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