Wednesday, October 9, 2013

British early brass specialist Richard Thomas talks about his career and about early brass instruments on today's concert platform

On September 19th 2013, I spoke to brass player Richard Thomas at his London home. Richard Thomas studied at the University of Wales, the Royal Academy of Music (London) and the Schola Cantorum (Basel, Switzerland). As part of his Master of Arts degree, he undertook research into the William Shaw Silver State Trumpets in the Jewel House at the Tower of London. Richard Thomas’ interest in the performance practice of historical brass instruments (including the natural trumpet, the keyed bugle, the slide trumpet and cornett) has meant that he has worked with many of the most prestigious early music ensembles. Richard is a founder member and director of the acclaimed sackbut and cornett ensemble QuintEssential, he teaches cornett at Trinity College (London) and at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

PH: Richard, where were you born and do you come from a musical family?

Richard Thomas: I was born in London. All my family is from Wales and we returned to Wales when I was two years of age. I do not come from a musical family. My mother did once have piano lessons but she was the only one who had anything to do with music. I think I am the only person in the family to be musical.

PH: What are your earliest musical memories?

RT: I remember being in primary school, with all my friends having instruments to learn. The trumpet teacher came along at the start of the school year, in September, and asked who was already nine years old…mainly to make sure pupils had top- and bottom second teeth. As I was not yet nine, I was not in that first selection process. All my friends had instruments and I was probably envious of what they were doing. But I do have a clear memory of my friends turning up to deliver an instrument to me on the very day of my ninth birthday. Other than that, my early memories are of singing at school, either in English or Welsh.

PH: So you started with the trumpet.

RT: I played the brass band cornet to begin with and then the trumpet from about 17. I picked up the early instruments when I was about 21 or 22.

PH: Did you have private lessons?

RT: Yes, but all of the state schools had free tuition for pupils. So, all of my early lessons were free. It was only when I went to secondary school that I had a private half-hour paid lesson with my teacher. Although thinking about it, I remember we still had free lessons at school as well, but they were supplementary.

PH: Did you do much ensemble playing?

RT: When I was at home, in Wales, I played in the local brass band. That is where I learned my trade, as it were. I stopped doing that after leaving university. Here in the UK, a lot of the brass band tradition is entertaining in parks and concerts; playing outdoors to the public is great fun and very light-hearted.

PH: Where did you take higher music studies?

RT: I did a B.Mus degree at the University of Wales at University College in Bangor, North Wales and then started post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music in 1991, for a while, commuting between Wales and London. The Master’s degree had a performance element, also involving a written dissertation and a recital, with the course at the Royal Academy designed for people who were studying elsewhere and also attending the RAM.

PH: How did your interest in period brass instruments begin?

RT: I was involved in a group called “The National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain”. The director of music in that group managed to get us concerts in all the big churches in Venice. Our rehearsal venue was the Frari Church, where Monteverdi is buried; so there we were rehearsing daily next to Monteverdi! We played music by Gabrieli on trumpets, trombones, French horns and tubas. That is probably where I got the bug for that sort of music, but I did not yet realize how complex and interesting it was. We went there in 1988 and 1989 with two different-sized groups. The second year we were there, we were four trumpeters, all of whom have gone into the business, one of them being the now renowned conductor Daniel Harding. Then, when at the Royal Academy, I was exposed to some of the period instruments that the Academy had bought. We were encouraged to take them up. That is when I started dabbling with copies of period instruments. They handed out some cornettos and sackbuts for the trombones. But I had already started looking into the natural trumpet because of the subject of my Master’s written work. So I was already interested in the 17th- and 18th century trumpet by the time I started at the Academy. There, at the Academy, I was introduced to 16th century instruments as well.

PH: Where did this lead you?

RT: It led to forming my group, which is called the QuintEssential Sackbut and Cornett Ensemble. It is still going 20 years later and we are busy. The group kept us incredibly busy when we were students and just after we left the Royal Academy. The group really sustained part of our playing careers. We got involved with an organization called “Live Music Now”, which sends musicians into hospitals, prisons, special needs schools and old age homes – places where live music would not ordinarily be heard. This work trained us in how to deal with a wide variety of audiences and how to speak to the public as well. That was a big training ground for us. On the other side of the fence, I am now on the auditioning panels of “Live Music Now”, where I help to find new young groups. It is quite nice to give something back to them now.

PH: What performing are you currently doing on modern instruments?

RT: At the moment, I am at the Globe Theatre. It is slightly unusual to be playing modern instruments at the Globe, because I usually play period instruments there. But the play that I am involved in at the moment is set in the late 1890s and is about the graduation rights for women at Cambridge University. Tomorrow I will be doing a matinee at the Globe and then jumping into a cab to get to Trafalgar Square, where I will be playing Mozart and Haydn (Händel?) at a concert at St. Martin in the Fields. Here, I will be playing the kind of music on modern instruments which I frequently play on period instruments.

PH: And on period instruments?

RT: Last Sunday, there was a performance at Knole House, an English Heritage Elizabethan stately home in Sevenoaks. Our group “The City Musick” played. William Lyons is the director. This is a group exploring music of the “waits” tradition. The waits were professional musicians employed in towns or cities throughout Renaissance Europe. Our group focuses on music performed in London from 1500 to 1700. The next thing we are doing might be the Swan Feast, the Vintners’ Company annual dinner, in November. The Vintners’ is one of the livery companies that are allowed to keep or own swans. In December, we will be playing 18th – and 19th century music, influenced by Thomas Hardy, some Victorian music as well…played on offaclydes, serpents and keyed bugles.

PH: How would you classify those instruments?

RT: They form an 18th -19th set of instruments. Of them I play the keyed bugle, the English slide trumpet and the cornet. I always play the soprano line in this group on whatever instrument is on the top line.

PH: And with other groups?

RT: I will be doing a number of performances of Monteverdi “Vespers” next year – one in Malta, in a project to encourage more players of period instruments there, and three performances of it with John Eliot Gardiner. Those are the headline dates for next year.

PH: What about solo playing?

RT: I played concertos when I was at university, but now I do very little solo playing. Most of my work is in ensembles or orchestral. I have never really explored the solo repertoire as am usually too busy with other things. I am very comfortable being part of an ensemble. However, I did perform the Vivaldi double trumpet concert a number of times this year with a friend of mine. Anyway, as a trumpet player, you are always playing one to a part, so it does feel like solo-playing. There is one piece I am itching to play- and I keep dropping hints left, right and centre – and that is Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.1, the one with the trumpet and piano. I would love to play that. I just need to drop the right hints to the right people.

PH: How are orchestras and conductors relating to the subject of early brass instruments?

RT: There has been a recent shift of late, mainly with conductors asking brass players to use period instruments. A colleague of mine, who plays in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, said that they have been using natural trumpets for some of their repertoire, as have other orchestras. This shift is either player-led or conductor-led; it is not something that has been dictated by orchestral committees. There seems to be a lot of interest in having the different timbres of period instruments in the smaller orchestras or in smaller sections of bigger groups, probably because less volume creates a better balance with period instruments. So there is some exploration of period instruments in modern orchestras. Otherwise, period instruments are played in amongst other early music instruments.

PH: Do you play with any Renaissance- or Baroque orchestras?

RT: I play for The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment when they do Renaissance music – Gabrieli or Monteverdi - and with a Baroque group called “Florilegium”, which is run by Ashley Solomon. I have a period orchestra myself called the “Meridian Sinfonia” (called thus because I am in the Greenwich area) and I also do a lot of “orchestral fixing”.

PH: What is that?

RT: It’s a slang term for orchestral management. A conductor will ring me and say that he wants an orchestra for a concert that their choir is doing. I will tell them how much it will cost; if they agree to the price, I will put all the players together. Orchestral fixing involves booking the orchestra, making sure everyone is there, getting the right players, checking orchestrations, checking budgets and then paying everybody. It is all freelance, but the artists I ask do tend to mostly be the same people. The early music freelance world is quite small, so the pool of players is not very large and then, within that, you kind-of know who likes playing with whom or who plays best in certain repertoire. We are quite busy this year, with concerts in Worcester and London and occasionally out in Essex.

PH: So that is a period orchestra.

RT: Not just. I will also offer it as a modern band. We have concerts of Respighi and Britten coming up and also the Verdi Requiem next year. It is the same umbrella. I am the constant and know the players who perform different styles well, with a few of them playing both period- and modern instruments.

PH: You are seeing a lot of early music played in Britain.

RT: Yes. But the same music has been played here for decades; pieces like “Messiah” and the Mozart “Requiem” etc. have been performed by amateur choirs up and down the country every weekend for decades. The change now is that they are more confident that they can get a period orchestra if they so wish. So the period instrument movement here has got more outlets, more places where these players can earn a living. Much of the music they are playing has been performed a lot, but formerly on modern instruments.

PH: Would you like to talk about amateur performers and attitudes to new repertoire?

RT: That is the tricky thing. The difficult thing is to get new composers and unusual repertoire performed. If one is being booked by a choral society – amateur music-making, and especially singing, is very prolific in Britain – it will tend to do pieces that we will have seen a number of times. If my group is booked for a festival, we can take a bit more of a risk with different repertoire, because that is what festivals often expect; festivals tend to present a mix of the familiar and the unusual. Regarding early music, very occasionally you get a conductor of a choral society who wants to try unfamiliar repertoire of a known composer or the double whammy of an unknown composer and something unusual to perform. Those are the times when it is interesting for us from an exploratory point of view.

PH: So who is open to performing unusual works?

RT: It is the period orchestras such as “The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment” who push the boundaries of unusual repertoire. It is normally orchestras which have funding that can take those risks.

PH: Would you like to talk about your teaching?

RT: Yes. I teach the modern trumpet in two places local to me, I teach cornetto at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (London) and I have been teaching at the Birmingham Conservatoire as well. This year I will be giving classes in Birmingham on editing, performance practice and ornamentation – a general early music course.

PH: Do you compose music?

RT: No, but I do edit repertoire from original sources for my group to perform or for anybody who commissions me to do editing; of course, editing ties in with the many years of my interest in finding “new old” repertoire.

PH: I am interested to hear about your use of flatt trumpets in the Purcell performance at Dartington Hall, Devon, this last summer.

RT: The Purcell Funeral Music is scored for four flatt trumpets. The origin of the word “flatt” is a little obscure, but we think it means they could play in minor keys. The harmonic series of the natural trumpet – in the “a”-fixed length of tubing – according to the principles of physics, gives you a major triad in the second octave and then a major scale in the third. The flatt trumpets are fitted with a slide, meaning you can lengthen the tubing to enable the player to lower the major third to become a minor third. Ordinarily, you would have needed to change the length of the whole instrument to change key but you would still have only been able to play the harmonic series notes. So the flatt trumpet means you can have modulations and the funeral march of Purcell’s Funeral Music, although not modulating in a wildly adventurous way, does go into keys in which normal natural trumpets could not play. The invention of the slide trumpet at the end of the 17th century was quite ground-breaking and innovative.

PH: Were there many works played on flatt trumpets in England at the time?

RT: We think we know that the trumpet-playing Shore brothers – John and William - played them; Talbot’s description of a flatt trumpet is based on an instrument he borrowed from John Shaw. We know you need four of them but we do not know who else owned them at the time. The music we today know as the Purcell Funeral Music was originally composed for a play called “The Libertine”. It was then re-scored for the funeral of Queen Mary and played again at Purcell’s own funeral. However, the repertoire for the flatt trumpet is very, very limited and sources are a little ambiguous about in what other works the trumpets may have been played. Interestingly, the development of trumpets took a step backwards after these flatt trumpets: it then went back to the fixed length, closed instrument until we get to the 19th century, with the invention of the piston, the cylinder and valves.

PH: Are flatt trumpets difficult to play?

RT: Yes. They are notoriously difficult to play because they are slide trumpets. It is a real challenge and an accomplishment to get players to play them well.

PH: They must be hard to come by nowadays.

RT: Definitely. The person who was commissioned by Andrew Pinnock in 1994 to make some flatt trumpets for the 1995 400th anniversary concert of Purcell’s death only made 11 of them. Those instruments are now scattered all over the world. Two of them are in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum and there may be one or two others in France. The one bass instrument is in Spain. For the Purcell concert in the summer, I borrowed a couple from another maker; the two from Switzerland were brought over to Britain, as was the one from Spain and I picked up two in London. It is probably an unusual occurrence to have five flatt trumpets in one place today! There is someone in Switzerland who is making some, but because the repertoire for the flatt trumpet is so tiny, you need to know that you have enough work on the instrument to justify buying them.

PH: Do you play jazz?

RT: No, but I have a friend who is a superb jazz player and I go to listen to his group a lot and enjoy it very much. However, I am teaching all my trumpet students how to play jazz at a very elementary level so that if they do choose to play jazz later on they will have the tools to do so.

PH: Do you play instruments other than brass instruments?

RT: Well, since having worked at places like Hampton Court and the Tower of London, and having known some of my City Musick colleagues for 20 years, I have now taken up some of the instruments that they have been playing – I play some recorder in ensemble with them, the hurdy gurdy, the bagpipes, I will do a bit of percussion if needed and the crumhorn, just to augment the ensemble or give myself a break. Because City Musick focuses on music of the waits, we all play a number of instruments in concerts. In my cornett and sackbut group, we each only play the one instrument.

PH: Richard, when it is not music, what interests you?

RT: Silence…I love silence. When I am at home, I tend not to have music playing. Peace and quiet is great. I have an allotment and, although I am not an accomplished gardener, I will go and sit at the allotment with a flask of tea to just enjoy the peace and quiet and the unusual wildlife there. Having said that, there is never peace and quiet there because, as soon as you get rid of all the traffic noise, you hear the all the birds, the wind in the trees and all the other sounds that living in the city cancels out. I enjoy the lack of industrial noise. This must hark back to the fact that I grew up in the country, where the noisiest thing in the world is countryside silence.

And I have a taste for the usual brass-players’ delights - food and drink and being in and around others who enjoy the same thing. I also like cycling and have done some long cycling trips. Ideally I would like to also cycle to work, but that is not feasible.