Chamber Music Corner:
The Triton Ensemble
Spédidam Prize Winners at the Lyon International Chamber Music Competition
Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
Associate Editor’s Note: Unbeknownst to me at the time of publication, a significant portion of the material used to create the Chamber Music Corner article featuring the Melton Tuba Quartet (Spring issue, Volume 32) came from a source that was anonymous to me and was therefore not credited in my column. At this time, I would like to publicly thank and credit German musicologist Juliane Bally, C.PhD, for her contributions to the article. While I reworked the wording of most of the source material and added some of my own thoughts and writings, the original materials forwarded to me were based on previous material authored by Juliane. I find it quite regrettable that I did not originally know this, and I offer my sincerest apologies to the ITEA membership, the Melton Tuba Quartet, and especially Juliane Bally, and anyone else affected by this accreditation error. ~Mike Forbes
Regular readers of this column will remember that I featured one of the most historic brass chamber music groups of all time in the article before last: The New York Brass Quintet. I thought it appropriate, therefore, to showcase a newer quintet on today’s concert and competition scene that, like so many other quintets, is indirectly affected by the NYBQ’s profound legacy. This article will feature a Boston-based quintet that is making waves in New England and abroad: The Triton Brass.
The Triton Brass Quintet was a prizewinner at the 2003 Fischoff International Chamber Music Competition, and they were also semi-finalists at the Concert Artists’ Guild Competition. They are currently in their fourth year as artists-inresidence at Boston College, where the group serves as both performers and instructors, and are proud to be the hosting faculty for a second year with the Atlantic Brass Quintet Seminar. Triton Brass will also serve as chamber music faculty at the 2005 Boston University Tanglewood Institute. Most recently, Triton performed successfully as the only American quintet invited to compete in France’s Lyon International Chamber Music Competition. Moreover, they won the Spédidam Prize, making them the only non-French group to receive a prize at the competition.
According to Shelagh Abate, Triton’s horn player, the quintet formed in early 2002 with the original intention of becoming a busy gigging quintet doing weddings, graduations, and other paying engagements. “I had visions of it becoming a cash cow,” states Shelagh. “Those visions changed when we learned how much time and grunt work it entails to actually acquire those gigs and connections.” The key step for Triton in becoming the group they are now was in obtaining their residency at Boston College. Shelagh adds, “Through great timing and some luck and connections, we were able to secure a residency soon after the Boston Brass ended their relationship at Boston College so as to become a more active touring ensemble…as we all know they have! They are seriously kicking butt and becoming more and more mainstream. They are great guys. I know them going all the way back to when I was an undergrad at Boston College, where I did my Bachelor of Arts degree. They have been a super-positive influence.”
The residency at Boston College provided Triton with a home to rehearse and perform which is quite valuable in a musically saturated community like Boston. “At Boston College,” adds Shelagh, “we learned a very important thing about each other as a group. We like to rehearse–simple as that, really. Our group then began to grow and develop a sound concept, and we got to know each other’s playing and personalities.” She then adds that there was a turning point in the group’s development when, “we were rehearsing one day, and we broke out Alexander Arutiunian’s Armenian Scenes. The first and third movements of this piece changed everything for us–it was the point at which we all realized simultaneously that we, as an ensemble, could accomplish something artistically that exceeded what we could do as individuals. Isn’t that the goal of chamber music? Or music in general, as a collaborative effort? We were sort of blown away, and slowly forged a bond that continues to grow stronger as time and experience helps us along. It was at that point that we decided to go the competition/recital route and not the gigging-band route. We resigned ourselves to poverty, in other words, but at least we could play the way we wanted to!!”
The other members of the Triton Brass Quintet include trumpeters Stephen Banzaert and Andrew Sorg, trombonist Wes Hopper, and tubist Jobey Wilson. Steve, Shelagh, and Jobey met while they were all doing their graduate studies at New England Conservatory (NEC) and performing in some of the local orchestras. Wes knew Jobey from gigs and hanging out (as tubists and trombonists are known to do) and became friends with Andrew at the Boston Conservatory. Andrew joined TBQ late in 2002 after Chris Still (a Triton founding member) had to leave the group to take his position as Principal Trumpet of the Charleston Symphony. Summer music festivals also played a role in the quintet’s formation. Shelagh adds, “Between the five of us, we have run the gamut with summer festivals. I spent a summer at NRO, Jobey was a fellow at Aspen, [but the] four of us have been fellows for multiple summers at the Tanglewood Music Center.”
As for teachers, Triton tells me that, “Jobey’s main teacher was Chester Schmitz (NEC, retired) and Ted Cox (formerly Oklahoma University), Steve studied for several years with Charlie Schlueter, Shelagh studied with Richard (Gus) Sebring, Andrew with Steve Emery, and Wes with Ron Barron, Norman Bolter, and Larry Isaacson at Boston Conservatory.” Shelagh adds that most of these teachers are, “…Boston guys, all great teachers and amazing players. Boston is such a hotbed for brass…its crazy! Way too many good players up here!! It is possible that we [Triton] blend well and have a similar [musical] concept partly because of the common Boston connection.” She explains, “I really feel that we have grown together as players in a similar way just because of the sheer number of hours we have spent playing together…and our ears are huge. It can be brutal during rehearsals with Triton,” she continues, “one of us will randomly (or accidentally) do something weird with a phrase, or our color will change just ever so slightly, and one of us will immediately be like, ‘dude, what the hell are you doing? What is that? Why are you breathing there?’ We can’t get away with anything…it’s awesome.”
I asked Jobey Wilson, the group’s tubist, what were some of the key ingredients in forming a group that was destined to perform a more artistic role rather than one based on gigging and cash flow. His reply was simple, “personality and chemistry…period.” He went on to add that he was quite spoiled by his first few student quintet experiences. “My quintets at Aspen, Oklahoma University, and the New England Conservatory were all very hard-working, goal-oriented groups who also loved to hang out together after the work was done. I worked with a few professional groups in Oklahoma, and, during my first few years in Boston, those that had the personal cohesiveness of five negatively-charged magnets. Needless to say, all but one of these groups is now defunct, and the other is now barely surviving. The NEC community was small enough that Shelagh, Steve, and I (though we all had our separate chamber groups at NEC) performed together a few times a month in a large variety of settings at school. Our communication and friendships from working together at NEC shined through when we met on outside gigs just after graduating, and we decided immediately that we needed to capitalize on these bonds…thus the first conversations of “The Quintet.” Wes and I met while performing a program of John Williams’ music with the Boston Metropolitan Orchestra and immediately formed a very tight friendship. Numerous barbecues and duet sessions commenced through our ‘southern connection.’ Apparently Andrew was on that gig as well, but we didn’t meet again until at Tanglewood a couple of years later where he, Steve, and I performed together, and, yes, enjoyed many fun-filled evenings. The very first time we all met as ‘soon to be Triton,’ we laid down a pretty darn good thirty-minute demo in less than two hours, laughed, and had a blast while doing it. We knew immediately we had a great blend of people here and the start of something truly unique.”
As Triton recently received a prize at the Lyon competition, I asked Shelagh about past competition successes and what impact that had on their development as a chamber music group. “Fischoff was our first [competition], and that was in May 2003. We felt that that competition was very well organized; we were made comfortable while we were there: space to rehearse, information well posted, and minimal confusion, which, as we all know, can kill a group’s focus.” Triton adds that the folks at Fischoff have been running that competition for a long time (over twenty-five years), and it shows. They tell me how frustrating it can be as a brass group to compete against ensembles whose repertoire goes back hundreds of years and includes Mozart and Beethoven as composers. “It’s tough to compete with a Beethoven String Quartet,” interjects Shelagh. “Nothing against composers of brass music at all, it is just a much younger and less developed repertoire at this point. We learned that judges have a difficult time being truly objective in this way.” Still, Triton did very well and took second place (silver medal). Perhaps due to this success, Triton has been invited back to Fischoff to perform an educational outreach residency in December 2005 throughout the Midwest. They tell me that it will be an inner-city schools outreach tour.
The major pieces that they played were the Etler Quintet, Jan Bach’s Laudes, Arutiunian’s Armenian Scenes, and three transcriptions of Monteverdi madrigals arranged by Banzaert. Clips of all of these works can be found on their website listed at the end of this article. “These were great choices for us from both a programming standpoint,” adds Shelagh, “all substantial, multi-movement, technically, and musically demanding, and also from the standpoint that the works play to our strengths as an ensemble. Lots of sound, blend, phrasing, range, lots of fortes–we like to blow the walls down as much as any brass group–and these pieces allow for lots of that with great voicings and chances to show off great sound quality and development. It was also the first road trip we took together, which was an important thing, too. Traveling can really be a bonding experience, it is a major indicator of compatibility as people too– forget the music–totally separate thing. We learned a whole lot about each other, and our needs as individuals in a competitive scenario.” Triton took part in the Concert Artists’ Guild’s Competition the following May (2004), and they tell me they were very excited to go to this competition because of the prizes offered: instant [management] contract, recording deal, and large sum of money. Other chamber music groups got their start from winning the CAG’s competition; one that comes to mind immediately is the amazing Meridian Arts Ensemble (Ray Stewart, tubist). As for repertoire for the competition, Triton tells me they selected their works from, “…several new pieces of music, two of which were composed specifically for us: Tim Pence’s In the Monkey Brain...and Other Stories, and Stephen Horenstein’s T’ru-Ah. [We] also played Lansing McLosky’s Glaze for quintet and drum kit, which was composed for the Atlantic Brass Quintet, great friends of ours. We were able to work with the composers on multiple occasions, and were psyched to be putting some new music out there. We really came to love and believe in all the music that we played, which is essential.” Triton was quite disappointed at the CAG’s Competition as an organizational error left the group without proper warmup space. “It left a very sour taste in our mouths,” adds Jobey, “we thought about this a lot before Lyon, so we set a few ‘extreme’ rehearsals (8:00 am rehearsals and full-runs on mornings after we all got home at 12-1 a.m. the nights before after blowing down Sheherazade), and recitals of the full three rounds of the Lyon competition repertoire so we would be prepared for anything…thank goodness!”
Contrary to the disorganization of the CAG competition, Triton praises the hosts of the most recent chamber music competition held in Lyon, France this past spring. “Lyon, from an organizational standpoint, was fantastic,” explains Shelagh. “The people who ran the competition are all members of the Musical Guild of Lyon (the equivalent of the musician’s union of the city) and many were members of the Orchestra of Lyon, as well as the opera orchestra–the Lyon State Opera is world famous, and Lyon itself is a bit of a hotbed for classical music.” Shelagh continues, “The conservatory that served as the central headquarters for the week is stunning…and the people were caring, attentive, and best of all, organized. Despite our not knowing any French–we sounded like such dorks trying to speak French–we gave up after a day or two.” Jobey experienced a great deal of damage to his tuba
on the flight over to Europe, and they arrived in Lyon to the sight and sounds of broken braces and dents. The main organizer of the event, David Pastor, had Jobey immediately driven to the nearest repair shop in Lyon, and personally covered the bill for the repairs. Shelagh adds, “I kid you not! Talk about above and beyond.” Interestingly, Triton was the only American group there and what’s more, “…out of all ten participating brass quintets from all over the world, I was the only female player there,” interjects Shelagh, “What’s up with that?”
The Lyon competition was a very important event in the ongoing development of the Triton Brass Quintet. The confidence boost of winning the SpÈdidam Prize and the cash that came with it were all treasured aspects of the event, but even so, “Lyon was an arrival for us, because we stuck to our guns, and it paid off,” explains Shelagh. “Every group has it’s own very unique thing to offer. We have discussed at length what this is, and for a while, we discussed how we could go about changing our approach to either win competitions or be more attractive to management, or whatever, just get more gigs…you know how that is. However, what we learned from past experience, and in the process of preparing for Lyon is that we need to just do what it is that we do. Trying to do something else is not the way to go, especially for us. We are five passionate, opinionated, stubborn, and demanding people. I suppose that could be said for any musical group–but we are lousy actors, and it is obvious to ourselves and everyone when we are comfortable with what we are doing and when we are not. At Lyon, we just went with the plan, and we stuck to the plan. As luck would have it, the plan worked well, and we have something great to show for our efforts on our resume, but the bigger picture is more important for us. It has been an enormous boost to our confidence and we have come out of this competition experience with guns blazing.”
On a side note, Triton tells me that Swiss Air also lost Wes’s trombone (for a week) on the way home (which included a 23 hour layover in Geneva, Switzerland… on a Sunday [nothing open]). Shelagh reminded me that it is days like those when a great chamber music group can take it all in stride, laugh, and enjoy the moment for the story that it will become. A stressful event like this could tear apart a group that is under stress due to personality conflicts, but Triton rose above the clatter and enjoyed a night of barhopping and sleeping in foyers of buildings!
As for repertoire for the Lyon competition, Triton gave me the details:
1st Round: (required) Jean Bellon Quintet No. 1, movement 1, (choice of 6 pieces, from which we chose) Nabra, by David Walters–great piece by the way– quick and flashy! (Then the group’s choice of a piece from the Baroque or Renaissance periods) from which we chose 3 Monteverdi Madrigals.
2nd Round: (free round, we play what we want) held at the Lyon Opera House: Arutuinian’s Armenian Scenes (mvt.’s 1 & 3), Etler’s Quintet (mvt. 1), Tim Pence’s In the Monkey Brain…and other stories and Granados’s Oriental as arranged by Triton.
*interesting fact: “we were asked to add 18 minutes to our program the DAY BEFORE the second round–they wanted a longer concert. The Arutuinian and Etler movements were therefore faxed to us from Boston and worked up in 45 minutes the morning of the semifinals… first time we had seen them since Fischoff, two years ago.”
3rd and Final Round: (our choice) More Monteverdi (required), the Gregson Brass Quintet (required), Bach Toccata and Fugue arr. Fred Mills (required), All Lose, Whole Find by Gustavo Beytelmann (commissioned piece specifically for this competition).
Shelagh remembers the third round, “…what a blow this round was, my God! Poor, poor trumpets. [I’m] so glad I play the horn. The Beytelmann was awesome: speaking, shouting, walking around, playing, all at the same time–a major workout! [I encourage you all to] check it out. [We] can’t get enough of the Monteverdi’s, too…[it’s] the all-purpose choice for us.”
I asked Triton what role their quintet played in their current musical careers and was not surprised to learn that these top-notch (e.g. busy) musicians have to regularly juggle their freelancing and teaching responsibilities with their quintet. They add, “Unanimously, however, as time goes on (especially this year) the five of us are putting Triton ahead of most of the other gigs we play. Not only do we all find it more enjoyable, but, in terms of a long-term investment, we know that it will help us as an ensemble if we are each other’s priority. This is not always possible, but most of the time, we find that it is. Our success in Lyon, our summer engagements at Tanglewood as coaches and the resident Brass Quintet, as well as our gig as faculty at the Atlantic Brass Quintet Seminar will make this easier because of the financial rewards.”
I also asked tubist Jobey Wilson what younger tubists could do to better prepare themselves for a career in chamber music. He replied, “I personally feel that too many young tubists today (not that I am much older…28) think playing the tuba is a test of one’s manhood. Lord knows I love to rattle the rafters in Boston’s Symphony Hall, but playing tuba in chamber music, I feel, is the exact opposite. The tuba parts in Etler, Jan Bach, and especially the more modern works are not only more technically challenging than the standard orchestral repertoire, but they also require an incredible amount of finesse, a large palette of colors, and an incredibly keen sense of balance. I like to visit Bach’s cello suites in preparation for Triton. These give me a great over-all feel of balancing accompaniment and solo cantabile…basically, picking your moments to shine while simultaneously, but lightly, creating the atmosphere.”
In terms of longterm goals for the group, they tell me that they would love above nothing else to be a full time, salaried quintet. Shelagh adds, “We feel strongly about new music and would like very much to be instrumental in the development of new repertoire for the brass quintet, which is–as we all know–a fantastic medium. Triton feels that pushing the envelope, taking musical risks, and finding your own voice as a player is essential to helping music progress. As a group, we are able to take risks. We rely upon each other to have our backs while we take those risks, and go for everything. This allows for new sounds, new ideas, and great ensemble, if not the occasional clam…but it’s live music, baby! If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” Triton tells me that a recording is also in the works, so stay tuned to their website for more information regarding that and their upcoming events, also their contact information is available there (http://www.tritonbrass.org).