Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I think it’s safe to say that all of Septura’s members grew up listening to (and perhaps idolising) the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. That group really put brass chamber music on the map, and their spirit of adventure, of refusing to accept any boundaries or limitations for brass instruments, is something that we have tried to adopt in our own work. Of course there are many other chamber groups and individual musicians that we greatly admire. One thing common to many of them is a commitment to sound quality, particularly a vocal quality, which is really the essence of how we try to play.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge when we formed Septura was the fact that the brass septet was a brand new formation. It was fantastic to have a totally clean slate, but it did present rather an obvious problem: there was absolutely no repertoire. So in the last 5 years we have had to produce an enormous number of arrangements — the driving force behind this has been our series of recordings for Naxos, each of which is focused on a particular period, genre and group of composers.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
We’ve recorded 7 discs for Naxos now, and we’re very proud of them all. The latest one — Elgar, Parry, Finzi & Walton (released later this year) — contains probably the hardest piece we’ve played so far, a superb arrangement by Simon Cox of Walton’s Sonata for Strings. Our aim with transcriptions is always to create pieces that sound as if they could have been originally written for brass, and the Walton is probably one of the arrangements that comes closest to this ideal.
Another piece that we think works surprisingly well is Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet. It’s very intense in performance, and the brass sonority adds an extra degree of intensity. We performed it on our first ever tour — to Lieksa in Finland — and to move an audience of Finns (normally pretty reserved emotionally) to tears was a pretty special experience.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
All of us are orchestral players in our ‘day jobs’, and so you might think that music most suited to an orchestral brass style would work best. Certainly there is some of this — the Mendelssohn Organ Sonata, for example. But actually, we’ve found that the further we are out of our stylistic comfort zone, the more we have to work together to develop a really coherent stylistic approach, and ultimately the results are better. This was the case with the masterful Lagrime di San Pietro by Lassus. For these sacred madrigals to work there has to be so much nuance in phrasing, tempo and articulation (even more so once you remove the text!), and we worked really hard in the arrangements and continue to work in performance to get as much of this detail across as possible.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
We have always liked to programme thematically, even at the beginning when our repertoire was quite limited. 5 years into the project, we have a decent body of music and are showcasing it in our first concert series — Kleptomania — which we’re performing at St John’s Smith Square in London and West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge this season. Each concert focuses on a different instrument or chamber ensemble that we’ve “stolen” repertoire from. We’ve done some arrangements specially — the next concert, Pilfered Piano, in February features a brand new version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, alongside piano music by Debussy and Rachmaninov.
Looking to the future, we will continue to develop our “counterfactual history” of brass chamber music, with a particular focus next season on female composers of the past, and contemporary commissions.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
We’ve recently rehearsed at the Wigmore Hall, which would be a perfect acoustic for us to perform in. Brass instruments require a resonant acoustic — too dry and not only do they not sound great, but it also doesn’t feel good to play (one of the difficulties of playing instruments where the vibrating surface is made of flesh and blood). Too boomy, though, and it can become very loud, with all the details smothered. It’s a delicate balance, and we’re on a constant quest for the perfect hall. We’ve got a good chance to try some out on our upcoming US tour in February. 10 concert halls in as many days, there’s got to be one great one!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
We have quite a particular over-arching aim: to convince audiences that brass instruments are as capable as any other of playing profound and serious chamber music. A lot of people tell us that they don’t like brass music — until they hear us play. So success for us is really quite straightforward: for people to forget that we play brass instruments, and simply be profoundly moved by the great music that we play. The bigger the reach the better, and if our evangelism for brass takes us around the world’s foremost festivals and concert halls then that’s a bonus.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Without a doubt, patience and tenacity. It’s taken us 5 years of hard work to lay the foundations of Septura, and 20 years of practising our instruments individually before that. What’s driven us has been a love of chamber music, and an unerring belief in the unique power of brass instruments. At times the rate of progress has been frustratingly slow, or we have been temporarily demoralised by setbacks and naysayers. But we’ve plugged away, and we’re now very excited about what the future may hold for Septura.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
The Septura project is not just about our group, it’s about creating a new chamber medium. The brass septet is a pseudonym for the orchestral brass section, and so there is a septet in every youth, amateur and professional orchestra around the world. In a decade’s time we would like to have built up a significant canon of transcriptions, imagining that the great composers of the past had written for brass. We’re already passing down our particular approach through our teaching at the Royal Academy of Music. And with our sheet music out there we hope that many more groups will form and enjoy playing brass chamber music.
Perhaps a more pressing concern, however, is to convince the great composers of today and tomorrow to write for brass septet, so that we build up a large body of original repertoire. That really is our next big challenge
Septura Septet’s ‘Pilfered Piano’ concerts:
20 February, St John’s Smith Square, London
25 February, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
By creating a canon of transcriptions, arrangements and new commissions for this brand new classical configuration, Septura aims to re-cast the brass ensemble as a serious artistic medium.
Currently Ensemble in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music, London, the group is recording a series of 10 discs for Naxos Records, each focused on a particular period, genre and set of composers, creating a ‘counter-factual history’ of brass chamber music.
The first four discs have received critical acclaim, described variously as “brilliantly done” (Fiona Maddocks, The Observer), “dazzlingly polished” (Anna Picard, BBC Music Magazine) and “brass playing at its most exalted” (Robert Markow, Fanfare). The fifth disc will be released in November 2017, and the sixth was recorded in July 2017. In addition, Christmas with Septura was released in November 2016.
Weaving this ever-increasing repertoire into captivating live events, Septura is gaining a reputation for engaging audiences with innovative and imaginative programming. Following recent performances at the Cheltenham and Chipping Campden festivals, and Kings Place, London, in the 17-18 season Septura launch their debut concert series, Kleptomania, at St John’s Smith Square, London and West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge; they will also tour Switzerland, Germany and the USA.
Septura’s members are the leading players of the new generation of British brass musicians, holding principal positions in the London Symphony, Philharmonia, Royal Philharmonic, BBC Symphony, Basel Symphony and Aurora orchestras.
Interview completed on behalf of Septura Septet by Matthew Knight, one of the Artistic Directors of Septura