CHAMBER MUSIC CORNER
Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
Featured Ensemble: Sotto Voce Quartet
Jason Roland Smith, Guest Columnist
One of the many great ensembles that will be featured at this year’s ITEC in Budapest, Hungary is the Sotto Voce Quartet (USA). I asked Mike Forbes, Editor of the Chamber Music Corner, to consider his own ensemble as the featured group for this issue. This is especially ideal timing since the conference is in our sights and many young quartets are preparing for the Tuba-Euphonium Quartet Competition. In addition, as the group continues to be one of the most active chamber ensembles in the tuba-euphonium community, they will soon be releasing a new recording containing the quartet music of John Stevens.
The Sotto Voce Quartet, founded in 1996, includes professors Demondrae Thurman (Alabama State University) and Michael Forbes (Illinois State University), composer Patrick Schulz (Paradise Valley Community College), and Nat McIntosh (leader and founder of the YoungBlood Brass Band). These artists maintain a diverse and wideranging career in music and are often in demand as performers, composers, and, as of 2004, Besson Clinicians.
In 1998, the members of the quartet (who were all studying at the University of Wisconsin with John Stevens) decided to enter a few competitions both within the tuba-euphonium community and beyond. Sotto Voce won the first prize at the 1998 Colonial Euphonium Tuba Institute Quartet Competition. They also won the ITEC Quartet competition at the University of Minnesota, after originally not being accepted beyond the tape round. “They told us our recording of the Payne was too radical,” states tubist Nat McIntosh. “Thank goodness another quartet dropped out at the last minute, and we were invited to compete after all.” “We attempted the Fischoff three times and the Concert Artists’Guild twice,” states tubist Mike Forbes.
“We always made the semi-final round but were just outside the final round. Our best year at the Fischoff, was our first, when we were ranked 4th place in the wind category (only the top three groups would go to finals). That year, incidentally, Dan Perantoni was one of the judges, and we can only imagine how hard he must have fought for us to get into the finals. Ultimately, we’re pretty proud of how far we got as a tuba/euphonium quartet in those competitive circles –it’s really tough to beat the precision of a sax quartet or the colors of a brass quintet. Judges also pointed out that our repertoire simply wasn’t up to snuff against Beethoven, Poulenc, etc. This probably upset us the most.”
The repertoire issue had been on Sotto Voce’s mind from the beginning, when, like so many other quartets, they immediately began to arrange and transcribe their own repertoire. Composers Patrick Schulz and Mike Forbes have also begun to make a name for themselves due to their contributions to Sotto Voce and the tuba-euphonium repertoire as a whole.
“I think it gives our quartet an edge –an intrigue –that we create a lot of our own works,” says euphoniumist Patrick Schulz.” When Nat brought in an arrangement of Zappa’s Echidna’s Arf (Of You) and Demondrae created a version of the Lord’s Prayer for us, Mike and I knew that our quartet had something special –a truly original voice.”
While many quartets seek out composers to commission, Sotto Voce seems to have spent most of their energies creating from within. Many of their works can be found in the catalogs of Tuba-Euphonium Press and Editions-BIM, and the quartet will soon be releasing their very own series of arrangements through Bernel Music. In addition, a collaborative work called Shapes is presently in its initial stages. It will be a four-movement work in which each of the members will contribute one original movement. With these and other competition successes under their belt, Sotto Voce decided to take their quartet to the next level and begin to perform and record professionally.
Forbes adds, “For me it was the night we were asked to perform at the 16th Annual U.S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference due to our win at CETI that summer. As it was our first big event, I wanted to create a new work for us that would really bring some attention to what was our premiere performance as a professional quartet. So I composed Consequences. I had no idea what a big event that Wednesday night concert was going to be for us. It really helped to Sotto Voce Quartet -Featured create a “vibe” as Demondrae would say. I think in some ways, we’re still riding the wave of excitement that happened that evening.”
Since that night, Sotto Voce has toured throughout the United States and the United Kingdom on 10 different tours, performed live on Public Radio, become Besson Performing Artists, and recorded their first CD on the Summit Records label appropriately entitled, Consequences. That recording was favorably reviewed in many newspapers, magazines, NPR stations, and in the ITEA Journal (33:2, p. 30).
In 2002, the quartet changed its name simply to Sotto Voce when they began varying their instrumentation. They perform the majority of their repertoire with two tubas and two euphoniums but many times change their instruments to best reflect the intentions of a particular composition. They have been known to perform a great deal of euphonium quartets and in many other combinations of euphoniums, tubas, trombones, sousaphones, and at times, even a vocal barbershop quartet (see the previous Winter issue’s ITEA Gem series for an example).” I think it gives our group a broader palette of expression when we use other combinations of our instruments,” states Forbes.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the tuba-euphonium sound, but after a while it can grow tiresome on the ears –especially on the ears of non-low-brass-playing musicians! We like to change it up to keep people interested –keep them on the edge of their chairs.”
In August of 2002, Sotto Voce sat down to the microphones again in Wisconsin Public Radio’s Vilas Hall to record their second CD, Viva Voce! The Quartets of John Stevens. According to the liner notes, the quartet says,” John Stevens and his music were extraordinary influences on both the individuals within Sotto Voce and the group itself. His multifaceted musicianship stirred something in each of us, as we were all drawn to the University of Wisconsin where John serves on the music faculty. His inspirational teaching regularly encouraged us to strive for the highest level of creative musical expression. Meanwhile, we began to better understand these concepts by rehearsing and performing works that he had penned. In many ways, this recording is meant to serve as a big ” thank you ” from the tuba/euphonium community for this brilliant collection of groundbreaking quartets.”
In the CD’s liner notes, John Stevens has the following to say about this new recording and the Sotto Voce Quartet: ” The music on this recording represents virtually all of my original compositions for tuba quartet. The works span some 27 years, although most of them were com-posed in the 1970s. With the exception of the last two works on the CD (Viva Voce!and Benediction), which were written especially for the Sotto Voce Quartet and this recording, all of these pieces were originally conceived (for a variety of reasons) for tubas only, or for tubists perhaps playing the upper parts on euphonium. Only in the years since most of these pieces were composed has the tuba quartet, with two euphoniums and two tubas, become the standard instrumentation for low brass chamber groups. Although at least five of these works have been recorded by other groups, this is the first recording of my complete quartets.
I am most grateful to the members of the Sotto Voce Quartet for their interest in this project and for their fantastic performances of my music. It has been a joy to be involved with so many facets of this recording, and my continuing personal and musical collaborations with the quartet and its individual members is something that I cherish very much. Thanks guys. . . .
My compositions, especially in the early years of my career, have been strongly influenced by jazz and popular music. With these quartets, I was often striving to fight tuba stereotypes by creating clear, driving, exciting music that would find a ‘groove’ even without a rhythm section to provide it. I am thrilled at the level of excitement that the improvised solos on this recording bring to my music! The currency of their styles, much different than I would have had in mind 25 years ago, has added freshness to these works that I find very rewarding. This collaboration between composer and performers to create something special is, to me, one of the most important and exciting aspects of making music.”
Viva Voce!The Quartets of John Stevens will be released in 2004 by Summit Records. The CD includes such quartet standards as: Power, Music 4 Tubas, Dances (Demondrae Thurman, soloist), Manhattan Suite, Diversions, Moondance, Fanfare for a Friend, and two new works by John Stevens:Viva Voce! and Benediction.
The Sotto Voce Quartet will be featured at ITEC 2004 in Budapest in both performance and as clinicians. They will also be assisting in the adjudication of the quartet competition. If you would like to learn more about the Sotto Voce Quartet, inquire about touring schedules, or book an event, contact them via their website:www. tubaquartet. com. Sound clips from their new John Stevens C will also be available on this website.
Editor’s Note Two works specifically for young players and a short, somewhat comic work com-posed especially for Germany’s Melton Quartet have not been included on the CD.