Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Caltech Brass Quintet

I have played in a LOT of brass quintets. If you haven't, I highly recommend it. The Caltech (California Institute of Technology) Brass Quintet was chronologically one of my first and enjoyably, one of the best.

The Caltech Brass Quintet, c. 1983 (L-R): Bill Bing, trumpet and coach;
David Hodge, horn; Mark Cohen, tuba;
Greg Ojakangas, trombone (blocked from view); Ray Burkhart, trumpet.

No, I wasn't a student at Caltech, but I do have links there. My uncle Noel went to Caltech in the 1940s and was captain of their football team. An athlete-scholar. My brother Reed attended Caltech while I was a short distance away, attending Occidental College. He sang in the Men's Glee Club, played sax in the jazz band, and was an All American water polo goalie. A musician-athlete-scholar. And a dear family friend, sort of my "adopted" grandmother, attended Throop College of Technology, just before it became Caltech in 1920.

While not a Caltech student, I still made a lot of music there. Bill Bing was my trumpet teacher at Occidental and a good friend. He and his wife, Delores, are Artists-in-Residence and Co-Directors of Instrumental Music at Caltech, and Bill saw to it that I got lots of valuable musical experience, to help me prepare for a career in music. If some of that experience was gained playing in his Caltech concert band, jazz band, and brass quintet, so much the better. I can certainly attest to the enhanced learning benefits of playing chamber music with one's teacher!

Not long after I graduated from Oxy, I sometimes subbed for Bill at Caltech, leading rehearsals of the concert band and jazz bands. I composed and arranged for the Caltech Concert Band, as well. When someone discovered a piano score to E. C. Kammermeyer's "Throop Institute March," Bill had me score it for band. They've played it often, including at their Carnegie Hall concert in 2008. Hear some of it in this CBS news story (second bit of music, around 1:40). I also arranged a medley of Caltech songs from the 1920s for their band. The five songs plus alma mater have the 1920s corny sentimentality you might expect, and given that in those days the Los Angeles area was undergoing almost nightly spraying of malathion to eradicate a crop-endangering insect infestation, my arrangement became (almost) lovingly known as the Caltech Medfly. You could play it and put it away, but every few years, it'd come back. Bill also commissioned my first composition for band, Exordium. I guess I thought a Latin title would kick it up a notch. Check out Caltech Bands here, and you can listen to the Throop Institute March and the Caltech Medley, as recorded on the Caltech Band CD, "TECHnically Sound," here.

But the fact is, I don't recall actually playing much in the Caltech Brass Quintet. Yes, we met to rehearse every week, and we performed plenty, but we spent most of our time laughing. Bill Bing is a natural comic, as anyone knows who has attended one of his nearly 40 years of giving Caltech instrumental concerts, and he invariably brought to our invariably-late-night rehearsals his orange dog, "Mousse." I always thought it was "Moose," which was already pretty funny for such a small dog, but I can see now that Mousse might have acquired his name from the, uh, odd way his hair, such as he had, stuck out from his body, like it was dressed up with mousse. But, as Shakespeare surely would have avoided saying, Mousse/Moose by any other name would be just as orange.

We all loved Mousse, but he was either the source of, or the object of, a great deal of humor. That was mainly thanks to the rest of the members of the group. Hornist David Hodge worked at Caltech, building specialized research equipment. Tubist Mark Cohen was a doctoral student in Chemistry. Trombonist Greg Ojakangas was a doctoral student in Astrophysics; also a gifted jazz musician. And the three of them just wouldn't let up on the jokes. If guys in unguarded moments display the social development of a seventh-grader, then these guys were at the top of the class. I think Bill always had a musical goal in mind, a grand purpose for each rehearsal, but we rarely bore down too hard on details. We couldn't. We were just having too much fun keeping each other in giggles and stitches. Even as we'd take the stage to perform, I'd be in tears of laughter.

For the trumpet geeks -- and please correct me, Bill, if I'm wrong -- the trumpet Bill has in the above picture is his Conn 22B, which had previously belonged to Harry Glantz.

I've lost touch with Marc and Greg and David. Maybe through the mysteries of the cyberweb one or more will get in touch. That'd be nice. I don't see Bill enough, and while we've long been friends, he probably doesn't know just to what an extent he was a positive and important influence on me, at a time when I needed it. Thanks, Bill. You've mentored many young musicians into better lives of music and humanity, especially at Caltech!

Dr. Ray

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Published: "Two Roman Motets" for brass quintet

My new arrangement for brass quintet, "Two Roman Motets," is now published by Premiere Press. You can view a performance of one of the motets here.

The brothers Fabio and Alessandro Costantini, long thought to have been born in the small Italian town of Staffolo, were prominent church composers in 17th-century Rome. After my thrilling week in Staffolo  playing, conducting, and teaching as part of Staffolo's 20th annual Music Festival in June 2014  I decided to honor Staffolo and my many new friends there by arranging and publishing an arrangement for brass quintet of two 17th-century motets, one by Fabio Costantini and one by Alessandro Costantini. The publication is dedicated to the conductor of the Staffolo Town Band, Maestro Samuele Faini. Each motet lasts about 2.5 minutes.

Elsewhere in this blog, you can read my posts about my 2014 Italian adventure, more about how I came to write Two Roman Motets and my new composition Ricordi d'Italia, and all about their world premieres in January 2015.

Dr. Ray

Published: "Ricordi d'Italia" for brass quintet

Ricordi d'Italia (Memories of Italy), my new composition for brass quintet, is now published by Premiere Press. You can view excerpts of its world premiere on YouTube here.

New logo by Emilie Pallos Graphic Design

The four movements of Ricordi d'Italia are based on experiences I enjoyed in Italy during the summer of 2014. The first movement (Staffolo Fanfare) is a flashy opening that honors the small hilltop town where I spent one of the best weeks of my life. The second movement (The Ancient Wall) ponders the mysteries of the many Roman walls that surround towns like Staffolo. The third movement (Bella Valentina) is a joyous waltz with optional sing-along, sort of a valentine from me to the lovely women of Italy. The fourth movement (Canzon San Marco) honors the music of the great Venetian composer, Giovanni Gabrieli, and Basilica San Marco, where his timeless antiphonal music was played. The overall duration is about 11'30".

Elsewhere in this blog I have written about my 2014 Italian adventure, how Ricordi d'Italia came to be composed, and of its world premiere.

Dr. Ray

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Premiered: Ricordi d'Italia and Two Roman Motets

In my last post, I described the then-upcoming "Sounds of Italy" concert in Palo Alto, California, given by the Amici Americani and Oxford Street brass quintets.

The Amici Americani brass quintet in Palo Alto. L to R:
Tyler Morse, John Monroe, Mark Lindenbaum, Ray Burkhart, and Tom Hyde

The program was Italy-related, and some of my brass quintet works were performed, including my popular three-movement suite, Italian Postcards, my palindromic fanfare, Toot, and the world premieres of my original four-movement suite, Ricordi d'Italia, and my arrangements of two 17th-century Roman choral works by the Costantini brothers, Fabio and Alessandro, entitled Two Roman MotetsMy arrangement of Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for large brass ensemble was also performed, by joining the Amici Americani with the Oxford Street Brass.

Ricordi d'Italia logo by Emilie Pallos Graphic Design,
featuring the historic portal to Staffolo, Italy.

Ricordi d'Italia fulfilled a commission to compose a piece for brass quintet based on my experiences in Italy during the summer of 2014. It's a great story with lots of photos. Read more here.

Click here for a YouTube video montage of excerpts from each of the four movements of Ricordi d'Italia. The audience sing-along in the third movement, Bella Valentina, is optional, but loads of fun!

Publication forthcoming soon!

I arranged Two Roman Motets in honor of my many new friends in the lovely small town of Staffolo, Italy, especially those in the town band. It is dedicated to the band's director, Maestro Samuele Faini. 

Brothers Fabio and Alessandro Costantini, whose lifetimes extended from the late 16th century well into the 17th century, were long thought to have been born in Staffolo, and while recent research suggests otherwise, they are still revered there. Both Costantinis held church music positions in Rome and elsewhere, playing organ and composing choral music. 

Click here for a YouTube video of the Amici Americani playing the first of the Two Roman Motets, "O Admirabile Commercium!" by Fabio Costantini.

Ricordi d'Italia, Two Roman Motets, and my arrangement of Giovanni Gabrieli's Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2 for brass ensemble (eight or ten brass) will be published soon and available for purchase from my online store. See

The Amici Americani brass quintet rehearses for the January 2015 Sounds of Italy concert:
L to R, Ray Burkhart, John Monroe, Mark Lindenbaum, Tyler Morse, and Tom Hyde.

Chamber music is often called 'the music of friends', and so it was with the commission of Ricordi d'Italia, the arranging of Two Roman Motets, and the Sounds of Italy concert. Friendship was key. My Amici friends, Mark Lindenbaum and John Monroe, together with their better halves, Margaret Jahn and Meg Monroe, commissioned Ricordi d'Italia. I arranged Two Roman Motets to honor our friends in Italy. And many friends and family attended the Sounds of Italy concert. It was a great pleasure to see them there. One friend flew in from as far away as Arkansas!

Friends in the audience also generously supported our charitable goals. The Oxford Street Brass raised funds for the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, and the Amici raised funds to assist in the bringing of a student musician from Italy to attend the 2015 Humboldt State University Brass Chamber Music Workshop in Arcata, California. The Amici and the Oxford Streeters are very grateful for this support.

Brass chamber music may be more popular in the world today than ever before. The Amici Americani relish that tradition and hope to promote brass chamber music on both sides of the Atlantic. Friends joined together in a worthy goal may accomplish great things!

Ever your friend,

Dr. Ray

Saturday, January 3, 2015

World Premiere: Ricordi d’Italia

Ah, I remember it well. Italy, that is. The good weather, the better food, the best gelato. Making music, making friends, and now, making memories  literally. Memories of Italy. Ricordi d'Italia.

I already blogged about my summer 2014 trip to Italy. You can read it, and see some fun photos, HERE. Part of that experience included a commission to compose music for brass quintet, based on my experiences in Italy. I recently finished that work, Ricordi dItalia (Memories of Italy). The world premiere is to be given at 8pm, Saturday, January 10, 2015 on the Sounds of Italy concert at All Saints Episcopal Church, 555 Waverley St., Palo Alto, CA. 

I hope you will attend and tell your friends!

Two brass quintets will perform: the Amici Americani degli Ottoni  the quintet that went to Italy last summer  and the Oxford Street Brass, a quintet from the San Francisco Bay area. Each quintet will give about half of the program, and the combined quintets will perform two pieces for large brass ensemble  a transcription of Giovanni Palestrinas Jubilate Deo and my arrangement of Giovanni Gabrielis Canzon Septimi Toni No. 2. The Amici will premiere my Ricordi dItalia, and the Oxford Street Brass will perform my earlier work, Italian Postcards (see blog). It’ll be great to have both works on the same program, along with music by Antonio Vivaldi, Gioachino Rossini, José Carli, Luigi Zaninelli, the Costantini brothers, and Zack Smith.

The concert is free. A free-will offering will be taken to support causes supported by the two ensembles.

I’m truly grateful for the ways in which the rest of the Amici – Tom Hyde, Tyler Morse, John Monroe, and Mark Lindenbaum – and the Oxford Street Brass – Rob Lenicheck, Ken Walter, Cathleen Torres, Greg Bergantz, and Bob Lipton – are participating in and supporting the Sounds of Italy concert.

New logo by Emilie Pallos Graphic Design

Ricordi dItalia was commissioned by Mark Lindenbaum, Margaret Jahn, and John and Meg Monroe. Thank you!

Here are some other notes about Ricordi dItalia.

The first movement, Staffolo Fanfare, is based on the rhythm of the phrase, “I love Staffolo!” And indeed, I do.

In the slow second movement, The Ancient Wall, I hope to evoke the venerable mystery suggested by the ancient walls that still surround old sections of many Italian hilltop towns. To me, these medieval walls stand as silent witnesses to centuries of events, both great and small, momentous and ordinary. The theme is derived from the group warm-ups the Amici enjoyed each morning, as we sat on one of the porches at Mark’s home just outside Staffolo, taking in the gorgeous views and exhaling the sweet farmland air through our instruments.

The third movement, Bella Valentina, is more fanciful than autobiographical. I did meet a lovely young college student named Valentina in a gelato shop (Gelateria Riva) during a sudden rainstorm one afternoon in the charming little town of Varenna on Lake Como, and while we enjoyed a good chat, a legendary romance was not in the making. I was, however, immediately struck by the melodiousness of her name, and I suspected it would figure in some way in my new composition. When it came time to write a love song movement, I rejected the idea of slow music – I had already composed The Ancient Wall – in favor of something joyful and rousing. I recalled how, at some of the dinners that the Amici Americani enjoyed with the Staffolo City Band, that a guest band would not commence to eat until they had sung a particular, very jolly song. So, I crafted Bella Valentina as a seemingly old folk song, overlayed with increasingly complex contrapuntal lines – sort of a musical lasagna. There is even an optional vocal section in which the audience may sing along.

The fourth movement, Canzon San Marco, is my homage to the great polychoral music popular in Venice at Basilica San Marco around the year 1600, especially the music of Giovanni Gabrieli. This repertoire – whose original popularity was widely influential, but relatively brief – is still engaging and much enjoyed today, especially by many brass players. I deeply treasure the experience of visiting St. Mark’s, observing its remarkable design, and imagining Gabrieli’s music sounding throughout the space. Treading the same floors and stairwells used by Gabrieli and his musicians over four centuries ago had special meaning for me. The movement opens, Gabrieli-like, with imitative counterpoint. I formed my theme by combining melodies from the first and penultimate measures of Gabrieli’s Canzon Septimi Toni, No. 2 (from Sacrae Symphoniae, 1597). The successive entrances of my five voices, however, outline a major 9 chord, which, along with other departures from Gabrieli’s style, modernize the late-Renaissance Venetian sound. This leads to a cadence that sets off a jazz-rock waltz, complete with solos for horn and trombone. The movement closes with another Gabrieli-ish section, and musicians familiar with Gabrieli’s style will note many places where I employ or imitate nuances of his composition and orchestration.

I’ll report back after the concert. I hope to see you there!


Dr. Ray