Italy’s Gomalan Brass Quintet: A Conversation with Tubist Alessandro Fossi
by Jason Roland Smith
p>Play well while working towards the best possible results: this is the inspiration that brought together, almost by chance, five musicians from different towns in Italy, who in the past have played, and currently still play, as principal musicians in some of the most prestigious orchestras in Europe—to name but some, Munich Radio Orchestra, Frankfurt Opera, La Scala in Milan, Santa Cecilian Academy, Maggio Musicale Forentino, Teatro San Carolo in Naples, Teatro Regio in Turin, Italian Swiss Radio Orchestra in Lugano, and the National Symphony Orchestra of the RAI National Radio and TV—working with some of the world’s greatest living conductors.
Gomalan Brass Quintet
The Gomalan Brass Quintet was formed in 1999 and is motivated by a desire to express their maximum artistic potential. The group performs a repertoire that spans the Renaissance to contemporary music, yet by no means do they ignore genres that are at times considered less refined.
Just two years from their formation, in November 2001, the group won one of the world’s most prestigious awards—the first prize at the “Town of Passau” International Contest in Germany, receiving enthusiastic praise from renowned international brass celebrities such as Roger Bobo, David Ohanian, Steven Mead, Dale Clevenger, and Frøydis Ree Werke, all of whom consider the GBQ one of the most captivating and exciting groups on the international circuit.
A regular presence in some of the most important concert halls and Italian musical festivals (Festival di Stresa, The Sounds of the Dolomites, Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome, the theatres of Bolzano, Parma, Bologna, Turin, Milan, etc.), the GBQ has also performed in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Germany, Greece, and Switzerland and has given master classes at the Tanglewood Institute of Music, Toronto University, Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and at the University of Glasgow.
Numerous radios have broadcasted performances by the GBQ, which include Bayerishces Rundfunk, Radio Vaticana, Radio Canada, and Radio Rai Tre (for whom the group has performed several world premieres). GBQ has made two CDs (with a third currently under production), produced by Summit Records.
[The group biography is drawn from www.gomalanbrass.com]
GBQ tubist Alessandro Fossi is no stranger to the ITEA Journal or ITEA in general. He has performed at several ITECs, serves as an Editorial Advisor for the Journal, and was featured in the Summer 2004 issue of the Journal.
Alessandro has performed with many orchestras throughout Europe, and he was a finalist for the Wiener Philharmoniker and the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a soloist, he was a prizewinner in the Markneukirchen International Competition in 2000 and the Lieksa International Tuba Competition in 2001. He is an active soloist and clinician, and recent guest activity has led him to the Royal Northern College of Music, Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Stanford University, ITEC 2006 and 2008 in Denver and Cincinnati. He is a B & S artist.
Many thanks to Alessandro for participating in this interview. If you should have questions for Alessandro, please email him at email@example.com or visit gomalanbrass.com.
Can you discuss the formation of your group, its history?
The idea to form a brass quintet began with Marco Pierobon (principal trumpet) and Nilo Caracristi (horn), who were performing together in a quintet in South Tyrol (Italy). Both found this to be great fun and artistically gratifying, so the idea developed to have this type of experience but with something (and someone) more “international.”
The Gomalan Brass was formed in 1999, the first rehearsal was in Parma (northern Italy) in August and then the first concert occurred exactly one year after! The other members were Marco Braito on trumpet, Dalmar Nur Hussen on trombone, and myself as the tubist. The quintet’s first goal was the Narbonne competition in 2000, and at that time I was also preparing for the Markneukirchen solo competition. We were all working pretty hard. It was a difficult period though because of the distance between our work locations. Marco Pierobon was working in Florence, Nilo, Marco Braito, and myself were in Naples, and Dalmar was in Palermo. More than 1000 km between us, which was crazy!!
After a year Dalmar and myself left the group, Gianluca Scipioni on trombone and Oswald Prader on tuba joined the quintet for the first concert, which was the Santa Fiora International Festival, near Florence, with all the members of the Florence Opera and Roger Bobo in the front row! Then this year, after “only” 8 years, I returned to the group and Oswald left to work in Frankfurt, Germany.
It’s difficult to maintain a steady relationship because of the distances, but we meet together most of the time for rehearsals, concerts, or everything concerning the quintet…but the Internet helps us stay in touch everyday; a chamber group requires a lot of dialogue to find the right direction for the interest of all members.
In terms of artistic ideas or philosophies, does your group maintain an artistic direction?
Yes, we would like to influence as many people as possible in falling in love with brass music and instruments. We feel this responsibility, and we also hope that our performances inspire audiences to attend more brass concerts. One goal is to always be entertaining, so we introduce our repertoire throughout the concert, and we also search and arrange new material and also create some choreography. But the most important priority is always to play as good as we can!
Our name reflects the philosophy of the group. Gomalan is an invented word, means nothing but is full of charm. But if you read the whole name, gomalanbrass together, in Italian dialect, without translation, it means “I have a pain in my arm.” We’re serious about our work, but not too much!
Are there other ensembles or musicians that influenced the artistic vision of the group?
Of course The Canadian Brass and the Empire Brass were influences. They opened the door for groups like ours—to turn a wonderful experience like brass ensemble playing into a job. I have most of their recordings, and I remember as a teenager spending hours and hours listening to their CDs through headphones while playing along (this is a practice that I still use sometimes in preparing certain repertoire). Other influences include jazz, funk, Big Band, Latin, and, of course, Italian opera!
Since your fellow members are all located in different locations, what type of rehearsal-performance schedule are you able to maintain?
At the very beginning we work a lot on “building” the group. Exercises and technical drills combined together. When I returned to the group this year, I played my first concert reading the music one week before and a rehearsal one day before the concert, which was a live concert on the National Radio from the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome…what adrenaline!
Now things are quite different, time is limited for the quintet and the members are very busy, so we tend to rehearse a lot immediately preceding concerts or tours. We would love to have more time for rehearsals!
You have had a successful career as an orchestral tubist, have you given this up to pursue chamber music alone? If so, why? What is it that attracts you to this medium?
This is a very good question. The point is that many things have influenced my choice. At first it wasn’t a choice but an opportunity. Oswald (previous tubist) was considering leaving the group due to the difficulty in traveling form Germany; the other guys called me to ask if I was interested to join them once again.
To do this I had to leave my job in the S. Cecilia Orchestra, one of the best orchestral positions in Italy. I took one month to decide…a very difficult month. But at the end I decided to undertake this new adventure…and you know what? I’m really happy! Now I have the time to fulfill many artistic desires and to do many different things,
I have a new teaching position in the Conservatory “Gioacchino Rossini” in Pesaro, the school whose establishment was desired by Gioacchino Rossini himself, as written in his will. I feel a large historical responsibility holding this teaching position, and teaching is an activity that I really like to do.
I still play in orchestras as a freelance musician, and I recently had the opportunity to perform with the Orchestra of the Marijnsky Theater of Saint Petersburg under Valery Gergiev, conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of the Spring. I also recently was in La Scala playing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique under Daniel Barenboim, then Bruckner’s 7th in Bologna.
I also perform solo recitals, and in February I will perform the Concerto for Tuba and Strings by Arild Plau with the Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana (www.filarmonicamarchigiana.com). The experience to play with a professional quintet was the one thing that I was missing.
Do you find yourself pursuing a different style of tuba playing in the quintet versus orchestra? Now that you have actively pursued both professionally, which is more gratifying?
To tell the truth…not so much, definitely each time I perform in a different situation I try to be open to changes and suitable to every need. Added, I’m lucky to play with other four excellent musicians. We never have problems with trumpets in terms of stamina…or at least so it seems, so we really feel free to do what is better for the music and the show, and this is great.
Both in quintet and orchestra the tuba is the foundation of the ensemble, the instrument that has to create the color, support the melodic line, maintain the rhythm, and the foundation for intonation; the difference is that the orchestra is a “bigger” quintet so probably we need “bigger” ears.
Regarding the gratification, I think that since we love what we are doing, everything will be gratifying, doesn’t matter if we are talking about orchestral playing, quintet, solo, or any other jobs.
As a performing ensemble, how is the brass quintet viewed in Italy. Is it a popular medium and/or familiar to Italian audiences?
It’s strange to say this, but in Italy music and culture are not a common thing. Our governments try every year to save money, and the first things that are thrown away are culture and music. It’s a sad situation, but more than a few opera theaters are currently in great trouble. You could ask many people if they know the tuba, and they more likely will indicate the trombone….
In Italy there has never been a big brass tradition, as in England or Northern Europe. We don’t have big brass bands or wind orchestras. The life for a brass quintet is not easy, and all the major concert seasons are not looking for brass concerts. We are always taken as the town band. Lately the situation is changing, but very slow, and more seasons and festivals are beginning to open their doors to brass ensembles.
The other side of the coin is that audiences love our concerts. Sometimes they arrive suspicious, but at the end they ask for an encore or inquire about our next concert. They go back euphoric, so we feel more close to the people than to institutions.
Is Gomalan active in commissioning new music for quintet?
We have had some premieres, some of which are on recordings. A CD will be published by RAI (Italian Broadcasting Network) with a work called Nights on Broadway by an Italian composer, Raffaele Bellafronte. In other occasions we have performed the pieces for a composition competition. But we’re not so convinced that these work for Italian audiences. We love and respect groups like Stockholm Chamber Brass and their original repertoire. But our philosophy is “lighter” if you will. There is sometimes a big wall between the music and the audience. We would like to break it down. Playing The Simpsons soundtrack, for example—it’s not an easy piece—it’s fast, rhythmically complex, but, at the end, it’s The Simpsons!
Can you discuss the “Opera Project?”
This is in the same direction. The idea of a condensed opera comes from a concert the guys had did in 2001. It was the Giuseppe Verdi’s 100th anniversary celebration, and the quintet received a request for an all-Verdi program. Now, we love Verdi’s music, and we know very well that Verdi’s music works best in the theatre in his original dramatic form. In other words, two hours of a brass quintet concert playing Verdi’s music without singers and words could be very boring! Aida in that “musical” form was the solution we found. The music consists of 14 famous extracts, in which we play of course, but also we sing, dance, and make movements. Between that we recite as the five protagonists of the original opera: Aida, his father Amonasro, the Pharaon (which I am…), his daughter Amneris, and the Egyptian soldier Radames. Of course we’re dressed like Egyptians or Ethiopians.
Aida was performed many times around Italy, in theatres or outside, for very serious lyrical festivals or for funny seasons. It could be like cabaret but also a way to understand well but lightly the wonderful world of opera, with its stories and wonderful music.
You have recorded two CDs. Can you discuss the music and philosophy behind these recordings? The cover art is very interesting and beautiful, any significant background to the cover art?
The first one was recorded in 2002, and it’s simply the “demo” of our concert schedule. There’s a little bit of everything, from opera to Italian songs. The second one was recorded in 2004, and the common direction is swing, from the very beginning, ragtime, to the Big Brass band sound to the Latin charts.
The cover art for all three projects was made by a friend of ours, Marzio Lucchesi. He is a graphic artist, interested in music and animation. We asked him to study something for the group, and these covers are the result.
The idea is to be recognizable through the same cover art style, and that the covers should be like us—“serious” but not too much.
Can you discuss the nature of your third CD, soon to be released on NAXOS RECORDS?
The next album’s title will be Moviebrass. If you read this title in some Italian dialects, it means, “I move my arms.” But also, in English, it of course means a track list based on film and cartoons soundtracks. The CD will include music by Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber, John Williams, and many others. It will be released in the late 2009.
And, lastly, your own solo CD, when will it be available and what will it be like?
The master is done, and I have only to fix things regarding the label; I uploaded on Yuotube some videos of a solo recital I played last summer with the same program of the CD. When I started to imagine this project, the only thing I had in mind was to play music that I liked the most, many arias from Italian opera like Tosca, Boheme, and Norma, besides the hits of the greatest composers like Rachmaninoff, Faurè, Mozart.
I choose only “touching” music, trying to use the tuba as a part of my soul and as an amplifier of my inner voice. The music is a universal language that can be spoken everywhere, and I choose the tuba to do that!
What are some of the future goals of the Gomalan Brass Quintet?
We have several projects in our hands. We are working for the publication of our third CD, which will happen in the next months. We’re planning several tours for the next season: Israel in February, Korea and Japan for June, the Balkan area for July, mid-Europe (Netherlands and Germany) for the next September, and, of course, Italy. In July we will repeat the wonderful experience of the 8-day master class in Riva del Garda, northern Italy (www.musicarivafestival.com). Last year there were about 50 participants, which gave us the possibility to work in single lessons but also with the huge brass band for the final concert. We’re working on a DVD, because I think that a big part of our show is visual, and we want to demonstrate what we are able to do during a concert!
Do you have any advice for young tubists in terms of the brass quintet and pursuing this performance medium?
Be very open to everything, meaning not only the music. Our playing is of primary importance for our career, so we have to take care of all aspects with our playing not letting anything go missed or below our possibilities. Also important is to create a rapport of respect between all the members of the quintet, a dialogue, this will help so much in the difficult moments.
If you want to do this professionally, remember that the quintet is your company, and, as with any other company, you have to maintain your image, your contacts, and your customers, and…have fun!!