ONYX BRASS

Onyx Brass Biography

© Thomas Bowles

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Very Short Biography

Celebrating its 30 anniversary in 2023, Onyx Brass continues to be the leading light in establishing the brass quintet as a medium for serious chamber music, combining “staggering virtuosity” (Sarah Walker, BBC Radio 3) with the entertaining and articulate style that has become the group’s trademark.

The group’s extensive discography has received huge critical acclaim, Gramophone hail “some of the most thrilling chamber brass-playing of its kind” and Record Review (R3) describing the group as a “wonderful, virtuosic brass quintet”.

Education has always been central of the remit of Onyx Brass: workshops and master-classes have from Primary School to the Juilliard School, and the group has held several residencies, including 15 years at Imperial College, London.

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Short Biography

Celebrating its 30th anniversary season in 2023, Onyx Brass continues to be the leading light in establishing the brass quintet as a medium for serious chamber music, combining “staggering virtuosity” (Sarah Walker, BBC Radio 3) with the entertaining and articulate style that has become the group’s trademark.

The group’s extensive discography (16 albums, and counting!) is regularly featured on BBC R3 and has received huge critical acclaim, Gramophone hailing “some of the most thrilling chamber brass-playing of its kind” and Record Review describing the group as a “wonderful, virtuosic brass quintet”.

New music and education are both at the heart of the ensemble’s remit: it has commissioned and premièred over 200 new works, and has led workshops and masterclasses from primary schools through to the Juilliard School; Onyx has held several residencies, including 15 years at Imperial College, London. The group also specialises in Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for professional musicians, and has led several sessions for British Army Music in this area.

Work with singers also forms a central part of Onyx’s work, often under the auspices of the John Armitage Memorial trust, with whom Onyx Brass has been affiliated since its inception.

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Full Biography

Celebrating its 30th anniversary season in 2023, Onyx Brass continues to be the leading light in establishing the brass quintet as a medium for serious chamber music, inspired by the pioneering early years of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, and indeed mentored by Philip himself. To this end, the group has commissioned and performed the world premières of over 200 new works, with many more in the pipeline for performance and recording.

It is a point of justifiable pride for the group to play authentic and sometimes challenging music, yet remain a group which is utterly accessible to audiences: there is no need to “dumb down” when programmes are presented in the entertaining and articulate fashion that has become the group’s trademark. A brief snapshot of the composers whose work Onyx has premièred includes David Sawer, Thea Musgrave, Stuart MacRae, Michael Nyman, Joe Duddell, John Tavener, Judith Bingham, John McCabe, Tarik O’Regan, Cheryl Frances Hoad, Timothy Jackson, Gabriel Jackson, Giles Swayne, Graham Lynch, Steve Martland, Jonathan Dove, John White, Paul Mealor, Julian Philips, Rory Boyle, Kenny Wheeler, Guy Barker, Gwilym Simcock, Trish Clowes, Charlotte Harding, and Emily Hall. During 2014, Onyx Brass toured the country, bringing contemporary brass music to bandstands, parks and public spaces as part of the Tour de Brass! The project was generously supported by PRS for Music’s New Music Biennial Scheme, and the Tour passed through London’s Southbank Centre and Glasgow UNESCO City of Music for special performances coinciding with the Commonwealth Games. The featured commission, “Bronze and Iron” by David Sawer, was recorded live for the NMC label and BBC Radio 3.

During its first 28 years, Onyx has toured extensively: there are very few corners of the UK that remain unvisited! The group has also performed regularly at festivals and concert halls in the USA, Ireland, France, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Nigeria, Bermuda and Borneo to unanimous critical acclaim, acclaim that has been similarly forthcoming for its recordings. Its nine solo CDs are notable for their innovative and entertaining programming: for example, pairings of Bach and Shostakovich fugues, contemporary music linked with the renaissance music that inspired it, and disc featuring a partnership with the extraordinary baritone voice of Mark Stone. BBC Music Magazine described the group as “easily the classiest brass ensemble in Britain”, Gramophone hailed “some of the most thrilling chamber brass-playing of its kind” and the Observer described “an eclectic ear opener of a disc, virtuosically played”. Onyx’s discography are also regularly featured on BBC Radio 3, whose presenters and reviewers have been unstinting in their praise: “Stunningly crisp brass playing” (Kate Molleson) “Playing just brilliantly here…these consummate musicians…play faultlessly” (Suzy Klein); “fantastic classical brass quintet, their virtuosity is absolutely staggering…They are brilliant!” Sarah Walker; “Wonderful, virtuoso brass quintet” (Roger Vignoles, Record Review).

Education is a large part of the remit of Onyx Brass: they have led workshops and masterclasses in an enormous variety of contexts that range from Primary School reception classes to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. They have held various residencies, including at Radley College, The Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama, Westminster Abbey Choir School and Imperial College, University of London. They have commissioned several collaborative works for brass and primary school singers, with themes inspired by sport and dance, as well developing a free online and in-person repertoire resource for beginner brass players to play alongside the group. “The Oynx (sic) Brass players were really good teachers and nice to work with” (Theo, age 5).

Work with singers also forms a central part of Onyx’s work: the group recorded an album for Hyperion with the Westminster Abbey Choir, featuring the music of Parry, which reached the top spot in the specialist classical chart. In recent years the group has worked regularly with the BBC Singers and the Choir of St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, as well as superb amateur choirs such as the Brighton Festival Chorus and the choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Much of this work has been under the auspices of the remarkable John Armitage Memorial trust, with whom Onyx Brass has been affiliated since its inception.

The individual members of the group are also active orchestral musicians: they hold and have held permanent positions in the London Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of English National Opera, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Central Band of the Royal Air Force.