Jeffrey Curnow has served as assistant principal trumpet with the Philadelphia Orchestra since the turn of the century, and preced that with six years as principal trumpet with the Dallas Symphony, and soloist. It is, perhaps, his 15 recordings and years spent with the Empire Brass Quintet (EBQ), that have etched him most deeply on the world of brass. As “FIVE!”tm & the music world mourn the loss of the brass quintet’s most ardent champion, Rolf Smedvig, Jeffrey Curnow remembers his time with Rolf and the ground-breaking Empire Brass.
1. What are your first recollections of The Empire Brass?
My earliest recollections of the EBQ were from the late 70s, when I was a student at Temple University. Thatâ€™s the first time I heard the groupâ€™s Ewald LP. I thought that recording was terrific but at that point in time, I have to admit, the Canadian Brass was sort of stealing the show with their innovative programming and arrangements.
Nobody was thinking this at the time but it really was the birth of a new era in brass chamber music. A younger generation of players was taking the brass quintet to a new level, pushing the limits of the ensemble, and the two groups on the forefront were the Canadians and Empire.
2. Could you discuss Rolf’s approach to the trumpet, and the types of trumpets (‘C’, ‘G’), he liked to play in different circumstances?
Rolf was the guy who made the Schilke ‘G’ piccolo trumpet famous. Before joining the band, Iâ€™d never played one (and I never played one while in the group), but the combination of his ‘G’ “picc.” and my ‘C’ trumpet created an interesting, distinctive hierarchy of sound that separated us from any other quintet.
This worked particularly well with Baroque and Renaissance lit. The set up he used on the G was different than usual. Schilke sent 2 bells with the trumpet, a small and a large, and he always used the large bell-which made the sound of the horn much bigger. That bigger “picc.” sound on top of the sound of a ‘C’ trumpet was a nice blend.
Outside of the Schilke ‘G’, Rolf used Bach/Selmer horns exclusively, and was feverishly adamant about it, in a way that only Rolf could be. Fortunately, I agreed with him completely on this issue.
Unlike most brass quintets, Rolf and I played C trumpet 80% of the time, using the Bb horns and flugels mostly for the crossover tunes on the second half. I think Rolf always felt more comfortable on a ‘C’ trumpet, as did I, and the sound of the ‘C’ trumpets gave the group a distinctive sound, separating us from other groups who exclusively used ‘Bb’ horns.
3. What was it like playing back and forth with Rolf with imitative passages as opposed to supporting him in harmony underneath; how did you match so well?
What was it like playing back and forth with Rolf? Intimidating is the word that comes to mind. When I joined the group, they were weeks from a U.S.S.R. tour so I had to hit the ground running. The blend wasnâ€™t immediate but it had to happen quickly and I really worked at it. I wore 2 hats while playing 2nd, I had to be a bridge between Eric or Scott and Rolf and I had to fill Rolfâ€™s shoes when he had the horn off his face. I found it really fun, honestly, and I wanted to be great at it. Rolf wasnâ€™t much help so I was pretty much on my own when it came to figuring it out.
I always joked that I thought that one of Rolfâ€™s big regrets was that he couldnâ€™t find a way to make a quintet work with just one trumpet. I had to change my sound and articulation a bit so I would start incorporating some of what Rolf was doing in his morning warm up routine into my routine and, eventually, I started to sound more and more like he did. It was his approach to the trumpet that I had to adopt to really make the group sound cohesive. I still use parts of his routine today.
5. Which players in EBQ stand out to you over the years?
All the various members of the band I worked with are stand outs. Really. All incredible soloists. I learned something from everyone. Although, I will say that it was Rolf who would light the fire under the group. Heâ€™d walk into a rehearsal with an impossible project and find a way to get it done. Iâ€™ve met very few people in my career that were as driven as Rolf. He could be insistent to an aggravating degree (a very nice way to put it) but he got results.
6. What approaches to brass quintet do you feel that Empire pioneered? Where do you see that influence most in today’s groups?
The concept behind the EBQ: a brass quintet that plays like the brass section of a symphony orchestra. Thatâ€™s why our bells always faced the audience, unlike the traditional quintet set up. The Canadians would move about the stage and set up in different positions, depending on the piece, sometimes sitting on stools, but we would stay in a fixed position, standing in the center of the stage for most of the show.
It was all about the sound and the music. I think that ‘bells front’ concept has had a big influence on todayâ€™s brass quintets. We wanted a commanding onstage presence.
7. Do you have any favorite memories of the road or special concerts or collaborative artists with EBQ which spring to mind?
The memorable moments a far too many to mention here but I do have a few that stand out. Weâ€™d often play organ shows with Doug Major, who was the organist at the National Cathedral in D.C.. Lots of fun. Not only was Doug a great hang but he was an outstanding player who perfectly fit into the groupâ€™s concept. One show we did with Doug in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall went over 2.5 hours. There was so much sound coming off the stage, I was afraid weâ€™d get sued!
I remember a concert in the middle-of-nowhere USA, just the five of us, where Rolf decided weâ€™d change up the program and start the second half with the Karlheinz Stockhausen Brass Quintet.
Iâ€™d never played it and I was frantically looking through my folder and couldnâ€™t find it. I told Rolf I didnâ€™t have it and he said, â€œI donâ€™t have it either.
“You know why I donâ€™t have it?”, he asked, “Because Stockhausen never wrote it.â€ We preceded to open the second half with a completely improvised piece. The audience ate it up. They loved it. Even our road manager, who was at the back of the hall selling CDs, thought it was a “really cool pieceâ€.
I remember a concert at the Tonhalle in Zurich where the audience ovation was so loud it sounded like a soccer match. I played concerts on Soviet television, Japan television, British television and did Christmas tunes on both the Today Show and Good Morning America. We had Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Michael Torke composing for us. We stood in front of the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Japan Philharmonic, BBC radio orchestra and many others.
The thrill of meeting artists like Timofei Dokschitzer and Philip Jones while traveling the world, Iâ€™ll never forget.
One of the greatest benefits of being in the EBQ was meeting Armando Ghitalla. He was a hero to me and like a father to Rolf. â€œMundiâ€ was the only guy to ever coach the group and I learned a great deal from the time heâ€™d spend with us. He was also one of the nicest people Iâ€™ve ever met.
8. What was your background prior to the group, and how did your experiences with the group change your outlook on music?
I was basically a freelancer in NY and CT before joining the group. I was Principal Trumpet of the New Haven Symphony, did some teaching at “U.-Conn.”, and lived in Branford, CT. Iâ€™d take a train into NY for an occasional gig or rehearsals and concerts with the NY Trumpet Ensemble. I saw Rolf split a recital with the EBQ at the 92nd Street YMCA in the early 80s but never thought Iâ€™d ever be a part of that world. My goal was an orchestra job.
When I was hired by Empire, I took to it very quickly and found that I liked being one of only five on stage. One benefit of being in a group like Empire is the fact that you have to keep doing crazier stunts with every new CD release. This means youâ€™re constantly growing and developing as a player. Every year I got better, in every way, as a player, musician and performer. I got to know the ins and outs of recording and did some producing for other brass groups. I learned how to arrange for the brass quintet. I did a great deal of coaching and teaching and was a member of the faculty at Boston University and the Royal Academy of Music in London. I spent summers at Tanglewood coaching quintets at the Empire Brass Seminar.
I was part of an ensemble that had to create in order to survive. We had to come up with the arrangements, CDs, management, teaching, and concerts in order to stay alive in the market. This is very different from the orchestra job I hold now, where I have little freedom to create as a performer. I canâ€™t decide on the programs we play or the CDs this orchestra makes and at times I miss that creative freedom that I had with the EBQ. That creative freedom, however, comes at a price. A lot of hard work, stress and, at times, conflict.
8. What are your other favorite projects?
These days, my latest passion outside of playing the trumpet is cartooning. My goal is to get a cartoon published in the New Yorker. With a 99.99%
rejection rate, that makes it almost as bad as the music business, but the cartoons give me something to think about while Iâ€™m counting all those measures rest.
c. 2015 David William Brubeck. All Rights Reserved. www.davidbrubeck.com
Images Courtesy of Jeffrey Curnow.
Cartoons c. Jeffrey Curnow. All Rights Reserved.
Interested in more “FIVE” tm interviews?
Canadian Brass 2014, Windsync 2014, Boston Brass 2015, Mnozil Brass 2015, Spanish Brass 2014, Dallas Brass 2014, Seraph 2014, Atlantic Brass Quintet 2015, Mirari Brass 2015, Axiom Brass 2015, Scott Hartmann of the Empire Brass 2015, Jeffrey Curnow of the Empire Brass 2015, Ron Barron and Ken Amis of the Empire Brass, Meridian Arts Ensemble 2015, Berlin Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet 2015, American Brass Quintet 2015