Chamber Music Corner: Epsilon Ensemble
by Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
As a result of attending ITECs, especially those hosted in cities outside North America, I have the fabulous opportunity to meet tubists and euphoniumists outside of my normal sphere. One such individual was French tubist Thierry Thibault. I soon learned more about his Ensemble Epsilon, and thought the readership of the Journal would also be interested to know about this active brass quartet in France. I interviewed Thierry through e-mail, and the following was drawn from those interactions.
Mike Forbes: How did Epsilon form? Who are its members and how did you all meet?
Thierry Thibault: In December 1986, Jean-Pierre Cénédèse, Bruno Flahou, Franck Pulcini, Gilles Mercier, and myself, Thierry Thibault, all graduates of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, decided to form a brass quintet together. Epsilon Ensemble was born. After two years of intense work, we won a prize at the International Brass Ensembles Competition in Narbonne (France) in May 1988. Maurice André, president of the competition became the mentor for our ensemble, and our career continued with concerts and tours around the world. In April 1993, Epsilon won a prize in the International Chamber Music Competition in Osaka (Japan), holding its own against the top string ensembles of that time.
How have these competitions affected your Ensemble?
I can say, now, that this Narbonne competition prize has been essential for our recognition as a major chamber group in France. However, it didn’t give us any direct gigs or tours…the best thing with these tournaments is that you have to work very hard to be ready. The ability and level of both the individuals and the group greatly increase in a short period of time. Of course, in the long run, a national recognition brings some work and help from the ministry of culture, for example. Our award in Osaka had a bigger influence for our international reputation, and, in fact, we have been touring in Japan every two or three years since then.
I’ve featured a number of brass quintets, quartets, and tuba-euphonium quartets in this column, and each of them have strong opinions about their objectives and how they are achieving them. What about yourselves?
For these two competitions, we were playing some of the great repertoire for brass quintet, such as Ewald’s first symphony and Arnold’s quintet among others, but mostly personal compositions and arrangements that I have been writing over the years. We have this strong idea that an ensemble makes its own sound with its style of playing, of course, including nationalistic traditions and instrumentation. In fact, nowadays, we play essentially works written by or for us.
So how did Epsilon become an innovative brass quartet?
In 1999, a trumpet player, Frédéric, split for the third time from our ensemble, after Marc and Gilles. The four other members, Franck, Jean-Pierre, Bruno, and I kept together with great mutual respect and friendship. It was a major crisis for Epsilon, and we were looking for someone to fit into our group. André Henry’s name came up, but, unfortunately, with his planning and ours, we could not even organize one meeting! Too bad…it would have been an interesting experience. Finally, Franck proposed that we try as a quartet: trumpet, horn, trombone, and tuba. I was, of course, the most reticent of us four, because I couldn’t figure out, at first, how to write for such an ensemble. After working on it, I understood that the way to it was more contrapuntal than harmonic, a little bit like writing for wind quintet.
In 2008, Epsilon will be in its 20th season of professional artistic activities. For the four of us, this long time has been much more than a musical adventure. Epsilon has become part of our lives. We grew up together. We cannot, today, imagine living without the other three, musically and humanly.
It doesn’t seem to me that we are innovators in a way or the other. Of, course, we dared to try out this quartet orchestration when nobody did, and have premiered quite a few works written especially for us, but I think our main goal is to promote and cultivate a French style of playing. Brass music is not only fanfare or brass band, it can be real chamber music, too. This recognition as good chamber players is one way to be invited to perform in the big European festivals.
Epsilon is a brass quartet, but we play some concerts with eleven players, too (4 tpts, 4 tbns, 2 hns and 1 tba) and sometimes as a brass and percussion orchesta, with Michel Becquet as a conductor.
Please tell the readership more about your “Epsival Festival.”
One big thing that we are proud of is this Epsival Festival held every year in Limoges (France) the last two weeks of august. We started in 1994 with 2 concerts, 6 teachers and about forty students. This summer, in 2007, we organized forty concerts, had thirty-five teachers with us and over a hundred students coming for all over Europe and Japan. We had quite a few artists from the American continent along these years (Claudio Roditi, Jim Pugh, John Stevens, Melvin Culbertson, Jerome Callet, the American horn quartet, the Canadian brass) and very are happy to invite the Sotto VoceQuartet next year.
Finally, for the tubists reading this column, what advice do you, Thierry, give to young tubists seeking out a professional performing career in chamber music.
As a tuba player, I have a very strong feeling that a lot has still to be done. A very few of us will play in orchestra, and if we only wait for the phone to ring, we may not perform too much. These last fifteen or twenty years, many tubists created their own group or ensemble and did write or arranged their own music to play. Improvisation is more and more essential for us, in every field, jazz of course, but classical, too, and contemporary. Jon Sass always tells us to be creative with tuba, and he is right. But I would say create your own work with the tuba. Never forget that if you don’t do it yourself, nobody else will!
To learn more about the Epsilon Ensemble or their famed Epsival Festival, logon to: http://www.epsilon.asso.fr.