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Septura — Gershwin, Copland: Music for Brass Septet 7

Simon Cox and Matthew Knight talk to Trumpet Magazine about Septura: their incredible brass arrangements and the new album they are releasing today, May 14, on Naxos.
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septura brass

Septura was launched back in 2014 with the release of our debut CD for Naxos Records (music by Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn, and Schumann). This was the first in a planned 10-disc series on the label, the aim of which was to build a canon of repertoire of music by the great composers for brass septet, a brand new medium for classical chamber music. Since then, we have released seven further recordings, encompassing a wide variety of music from Palestrina to Prokofiev, building our musical counterfactual history, and demonstrating that through the uniquely expressive sound of the brass septet, brass ensembles deserve a place alongside string quartets at the high table of chamber music.

Our mission alongside this work has been to bring our live music-making to the widest possible audience. We have done this by undertaking numerous international tours, including to Japan, New Zealand, and all over Europe. However, it is in the USA that we have found our biggest following, having already visited there twice, with further tours in the pipeline. During our debut trip there in 2018, we wanted a program that reflected our first transatlantic odyssey. And so we looked to a composer who had made that trip in reverse, albeit not to the UK, but our closest European neighbor, France. Gershwin had traveled to Paris in the mid-1920s to study with Ravel (only to be rejected with the riposte, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”). So we put together a program with the second half of entirely Gershwin’s music, with our own take on his An American in Paris proving particularly popular with audiences. We had been keen to record this ever since, so we took it as the starting point as we planned our ninth release. Selecting repertoire to record can be a time-consuming process — it’s vital that our arrangements will sound like original works for brass septet in their completed form, so we have to be very selective when searching for suitable pieces. Fortunately, in this instance, there was an obvious candidate to accompany Gershwin’s music: Aaron Copland. Both composers sound unmistakably American, but with distinct and unique musical voices: Gershwin’s constant blend of classical and jazz idioms results in a vibrant urban sound, whereas Copland’s music is folk-influenced and recalls more readily a kind of timeless Midwest Americana. Both composers had a real affinity for brass instruments in their writing, and so the transcriptions even of their orchestral works — while stretching the brass septet to its technical and musical limits — feel like an incredibly natural fit.

septura brass

Given its importance to our performance history, we felt the album had to open with An American in Paris. Usually, in the past, we have prepared new arrangements, especially for recordings; however, in this case, we had performed the piece many times before entering the studio (or church as it was in this case). This led to a very different recording experience — working with the legendary John Rutter as producer, we were able to work in long sections, giving us a very fluid and coherent result. The opening of the orchestral version famously makes use of taxi horns — Gershwin actually brought back some Parisian taxi horns for the premiere of the work in New York in December 1928. Our percussion colleagues often tell us how difficult these instruments are to play, but we decided to keep things in-house, with a certain trumpet player asked to fulfill these duties — we think he did ok after a little practice. This arrangement is a real tour de force for septet, allowing the virtuosity of players like Phil Cobb and Matt Gee to shine through, particularly for the epic finale.

Following this, Copland’s Quiet City presents a very contrasting musical cityscape. Like Gershwin, Copland also traveled to Paris to study, in his case with Nadia Boulanger, who persuaded him to embrace his American heritage in his music. This resulted in the clear folk influence in works like Rodeo that helped to make Copland’s name. This influence is distilled into something more personal in the understated Quiet City. The piece was originally incidental music for a 1939 play by Irwin Shaw and depicted scenes from New York at night. The play was a flop, but Copland resurrected the music — initially scored for trumpet, saxophone, clarinets and piano — creating a through-composed piece for trumpet and cor anglais soloists, accompanied by strings. The composer himself commented that “Quiet City seems to have become a musical entity, superseding the original reasons for its composition.” The soloists represent the play’s protagonist – haunted, with obsessive, repetitive rhythmic figures, by the abandonment of his Jewish identity. Rather than trying to re-create the unique sound of the cor anglais alongside the solo trumpet (played by the wonderful Alan Thomas), we decided for the first time to invite a non-brass guest into the group and were delighted to be joined by Patrick Flanaghan from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The remaining six brass players play the string parts — but with berets placed over the instruments’ bells in order to match the warm blend of the original strings as they rise and fall to reflect the shifting shapes of the city.

We then switch back to Gershwin — he was already extremely well-known (thanks to the success two years previously of Rhapsody in Blue) when he wrote his Piano Preludes in 1926. Like Debussy, he intended to write 24 preludes (see our fifth Naxos disc for our version of some of these, including The Girl with the Flaxen Hair), but in the end, only three were published. Unlike Debussy’s, these are not overtly programmatic, and they are in a very different style: the synergy of classical forms with the harmonic and rhythmic hallmarks of jazz results in Gershwin’s particularly unique musical voice. These pieces work incredibly well for brass and have become some of our favorite pieces to perform live. They also provide tuba player Sasha Koushk-Jalali us with a rare opportunity to shine in his second-movement solo.

The album finishes with one of our most ambitious arrangements yet: Copland’s Appalachian Spring. When, in 1943, Copland agreed to write the music for a new ballet choreographed by Martha Graham, his only instruction was: “This is a legend of American living.” The music for Appalachian Spring was largely composed (under the working title of Ballet for Martha) before the scenario was written. Yet, audiences so often commented that it vividly conjured the Appalachians that Copland himself remarked, “I have even begun to see the Appalachians myself a bit.” With its triadic harmonies and open melodies so suited to the nature of brass instruments, the music does seem to evoke a quintessentially American sound that perfectly fits the ballet’s Pennsylvania setting. The ballet premiered in 1944, and if you’re familiar with the full orchestral version, it might sound like madness to produce a version for seven brass players. The following year, however, it was arranged as a suite for 13 instruments, with a far more intimate, chamber-like feel; ours is an arrangement of this version. It was a great challenge to adapt all of the colors of the original for septet, not to mention translating the virtuosic string and woodwind writing. As ever, this necessitated close collaboration between the arrangers to make sure we were capturing all of the musical nuances of the original whilst making it practical to play. Following this process, we began rehearsals with the players. As usual, we found that further changes were needed, mainly to make the piece less physically demanding — it’s always important to remember that we need to be able to perform these arrangements live! After a few revisions, everyone was happy, and we could get to work with the recording. Everything came together nicely, and we’re delighted with this significant addition to the septet repertoire — the perfect way to finish possibly our best recording yet.

— Written by Simon Cox and Matthew Knight.

Website: septura.org

Gershwin, Copland: Music for Brass Septet 7 is released on Naxos on 14 May 2021.

septura brass gershwin copland

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