Silver Jubilee

John Robert Brown

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President. That was the year when a revolution took place in Poland, when thousands of bumper stickers asked: 'Who Shot JR?', and when John Lennon was murdered. Post-it notes were introduced and, in Birmingham, the Fine Arts Brass Quintet was formed. Yes, 25 years have passed since Andy Culshaw and Bryan Allen (trumpets), Stephen Roberts (horn), Simon Hogg (trombone) and Owen Slade (tuba) created what rapidly became recognised as a world-class chamber ensemble. The London Times described this new group as: 'Extraordinarily brilliant, playing with scintillating sparkle'.

The Fine Arts Brass Quintet (FAB) took its noble name from the celebrated Barber Institute of Fine Arts at Birmingham University, because it was the location of the first rehearsal. The original players remained from 1980 until 1987. Today, after few changes - one per chair, mostly - the FAB musicians are Simon Lenton and Angela Whelan (trumpets), Katie Pryce (trombone), Chris Parkes (horn) and Sam Elliott (tuba). Simon Lenton has played in the quintet for the last ten years. He is also its administrator. Though Lenton relishes the dual role, it is clearly a challenge.

With his partner, Angela Whelan, Lenton lives in Nuneaton, on the Warwickshire/Leicestershire border. What are the problems of being an instrumentalist living 100 miles from London and 25 miles from Birmingham?

'To ask, "Will you come up to Nuneaton and rehearse for no money, please?" is a nightmare!' he says. 'The current FAB members are busy freelancers, two in full-time jobs. Chris is with the LPO and Sam plays with Scottish Opera. It's hard having to turn down paid work in order to rehearse to the standard that's expected of us.'

FAB has always been a group that commissions new music, having premiered more than 60 works to date from a list of composers that includes Colin Matthews, Michael Nyman, Roxanna Panufnik and John Woolrich. Lenton is quick to emphasise that one cannot just turn up and play music like this without putting the work in. This year FAB has five major commissions to premiere: John McLeod in March, Paul Max Edlin in June, Philip Wilby in July, John McCabe in September and Naji Hakim in December. Lenton sees his main problem as that of convincing very busy players in London that it's worth travelling to Nuneaton to do to three days of rehearsals for one gig payment.

He explains how the ensemble came to choose the new works to mark this year's anniversary. 'We wanted to commission a composer to write a choral piece. I asked around the choral people: Paul Trepte at Ely, Mark Lee at Bristol, and Adrian Lucas at Worcester. I said, "If you were going to commission a composer, who would you ask who's accessible?" A couple of names came into the hat. One was Naji Hakim. He replaced Olivier Messiaen at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, Paris. He's going to write a piece for us for a performance in December in Winchester. The other name is Philip Wilby at Leeds University. He's previously written two quintets that are great pieces of music, full of integrity. We've always enjoyed playing them.'

The Quintet plans an album of minimalist brass, mostly FAB commissions, from Joe Duddell, Graham Fitkin, Steve Martland, Michael Nyman, Kurt Schwertsik (who is 75 this year), and Michael Torke. Also planned are three volumes of English Contemporary Brass Chamber Music, all FAB commissions. Lenton produces a schedule to reel off a list of names, including Michael Berkeley, John Caskill, Michael Finnissey, Wilfred Heaton, Robin Holloway, Jean Joubert, John Woolrich, Julian Phillips, Leonard Salzedo, Tim Souster, Giles Swain, and Guy Wolfenden.

'The biggest problem with commissions is that you don't know what you are going to get. On the other hand, you get a composer like Joe Duddell, young guy - we'd never heard of him - who wrote a piece for his student mates, in '97 or '98, and it's fantastic. It's quite minimalist, but we play it a lot in school concerts. He's not a brass player, but he's got that sound of brass in his head.'

These days the Quintet records exclusively with Nimbus. 'We start our 31st recording: the Complete Brass Chamber Music of Sir Malcolm Arnold,' Lenton says. 'Sir Malcolm is an old friend of the Quintet, having written his second brass quintet for us back in 1988. It's a record that has taken 16 years to get off the ground. The old FAB team were going to do it back in 1989, so Bryan Allen told me the other day. But for one reason or another it didn't happen. I'm particularly looking forward to doing it, as we're going to be joined by all the original FAB members for the recording of Arnold's epic Symphony for Brass, which uses four trumpets and four trombones. It'll be particularly fitting in our anniversary year, although I've no idea how we'll fund it. I remember when I joined the group in 1995 and had to lose a European tour I was doing at the time with the Supremes, Stephen Roberts said to me: "You'll find FAB is a labour of love most of the time." He was right.'

For Lenton, money and funding are prime concerns. He says he is constantly fighting a system where brass quintets are considered to be lower in the financial pecking order than string ensembles. 'Fees for the Brodsky Quartet or the Lindsays Quartet are between three and five times what ours are, even though, supposedly, we are in the same market: international chamber music.'

The financial squeeze doesn't end there. Publishers can be surprisingly unsympathetic. 'We commissioned John McCabe to write a piece for the Flanders Festival,' says Lenton. 'The Festival is going to pay for the commission, but the publishers want us to pay for the preparation on the parts. Now we could give that piece a ridiculous amount of performances. It's really up to me. We play it, they get their PRS. It's in their interest for publishers to actively promote their composers' works. I understand that they've got costs, but I don't see why we should have to pay that. They've got to pay someone to proofread the parts so that we can play them. But why are we paying? Surely, it's in your interest as a publisher to pay that?'

Lenton has some telling anecdotes to illustrate what he sees as an illogical view of financial rewards within the classical music world. 'I knew a musician who wanted desperately to be a French horn player.' Simon mentions her name. 'She worked hard at college, did everything one has to do. It didn't work out, so she went into marketing. When she joined one of the major provincial orchestras, she started on £2,000 a year more than the principal horn player, the person who is actually doing her ideal job. There's something not right there.'

Simon Lenton is certainly not one to whinge, but the classical music world, seen from where he sits, has its eccentricities. 'We are at the cutting edge of international brass chamber music, but we find it very hard to be taken seriously by some promoters,' he says. 'I rang one promoter about booking us. I asked if they'd be interested in a brass quintet. The administrator's exact words were: "Well, we have had brass," as if it's some sort of illness! I picked up the tone: "You wouldn't consider us for a serious concert in the evening?" And she said: "Oh, no, probably for a family concert on a Saturday morning." That's what we are up against.

In the past we've had Radio 2 producers say to us, "We'd love to use you but you play mainly contemporary stuff," because they've heard us on Radio 3. Likewise, Radio 3 guys have said: "Yes you're great we've heard you do your jazz stuff on Radio 2, but you're not for us!"
'Many people see us as a small brass band, perhaps a few rungs up the ladder from flat caps and whippets. Brass bands aren't like this anymore. The film Brassed Off a few years back did wonders to promote their cause - except that it was horribly off track in many ways. Like us, they constantly commission new work from leading composers. But in the film they are portrayed playing the William Tell overture in their mock National Finals. That one scene set the cause back fifty years. My heart sank when I saw it.' Future FAB projects include being Ensemble in Residence at Birmingham Conservatoire, a post set up in cooperation with David Purser, the head of brass, who is initiating a brass quintet course.

Also planned is the West Side Story project, for which Lenton has arranged all the incidental music for Bernstein's musical, together with the music for Stavisky, a film soundtrack that Stephen Sondheim wrote in 1974. 'FAB is a group that only ever plays its own music,' says Lenton. 'We never play another group's arrangements. 'We'd like also to set up a national, open-to-all composition prize wherein the final round would consist of a performance of the top four pieces,' says Lenton. 'If there was a natural winner, we'd say so, but quite honestly, if I felt able to programme four good pieces, they'd all be winners. Along the way, we'd have a semi-final where we'd have an open rehearsal to discuss the music submitted.

We would include an open rehearsal, where composers come along, and we say, "I can't programme this", for whatever reason. We want music that doesn't sound like anything else. If you can't distinguish your bit of avant-garde from anything else we've got, why should I pick your piece? I'd like to throw that open, to be able to say why I can't pick this piece. What I'm hoping is that at the end we'd get, say, three pieces that are top notch. We did forty-nine concerts in 2004. What I can offer for good pieces is lots of performances. Surely, that's what composers need?'

But Simon Lenton's main crusade is against being stereotyped. 'My biggest thing is to try and stop people from putting us in a box, from prejudging us,' he says. 'We are what we are. Music has no prejudices, so why should the people that book us be any different?'

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine, 26th March 2005. Used by kind permission.
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