Chamberfest: The Canadian Brass is turning 50

The Canadian Brass turns 50. Clockwise from top left: Chris Coletti, trumpet, Jeff Nelsen, french horn, Chuck Daellenbach, tuba, Caleb Hudson, trumpet and Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone. Photo: Daniel D'Ottavio

In 1970, Chuck Daellenbach had just arrived in Canada with his PhD from the Eastman School of Music. He had been hired by the University of Toronto.

A week before he was to start teaching music education, he was looking around for some friends to play music with and he met Gene Watts, a trombonist. The two rustled up three more guys, two trumpeters and a french horn player and formed probably the best known brass quintet ever — that would be the Canadian Brass.

Chuck, who says he’s never missed a gig in 50 years, is the last one of that original five still in the quintet. He’s still lugging his tuba around the world. With all the travelling the Canadian Brass does, he gets a new case every year. That’s a lot of cases over half a century.

When the Brass started, Chuck said, “we were all in Toronto doing one thing or another and we met each other. We shared a common interest in brass quintets.

“There was no clear career path,” he said. “No one had done it really which made it harder and easier at the same time. The easier part was that there were no rules.”

Daellenbach said that people have expectations of ensembles such as a string quartet. Audiences expect a certain repertoire to be played. The performers are expected to have a certain attitude and dress a certain way.

The Canadian Brass didn’t face those restrictions. There is no set repertoire that people are demanding you play.

That could be a problem for some, but the five members of the Canadian Brass saw it as an opportunity.

Toronto, in 1970, was not the cultural centre it is today, but there were important supports. In particular, he said, the CBC was in its music hey day.

They got on Peter Gzowski’s This Country in the Morning a few times and they were instantly known across Canada before they even got out of Ontario.

“That was sort of the equivalent for Canada of getting on The Tonight Show in the U.S.,” Daellenbach said. “I remember going out to Halifax early on and we had a full house. That was a big difference.”

Help also came from Eleanor, the spouse of Sam Sniderman of Sam the Record Man. She started a classical label that included the Canadian Brass. The Brass got a record that they used to open doors in New York City.

Another important point, he said, was the Brass didn’t have other musicians telling them what they should and shouldn’t do.

“I think that is usually one of the biggest detriments — people telling you that you have to do this and that. Our whole thing was how to develop an audience not how to impress other brass players.

“You often hear artists say, ‘That wasn’t a very smart audience that didn’t understand our playing of Beethoven’.

“Wait a minute … if they didn’t understand what you were doing, don’t you think you should do something about that.”

There wasn’t a ton of repertoire for a brass ensemble, he said, “so we knew we had to find music to play. We kind of said the first years would be developing an audience and then at some point we would started developing a repertoire.”

They started making arrangements from a wide range of musical material, thinking, “if you are going to do a piece of music, make sure it’s the best ever. It’s Bach and Handel and so forth.”

A version of the Goldberg Variations was a breakthrough for the Canadian Brass. The recording won the group the German equivalent of a Grammy.

“Taking Bach back to Germany and getting an award … that was a good sign.”

They don’t just play the notes of a piece as if it would be played on an organ, for example.

“We need to look at a piece from another perspective. For example, when we do Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor, which has been a perennial for us, people who know the work feel like they are observing it from another angle. Its quality is intact. They don’t leave the concert saying ‘Boy, that reminded me of the great time I heard an organist playing that’. That’s the last thing you want.”

Daellenbach is hanging in there, first of all because he can, but even more because “it’s a privilege to perform. It’s really an honour to have an audience that sticks with you. It’s compelling.

“I’m sure there will be a day when I step aside but it’s not something I am looking forward to.”

Over time there have been changes in the group. There have been a dozen trumpeters (including Jens Lindemann), three horn players, three trombonists and one tuba player.

The Canadian Brass are also educators. Daellenbach, who hails originally from Wisconsin, comes by it honestly.

“My dad was a music teacher and I was pretty much following in his footsteps.”

But he sort of got sidetracked.

At the start, he said, “my interest was to find guys to play with and to have a working quintet. I met Gene and it turned out we had a similar background. We were both taught by Arnold Jacobs in Chicago.”

Today, Daellenbach is reflecting on a life in music.

“To play all these years and have a brand that endures, you need skill, you need to be prepared, but so much is luck and that you can’t predict.”

What professional athlete wouldn’t want to play for 50 years, but they can’t, he said.

“Fortunately the professional lifespan of a musician can be longer than an athlete’s.”

The Brass is careful about bringing new players on board. They aren’t looking for unknown talent.

“It has to be somebody who has spent time studying and playing and is already known as a player.

“In the group today, everybody had to audition so we know they belong — except one guy. We’re not sure about this guy” but they let him hang around.

“When we started it was nice and slow and easy steps. At first, we were hopeful to get on the CBC. We were hoping to cut a record, and do concerts at universities on weekends.”

But then it took off. In 1979, they were the first brass quintet to play on the main stage at Carnegie Hall in New York. They have appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And they have toured China in 1977, as part of a cultural exchange directed by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

And just this year they have played at what is known as the Brass Woodstock in Austria before 10,000 people.

It’s quite different from the early days, Daellenbach said.

“I remember one concert on a snowy night when there were more of us on stage than in the audience.”

Keeping the idea of the Canadian Brass going for so long also involves a principle, he said.

“I’m a great believer that people can do anything if they just go at their own speed. You have a mix of personalities. One guy’s great at organizing travel, another is good at picking repertoire, another other picks the order of programs and another is a task master for rehearsals.

“We are counting on everyone to bring their skills and use them. We can’t afford to be jealous of each other.”

To mark their 50th, the Brass is considering possible albums from recreating their landmark concert in Carnegie Hall, to inviting all past members back to record.

No matter what expect to find Chuck Daellenbach there.

The Canadian Brass today is 
Caleb Hudson, trumpet
Chris Coletti, trumpet
Achilles Liarmakopoulos, trombone
Jeff Nelsen, french horn
Chuck Daellenbach, tuba

Chamberfest presents the Canadian Brass
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Aug. 2 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.