Chamber Music Corner: Kansas Brass Quintet
by Mike Forbes, Associate Edtior
In the past three Chamber Music Corners, this column has been focusing on perhaps the most prominent group of chamber music groups out there: faculty brass quintets. While each ensemble has similar personnel from similar faculty positions, the nuances in personality and leadership make for completely different views on what a faculty quintet could or even should be.
Kansas Brass Quintet (L-R): Paul Stevens, Steve Leisring, Scott Watson, Netai Pons, and Michael Davidson.
For the final installment in this series, I have chosen to feature the faculty brass quintet from the University of Kansas. According to their biography, the Kansas Brass Quintet “…has for over thirty years been lauded for its brilliant and versatile programs. An Ensemble-in-Residence in the Department of Music and Dance at the University of Kansas, this coveted ensemble has performed on many national music conferences including multiple performances on the National MENC, the National Association and Wind and Percussion Instructors Convention, and the National Music Teachers Association Convention. Their CD of both chamber and solo works titled Rare Breeds and Dog-Eared Classics was released in fall 2000. The KBQ can also be heard on The Music of David Holsinger on Mark Records and has twice presented programs on National Public Radio titled “Star Spangled Spectacular” and “Musicke Fit for a King or Queen,” both produced by KANU in Lawrence for statewide release. A member of the Kansas Arts Commission Touring Roster, the KBQ has performed throughout the state of Kansas and the Midwest. The Kansas Brass Quintet is made up of individual artists that are also dedicated music educators. The ensemble presents numerous clinics each year on a variety of musical topics in both schools and communities. Their impressive artistry and genuine rapport with audiences has made the Kansas Brass Quintet a hit with audiences year after year.”
I had the opportunity to speak with the tubist in the KBQ, Scott Watson, a well-known tubist and pedagogue and a former president of ITEA.
When/how did the Kansas Brass Quintet (KBQ) form?
The KBQ began in 1968 with my composer friend James Barnes (then a student) as tubist. Its early activities were centered on the university because many of its members had duties outside of the studio teaching area. The tuba position soon became a graduate teaching assistant position with Stephen Anderson being the Professor of Low Brass (trombone, euphonium, tuba) starting in the mid-seventies. The tuba teaching assistant would teach all the tuba students and Anderson would teach the trombone and euphonium students; this is how I first came to the university from the Cincinnati Conservatory in the fall of 1979 as a graduate student. The tuba position moved to a faculty position in the fall of 1981, then also taking over the teaching of euphonium in addition to the tuba students. It was also starting in the mid-seventies that the quintet began to expand its profile by touring and commissioning new works. The tireless, creative work of Stephen Anderson (Professor of Trombone), Roger Stoner (Professor of Trumpet), and David Bushouse (Professor of Horn) during that time created the quintet as known today, with touring, recording, and appearances on major conferences and symposia. The current members of the Kansas Brass Quintet are Steve Leisring (Professor of Trumpet), Netai Pons (trumpet Teaching Assistant); Paul Stevens (Professor of Horn); Michael Davidson (Professor of Trombone), and myself as the Professor of Tuba-Euphonium. Both Michael Davidson and Netai Pons are in their first year with the group, while Steve Leisring has been with the KBQ for three years, and Paul Stevens for eight years. I am the elder statesman now, being in the group for twenty-eight years. Some other former members worth mentioning have been trumpeters William Campbell, Jon Lewis, Jon Burgess, David Turnbull, Christopher Moore and Steve Molloy; hornists Marian Hesse and Heather Langford; trombonists Max Bonecutter, Thomas Ashworth, David Vining, Michael Hall, and Wayne Wells; and my predecessor on tuba was Joe Sellmensberger.
What are some important elements of the history of the group?
Some highlights of the group’s activities since I joined in 1979 have been its appearances on at least three National MENC Conferences, along with appearances on the Army Band Conference (2005) and the NACWAPI Conference that we hosted in 2003 if I remember correctly. We have also presented recitals on many regional and state conventions through the years, as well as recitals on college campuses throughout the United States. The group has been members of two different touring programs for many years, one the Kansas Arts Commission Touring Program and the Mid America Arts Alliance Touring Program. The results of being affiliated with these organizations is being invited to perform throughout the Midwest, and, in Kansas, there is hardly a town that we have not performed in at least once.
In 2001 we recorded a CD titled Rare Breeds & Dog-Eared Classics that featured the first ever recording of all those Leonard Bernstein character pieces for brass that includes Waltz for Mippy III and ends with the quartet version of Fanfare for Bima. That recording also includes the Divertissement by James Barnes, which was composed for the KBQ in the early 1980s, as well as the Jorgensen Quintet. The quintet also has recorded David Holsinger’s fine quintet entitled Scrappy Bumptoe’s Picturecards & Ragtag Dances. That work was written for us and is on a TRN release titled Holsinger 4. We have done three recorded programs for Kansas Public Radio through the years, which are still repeated once in a while. These cover some of our touring programs such as our Holiday Season show, our Baroque/Renaissance show, and our “Old Time Band in the Park” program.
What makes your group different from other faculty brass quintets?
In my opinion it might be our dedication to touring in spite of heavy teaching loads and other performance activities. We have put in some pretty crazy tours with long van rides “for the sake of the art.” The quintet really loves playing in smaller towns that do not see a classical concert every week. I remember a tour to Wisconsin some years ago where we were playing in the northern part of the state in December, with me laid out in the back of the van with a serious sinus infection and fever, while a suicidal deer (a large buck actually) hits the side of the van full tilt and no one freaks, it was just “hey, we gotta keep going to the next gig” type of attitude. I have seen this group put up with lack of accommodations, dressing rooms and such that many “artist” types would walk away from, all because we really love to perform for general audiences.
What role does the quintet play in the different members’ musical lives? How do you all prioritize the quintet with your other responsibilities in terms of desire and time commitment?
The quintet has always been one of the vital parts of our musical activities, both individually as well as part of our brass program at the University of Kansas. We rehearse three times a week with no load credit because we want to perform together. In times that quintet activities have been curtailed for some reason, we have found that we all miss that close bonding we get both musically and socially. We also find that we communicate better as a faculty when we perform and rehearse together like we do. It’s amazing how working together musically always makes us better colleagues in our other associations with each other.
Still our quintet members all play a great deal elsewhere. Steve Leisring performs both here and abroad. Paul Stevens maintains an active presence in Los Angeles throughout the year. Mike Davidson is still Principal Trombone of the Shreveport Symphony and has a busy career as a conductor as well. I am also in the Fountain City Brass Band, the Kansas City Brassworks (another quintet), and do the tuba work with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The dedication to the KBQ that each member has is all based on the fact that we simply like to work with each other whether it’s in rehearsal or in a performance.
What is the vision and musical mission of the quintet?
The quintet’s musical mission is two-fold; one is to be a great example for our students both artistically and professionally. Two, the quintet strives to present a variety of programs to our audiences at a very high level of performance. Variety in repertoire has always been a trademark of the group, and I expect that to continue. We currently present four different programs on any given tour. One is a totally serious program of original brass quintet works and classical transcriptions. Others are an “Old Time Band in the Park” Program, a holiday season Program, a jazz oriented program, and finally a baroque/renaissance program. However it is not unusual to have us combine two of these programs’ repertoire into one single show if the presenter makes that type of request.
What are the future goals of the quintet, both long and short term?
In the short term, we would like to produce another recording soon; one of more serious material and the other of our holiday show titled “The Holiday Season Spectacular” that we have been touring with for many years. In the long run, the quintet would like to expand our appearances on college campuses and at major music conferences. My colleagues really enjoyed our recital on the U.S. Army Tuba-Euphonium Conference and the Great Plains Tuba-Euphonium Conference a few years back, and we hope to expand this to others soon. We love playing for general audiences, but once in a while its stimulating to play for audiences that need no “entertaining” which opens up the repertoire choices for the group.
What advice do you have for young tubists seeking out professional performing careers in chamber music and/or academia?
I know most of my friends and colleagues who are also university teacher-performers would agree that we get paid to do something we love. I am tremendously lucky to have a position in which almost every workday is different, and that, to a large degree, I serve as my own boss in most aspects of my day-to-day professional life. For those wishing to pursue college teaching my best advice is to acquire skills to be as multi-faceted as possible both musically and in your ability to manage a music program at some level. To land a college position these days one needs to be a fine solo player, a chamber musician, and in many cases also demonstrate both the ability to perform and teach the major orchestral, if not wind band repertoire, for our instruments. If this was not enough, you must also show that you have the ability to manage a studio, recruit, and show competence in other areas as well depending on the position. Those skills have to be developed before you ever land a position. Having a track record with these skills as a teaching assistant or in some other position really helps, in addition to having started some type of professional activity while a student. Such professional activities as arranging, recording, and performing, especially as a soloist or as a chamber musician can be done even when you are still a student if you have the entrepreneur spirit and some chutzpah. Someone once said, “luck was when preparation meets opportunity”…well that describes the proper preparation for a college position pretty well.
If someone wants to make their career as a chamber musician, then they should see themselves as a “musician/business person.” I would also suggest that they seriously take some music business classes as well as study the careers of such groups and individuals as Pat Sheridan, Steve Mead, Empire Brass, Canadian Brass, Boston Brass, Rhythm and Brass, and Dallas Brass to use as a template for a possible career. In fact, my responses to a college teaching career might even be truer here.
If you would like to learn more about the KBQ, Scott Watson, or the Department of Music at Kansas University, please visit the KBQ at http://arts.ku.edu/~sfa/faculty/.