramsoe Quartets mostly from the famous tuba-euphonium quartet arrangement of the original by Gary Buttery. “Audiences responded very well to the sound of the group, usually admitting that they didn’t expect to hear as full of a sound as we produced,” Lance continues. “Since [brass] quintets are the de facto standard, the “absence” of a fifth player confused some folks.”
As for current membership of NBV, Lance states,
“We sort of have five people involved. We’re not working all that much right now so it works. It actually hits on another subject that we’ve had to deal with. After Sam Compton left, we used a couple of other horn players but found ourselves horn-less on a more permanent basis. At that point, Chris Quade joined the Air Force Band tuba section, and we decided to try it with me sliding into the third spot with Chris on the bottom chair. We had a fair amount of music that we couldn’t do in the original configuration so this opened up some tunes to us but then made it harder to do some of the things we had used in the past. Nonetheless, we liked the arrangement and had a lot of success with that instrumentation. The blessing/curse of the brass quartet is that there is no standardized instrumentation so a lot of times you just have to figure out how to make things work. We actually took that a step further and started mixing in pieces that only involved two or three of us to further mix-up the show.”
Current members of NBV include Michael and Teresa Bosch, trumpet and horn (who have been members of the group for quite a while) while Willie Clark, tubist formerly with the Tubadours of Disney World, has recently joined the ensemble. “He is a great player and added a lot to our most recent performance,” adds Lance.
Lance tells me that NBV has been in a dormant stage for a few years, so the personnel issues have really been rather minimal. This brought me to ask Lance what kind of gigs they do and how that affected the group’s development. “When getting ready for our last gig [Potomac Festivals International Tuba/Euphonium Competition], we decided that we wanted to play more than we have lately. The plan [now] is to hit the college recital circuit. Not a ton of dates, maybe a dozen a year. We decided, fairly early on, to model ourselves after the American Brass Quintet, in that we opted to play more Ôserious’ music, which has a limiting effect on the number of places you can play. Plus, we never really dug playing Ôlighter’ tunes,” explains Lance.
“To get back to the American Brass Quintet influence, we really respect those guys and took some coaching sessions with Ray Mase up in New York,” adds Lance. “We sort of honed our focus during two pivotal times for the band; we made an independent CD, which is actually due for a reprint, and a few years later we entered the Concert Artist’s Guild competition. We grew a bunch as a group during both periods and agreed that fewer gigs playing the music we liked was better for us than more gigs with tunes that may have been more Ôpopular’ but less rewarding to us. We had a brief period when we considered trying to make NBV into a more or less full time thing but ultimately, the group took a backseat to other things,” adds Lance. I asked him what role NBV plays in everyone’s musical life and he replied, “I think we all wish we could spend more time playing together, but schedule and geography keep Ômonkeying’ up the works.”
I inquired with Lance what some of the short and long-term goals were for the Nothing But Valves brass quartet and he had this to offer:
“I’d love to do more recordings with the group but we end up faced with the same problems listed above. There is a ton of really great music for four brass players that isn’t getting played all that much. There are six Ramsoe quartets, as well as a couple of other multi-movement pieces from the same era by other composers. Then you have all the pieces for four brasses from the cornetto/sackbut days. I already mentioned Robert King, but in addition to the things he edited, he published quite a few original works from the mid-20th century, just before quintets took over as the de facto standard in brass chamber music. Add to this all of the pieces that have been written for quartet contests in Europe by all of those great brass band composers (Sparke/Peter Graham, etc.), and we just scratched the surface. We also had a few pieces written for us and had interest from other composers before things slowed down. I keep thinking I’ll put together a guide to that music in hopes that other groups will start playing it but life tends to get in the way. There’s a great quartet from the Navy Band [see Chamber Music Corner, Summer 2004 ITEA Journal to learn more about that brass quartet], but other than that, I don’t think anyone else is really doing itÉone of these days.”
This author thinks that an anthology for brass quartets would be very useful not only to university professors but to euphonium players eagerly looking for more chamber music opportunities. Which lead me to ask Lance about some of the key ingredients in finding/putting together a group like this, and how does a euphonium player best prepare himself/herself for a free-lancing career in chamber music? Or, is that not really a viable professional path?
“I think that a euphonium player, especially in the U.S., MUST consider how to participate in a chamber group,” answers Lance. “On a personal note, I grew a ton while playing in NBV because it was the first time I had to be the bass voice. I had been in tuba-euphonium quartets, including a really active one in the Air Force, but I was always playing one of the melody chairs. Having to provide the bottom for NBV was huge for helping me work on my time and pitch. Tuba players are all nodding their heads, saying ÔDuh,’ but for me, it was new.”
“To directly address the question of whether chamber music is a viable professional path,” continues Lance, “it’s as viable as any other. It hadn’t been the case that many euphonium players got gigs teaching college, but that’s happening a lot more. The fact that something hasn’t happened does not necessarily mean that it can’t. There’s no reason that a euphonium player who doubled on trombone or tuba (or both) couldn’t be in a quintet. [Brass] quintet tubists and trombonists have used the euphonium from time to time for a color change and there’s no reason it couldn’t work the other way.”
As for creating unique chamber music groups, Lance offers this bit of advice, “If you can’t find one, create one. There are tons of fantastic young euphonium playersÑmore every yearÑand the math for military band gigs isn’t changing all that much. So you have a bunch of folks who won’t or can’t end up in a military band and, for them, I suggest the portfolio approach to a career. You have a number of diverse opportunities, big ensembles, recitals, teaching, and chamber groups. That way if one area takes a temporary hit, all is not lost. That approach is not unique to euphonium players, of course, nor is it military band-exclusive. Any euphonium player who wants to eat has to come to terms with the fact that having diverse abilities and revenue streams is crucial. In terms of Ôhow,’ it’s really a matter of perseverance and preparation.”
If you would like to learn more about Nothing But Valves or about bringing them to your area, e-mail Lance LaDuke at email@example.com.