Chamber Music Corner
by Mike Forbes, Associate Editor
Meridian Arts Ensemble
This column has featured a great number of brass chamber groups ranging from tuba-euphonium quartets, brass quartets, and a good number of brass quintets. Each group has its own voice, and it is interesting to see how that voice developed through its membership and its legacy. The Meridian Arts Ensemble certainly has its own unique voice and, while still a brass quintet (and a percussionist), pushes the boundaries of what brass chamber music is and should be to a whole new level. To put it more succinctly, their biography states, “The MAE blazes its own trail.” It has done so by collaborating with or commissioning and premiering works by Milton Babbitt, Frank Zappa, The Common Sense Composers’ Collective, Jan Bach, Stephen Barber, Philip Johnston, Ira Taxin, David Sampson, Kirk Nurock, John Halle, Norman Yamada, Jan Radzynski, Elliott Carter, Mark Applebaum, Dave Ballou, Ed Jacobs, and many others. Quite an impressive list of eclectic composers, indeed!
Their biography also states, “Founded in 1987, the Meridian Arts Ensemble has performed on four continents, in forty-nine states, on radio and television, in concert halls and jazz clubs and rock clubs. The MAE has commissioned and premiered countless new works and has recorded and released eight critically acclaimed CDs. The MAE began as a traditional brass quintet, winning four competitions in under two years. Winning First Prize in the coveted Concert Artists’ Guild New York Competition in 1990 launched the group’s international career. Since then, the group has evolved into an adaptable ensemble with a core of brass and percussion, expanding as necessary to include piano, guitar, bass, and saxophone. Eclecticism is a key element of the MAE’s performances: the ensemble performs a wide variety of music, mixing classical and contemporary works, jazz and rock compositions, ethnic music, and original works by ensemble members. The MAE has performed extensively throughout the world. Major U.S. venues such as Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, Merkin Hall, Chicago’s Symphony Hall and Pick-Staiger Hall, L.A.’s Ambassador Auditorium, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Tanglewood, and Atlanta’s Spivey Hall have been hosts to the Meridian Arts Ensemble’s performances. Countries that the MAE has visited include Japan, Taiwan, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Austria, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Colombia. Television performances have included PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center, as well as international appearances on German, Dutch, and Austrian state networks. The MAE has been heard on NPR and PRI affiliates, on commercial classical stations, on alternative stations across the country, and on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Radio broadcasts have included NPR’s Weekend Edition, St. Paul Sunday Morning, WDR (Germany), Dutch National Radio’s de Concertzender, and ORF (Austria). In 1993, the group launched New York station WQXR’s “Artists-in-Radio” program with a series of studio performances and interviews.
The MAE displays its uniqueness and versatility through regular performances at jazz and alternative rock clubs. New York’s Tonic, Knitting Factory, CBGB’s, and the Kitchen; Washington D.C.’s Black Cat; and Los Angeles’ House of Blues have hosted the ensemble. The MAE has also collaborated with such notables as Duran Duran. The Meridian Arts Ensemble records exclusively for Channel Classics and has released eight recordings to date.”
Now that the readership of the Journal is more aware of their international acclaim, let’s explore some of the background of the group. I had an opportunity to communicate with Raymond Stewart, Associate Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Fredonia and the tubist in the MAE, and learned a great deal about the early formation of the Meridian Arts Ensemble. “We formed late in 1987 in NYC,” states Ray. “At that time, the members were either still enrolled in school at Juilliard or the Manhattan School of Music or just finishing up. We did our first concert recital at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church on West 71st Street in Manhattan.” Ray explained to me that they did a number of typical brass quintet gigs around town and bulked up on both gig and recital repertoire simultaneously. He continues, “One indication we were a little different was that there was clear thought on repertoire for gigs versus the recital stage. The catch phrase ‘works deserving wider recognition’ was in our vocabulary via works by Etler, Jan Bach, Taxin, Lutoslawski, et al.” Ray also explained that playing with the quintet was immediately attractive because their first two gigs were non-paying but were at a penthouse hotel pool in midtown Manhattan and at a Club Med resort in the Dominican Republic!
The current membership of the MAE includes trumpeters Jon Nelson and Brian McWhorter (both Juilliard), hornist Dan Grabois (Yale, Manhattan School of Music), trombonist Ben Herrington (Juilliard), tubist Raymond Stewart (University of Miami, Manhattan School of Music), and percussionist John Ferrari (SUNY Stony Brook). Ray tells me that the most recent change in personnel was in 2002, “…when we were fortunate to include Brian McWhorter.” He continues, “From the above list of schools, you can see we might have been well-positioned to meet and be coached by esteemed faculty. This was certainly the case. In our early years we would play for anyone who would hear us. This included members of the New York Brass Quintet, American Brass Quintet, Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, New York Woodwind Quintet, etc.”
Moreover, Ray states that it was in 1988 that,
“…the fledgling brass chamber music program at Juilliard [American Brass Quintet’s home] kindly gave us an open door, and that summer we attended Yale’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in Connecticut. Both of these programs provided fantastic immersion and opportunity in extremely high levels of chamber music making. Not only performing, but attending and listening to concerts as well. Our growth at Norfolk was intense that summer. We [were coached by] John Swallow, Bill Purvis, Alan Dean, and Bob Nagel. As well, we were exposed to groups such as the Tokyo String Quartet, the New York Brass Quintet reunion concert, many other faculty performances, and high level student performances on a weekly basis.”
This author could not imagine a more impressive group of mentors and role models involved in the development of this budding young brass quintet. But Ray says it best by explaining, “Show me a brass quintet that plays like a brass quintet, and I’ll show you a group that needs more exposure to a variety of chamber music.”
Since winning the Concert Artists’ Guild competition really set MAE up for their future success, I asked Ray what he thought competitions did for the Meridians. He told me,
“We did Fischoff, Artists International, and Concert Artists’ Guild competitions. CAG was by far the best and perhaps still is. I think what we gained from the competition circuit is multi-fold. There is no substitute for hard work, thorough preparation, performance experience, and risk-taking. The competitions gave us all of this. Choosing repertoire (for the competition) was a calculated risk since most of our ‘serious’ repertoire was quite serious and the perennial question of ‘how far can we go with the heavy rep?’ was now posed in a competitive milieu. Much more was at risk.”
After MAE won the Concert Artists’ Guild competition, part of the prize was to produce MAE’s first CD. After that, the group began to work and be recognized internationally. I asked Ray what role MAE plays in each of the different members’ musical life today. “Shortly after we went ‘part-time’ a few years ago,” explained Ray, “we realized we had been trying to fund our art with our art. In hindsight, this is a recipe for disaster. So we improvised life for a while and came up with other balances. Some of us went out and got teaching jobs, some re-directed their freelancing toward Broadway shows, Jon Nelson went to freelance in Mexico City for a year, etc. So now we have fewer (but better) gigs and actually make a little money both as a group and individually. And the group is better than ever, rather than playing and touring more than ever.”
Many of the readers of this column may very well have heard of or even heard the Meridian Arts Ensemble live in concert. Having attended an MAE experience, one immediately begins to contrast what it is that they do on stage with what other highly renowned quintets (Dallas Brass, Canadian Brass, etc.) do. I asked Ray about how he viewed his quintet’s vibe in comparison with so many of the other quintets out there. He related to me the following: “Many brass community folks recognized years ago the difference in paradigm represented by the modern brass quintet (s). That said, I think we, as a group, are past trying to re-invent the brass chamber music wheel via protest. We have opinions about it, of course, but it is by example that we ultimately choose to influence.” And indeed they do practice as they at one time preached: their concerts are immediately original and outrageously eclectic…from the repertoire to what they do on, with, or without their instruments.
Perhaps Ray summed up this paradigm best when he stated,
“A carpenter can grab a hammer and a saw and make just about anything. It doesn’t need to be a house, and the end result is up to their imagination. The Canadian Brass is about entertainment and profit, as far as I can tell. They do this with brass instruments in their hands. We also have brass instruments in our hands, but our profit is negligible and our entertainment value is highly specific by comparison, perhaps elite. If you can relate to Meridian Arts Ensemble’s art (or product), we are top shelf. Same goes for Canadian Brass. Both groups are very good at what they do. The only thing in common with us are the tools being used, i.e. the brass instruments. They could swap out their brass instruments for buzz saws and get the same entertaining results. Conversely, I imagine they could easily say the same thing about us. [laughs out loud] If one group has an advantage though, it is that the Canadian Brass model is pervasive, comparatively. What is your definition of success? In terms of the brass quintet as capitalist business model, we stand outside looking in at them. In terms of musical and intellectual accomplishment, it’s vice versa. Mostly.”
In terms of future goals for the Meridians, Ray says, “Long or short term, I think our goals are to continue performing and recording, teaching and influencing for another 20 years, if possible. Our eighth recording, Brink , came out in May 2006 and CD No. 9 (the Sub-Tropics disc) will be recorded in October.
Additionally, we have the annual Meridian Seminar now, hosted by East Carolina University in Greenville, NC. It is a brass chamber music intensive occurring for 1 week in June: coachings [are provided] by us, and [we] utilize an annually rotating master teacher. This year was John Swallow, former trombone player with NYBQ, NYC Ballet Orchestra, Yale and NEC faculty, and the Chicago Symphony. Lastly, we are pleased to announce the formation of our own independent recording label, 8bells. While Channel Classics remains onboard for our mainstream projects, 8bells will provide a venue for our more independent and unorthodox recording projects. Projects which may or may not include solo recordings, release of live MAE concert material, collaborative efforts (including those with our students), and special projects.”
Finally, for the young tubists reading this column, I asked Ray to give ideas toward seeking out a professional performing career in chamber music. Like other professional chamber music tubists, his answers are to the point, raw, and not necessarily encouraging. This is the realism of today’s live music scene especially as it relates to brass chamber music.
“Sadly, the odds are stacked against us,” explains Ray. “There may be no such thing as a professional performing career in chamber music for a tubist, at least not in a full-time sense. Along with battling stereotype, we are now up against a new era of economy and practicality. It is increasingly more expensive and difficult to independently travel with a tuba (and a mute), especially through airports. You can expect an oversize/overweight charge from the airlines and random TSA inspections on your instrument and case.”
This author recently encountered no excess baggage charge on a large, overweight Walt Johnson Case out bound but was hit with dimensional and weight restriction fees on the inbound flight almost costing more than the actual round-trip ticket! (Look for more commentary from this author on this topic on an ITEA Journal article yet to come.)
Ray continues with his realistic views of a professional chamber music career: “Concert presenters are not so quickly inclined to book a tuba/euphonium quartet or a brass quintet. Part of that problem is perception and stereotype, but this blemish stems from education and lack of exposure. It’s uphill all the way.” With some words of encouragement, however, Ray adds, “try to get past the fact that you are playing the tuba and develop your musicianship skills in every way possible. Be a musician that happens to play the tuba.”
To learn more about Meridian Arts Ensemble, upcoming events, hear sound clips, or explore more about their summer seminar (Meridian Seminar) at East Carolina University, visit their webpage at: http://www.meridianartsensemble.com or point your browser to http://www.myspace.com/meridianartsensemble for up-to-the-minute MAE news.