Onyx Brass

Three Days in the Life of Onyx Brass

Its coming up to our 25th Birthday and over the last quarter of a century we’ve expended a lot of energy pushing forward the medium of the brass quintet from many angles including performing, commissioning, arranging, recording and teaching. So hopefully, when the time comes to hang up our instruments, the brass quintet as an ensemble will be in a far healthier state then when we started in 1993. To give a snap shot of our work towards this goal, below is a blog of three days in the life of Onyx Brass written by Andy, which hopefully will give you a small insight into our mission!

Friday 19th May

Day starts off with a few mentions across social media. It’s always nice to get some likes, retweets or shares but let’s be honest @OnyxBrass is not one of the go to social media sites. Maybe it’s the inherent reticence that all five of us possess however be it Twitter or Facebook we are out there all the same.

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The reason for these mentions is the fact that Flux, a recording of works by composers associated with the Rambert Dance Company, has been released today. For this we recorded The Madness Industry by Cheryl Frances-Hoad. Five years ago we under took a tour for the Sheffield based Music in the Round series and as part of our programme we commissioned this piece. Cheryl since has become one of the five composing fellows for Rambert and the Flux celebrates the dance company’s 70th birthday.

However, no time for ego burnishing, as I am teaching this morning at Eton College before rehearsals this afternoon for the Vale of Glamorgan Festival on Sunday. Here we will be performing the premiere of Sustained Clusters by Guto Pruderi Puw written especially for our visit. Also in Wales we are performing Two Cairns by Stuart MacRae (Onyx Commission) and Still Life by Joe Duddell (another Onyx commission) We are so lucky to have recruited the services of Pete Moore, a former winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year and current colleague of Niall at the London Symphony Orchestra to cover for Amos who isn’t able to be there. Also as Alan is our most recent member he doesn’t know some of the music either so we have to squeeze in this rehearsal inbetween our busy schedules. Thankfully the fact that Pete is a wonderful musician he slots into Amos’s chair effortlessly.

Rehearsal finished and time for a quick coffee before we all disappear and who should we meet but Amos who has just finished teaching at the RCM before he plays for Rambert (with Niall) at Sadlers Wells. Alan goes back to our rehearsal room to teach and Dave and I have the rare luxury of an evening off!

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Saturday 20th May

It’s an early start but today we are coaching at the Royal College of Music Junior Department. It’s always a pleasure to come along to hear the young students of these institutions. Maybe one day they will be our colleagues! Amos is back on board but due to the fact Niall is off doing his day job with the LSO (Mahler 9 with Haitink) we welcome Ryan Linham into the fold. Ryan was one of Alan’s students from the RCM but now is sitting opposite him, telling him what to do! I personally enjoy these coaching sessions as it’s always great to hear other musicians talk about their own individual approach to practice, rehearsal and performance, it’s never too late to learn something new! Today we are part of a bigger occasion at RCMJD who are hosting their first chamber music day and we are not only coaching but also giving a short concert to the whole school so we have to rehearse in our 20 minute break. James Maynard Fanfare (published by Onyx Brass Publishing) Two Fugues by Bach and Shostakovich (arranged and published by us) Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland, (arranged by Dave Powell for us and published by us too) forms the programme which I think seems well received even by the non brass playing audience. It would be great to listen to the rest of the concert of the other chamber musicians but no rest for the wicked as we walk straight from the platform to another coaching session.

During the course of the day we hear a trumpet and two trombone ensembles, two quintets and a ten piece. Super musicians all of them and hopefully the suggestions and thoughts we give will go some way to influence their overall musical education.

Sunday May 21st May

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An even earlier start this morning as we have to be on Penarth Pier by 945am serenading the promenaders along the seafront in what turns out to be a lovely sunny day (if a little windy, more later) Today we are presenting a series of concerts entitled Onyx by the Sea for the Vale of Glamorgan Festival. The format is very reminiscent of the Tour de Brass Project we did in 2012 where we drop off at various locations around an area to give some performances for audience members and bemused onlookers (in equal measure) The fact that all of the music we will be playing has been written by living composers is something that is to by applauded loudly. While some of the pieces might not be to everyone’s taste they at least get the chance to hear them and make their own decisions whether they like it or not instead of just dismissing all contemporary music per se. Here I would like to add a quick note to any promoters reading this. Always think very carefully about outdoor venues. You want your audience to take away memories of a lovely occasion, not mild hilarity while the musicians are struggling to keep their music on the stand with one foot, unpegging and pegging with one hand while holding there instrument with the other. Long pieces are a challenge due to the pegging mentioned above. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t!


Note to musicians for outdoors. Always make sure music is stapled or taped in, otherwise the wind has a habit of blowing away the loose bits!

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After just about keeping hold of our music from blowing away into the Bristol Channel we move on to the bandstand in Victoria Park, Barry, then down to the seafront at Barry Island where we rehearse for our main event of the day, the world premiere of Sustained Clusters, a piece composed for quintet and fairground organ. We meet Guto who is in a mild panic (not too much though as he seems very chilled about the whole thing) as there are having a software problem getting the computer to talk to the organ but luckily he has a fall back position to hook up his phone to the speakers and play a sound file from it which has the organ music on. We get through this with the odd interjection of the real organ to our left as the technician seems to be rebooting the operating system of both the organ and computer to try to make it work. When we finish our rehearsal the organ is still a work in progress though the substitute phone does the trick. Our technician has 2 hours until the concert!

A little down time for lunch and ice cream on the sea front now. Any touring musician will tell you to enjoy these brief moments so while sitting on the prom we take in the sunshine and eat sandwiches, cones and tubs!

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20 mins to go before the main event and we give a quick blast of fanfares by the Western Shelter to muster people to our concert in the Eastern Shelter. It looks like its done the job as we get a good crowd along, some no doubt intrigued by the fairground organ which we have been told is working! Our concert repertoire today is the same James Maynard Fanfare from yesterday, Still Life, Two Cairns, Guto’s new commission which works a treat with the organ (even on no rehearsal) Tim Jackson’s Anything But, Music from Chaucer by Michael Berkeley (the only piece in 3 days which wasn’t written or arranged for Onyx) and another world premiere of Dave’s arrangement of China Gates by John Adams. This is a special moment for us but especially Dave as he has badgered John to write us a quintet piece for decades to no avail. However eventually an agreement was arrived with Music Sales and the composer allowing Dave to arrange this piano piece, China Gates for us. Even better and we have been allowed to publish it ourselves so anyone interested in playing it, visit Onyx Brass Publishing to pick it up! We feel honoured that it was allowed as he is a hero for all of us, having played his music and worked with the great man himself.

And come 5pm our day has finished, lots of kind words on Twitter (we’ve yet to have any unkind, let alone by trolled!) which I pass on to the lads and we each dissipate and off to our other lives until the next time we meet. This happens to be a recording for 12 pieces we have comissioned by some of Britain’s finest jazz composers including Kenny Wheeler, Jason Rebello and Gwilym Simcock. That’s in two weeks. A lot of individual practice before that then!

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