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With the National Brass Ensemble in Chicago - A Student's View

By trombonist Harry Gonzalez '17, a student of former San Francisco Symphony principal trombone Mark Lawrence. Gonzalez is the first student-at-large assigned to cover a national event related to SFCM.

In 1968, The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli, a record featuring 19 performers from the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, established the standard for American brass playing. Forty-six years later, the National Brass Ensemble formed as an homage to the original Gabrieli ensemble, with an added dimension: it includes an astounding 26 virtuosic brass players from the country’s greatest orchestras and takes advantage of current technology to perform and record the music of Giovanni Gabrieli with a modern sound. Their first concert on June 9, 2014 at the Green Center in Sonoma County was a huge, national success.

When I heard the second NBE concert would take place in Chicago on September 20, I decided there was no circumstance that would prevent me from attending. That determination led to hours contemplating my place in this story. Ultimately, I began to realize the correlation between the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the NBE. SFCM was to release an album entitled Gabrieli: National Brass Ensemble on a newly formed record label in partnership with the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Four SFCM faculty members participate in the ensemble and the group’s arrangements are by trombone professor Timothy Higgins. In addition, SFCM President David Stull has had an essential role in the ensemble’s success. I knew the only thing missing was student involvement. I proposed that SFCM send me to Chicago as a student ambassador on behalf of the brass department. Faculty and administration greeted my idea with so much encouragement and enthusiasm, it was approved—I was officially going to Chicago!

Landing in Chicago, I felt a flurry of emotions. I was excited to attend the National Brass Ensemble concert, nervous to be in such a historic city, a true metropolis, and surprised by a city-wide love for Dunkin Donuts. I was also surprised when Gabe Cruz (B.M.’15, trombone) greeted me with tickets to that night’s Chicago Symphony concert, featuring Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There was no way to hide my excitement after finding out I would be watching such an iconic orchestra perform one of my favorite works. Navigating through downtown Chicago on a Saturday night, I was preoccupied with the stories my teachers told praising the CSO and recounting their adventures watching this very orchestra during their studies. As I arrived at Chicago Symphony Center, I quickly noticed it was more than just a regular subscription concert, but in fact was the opening gala celebrating the 125th anniversary season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I went to the concert expecting to witness incredible performers on stage, but I was also surprised to see so many illustrious brass players in the audience—including those I was going to see in the next evening’s National Brass Ensemble concert. One of those players was SFCM trumpet faculty Adam Luftman, who was just as excited as I to watch the CSO perform. His enthusiasm resonated with me, showing me that love for the music never fades. The performance was moving and powerful beyond any of my expectations. I finally understood why my teachers attribute so much of their development to attending CSO concerts. The concert left a lasting impression and made me eager to hear the San Francisco Symphony perform weekly when I returned home.

I spent a beautiful Sunday morning in Chicago playing my instrument on a beach overlooking Lake Michigan, filled with inspiration from the previous night’s performance. I found a sense of solace in playing my instrument in such a calm and beautiful setting, separating myself from the constant scramble that is city life, and filling the hours before the next concert would begin. 

The National Brass Ensemble concert was a real blockbuster, with students and fans travelling large distances to witness the event. I retrieved my ticket at the will call window and proceeded through the historic halls, feeling at home with hundreds of brass enthusiasts. The audience buzzed with anticipation waiting for the start of the performance. As I sat eagerly, I began to share my story with the gentleman sitting beside me, and I was happy to learn just how important this concert was to him as well. Many of us carried personal connections to the performers, which contributed the overall excitement for the event.

The concert was a truly special, masterful performance by artists who conveyed a genuine sense of fun. Afterwards, I was granted access to the stage for photo opportunities and invited to document the signing event for the new CD. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music had a strong presence at this event, including the opening speech delivered by President David Stull, the music arrangements by Professor Tim Higgins, and the masterful playing of our brass faculty. It was truly an honor to attend this performance and act as a student representative on behalf of the brass department at SFCM.

Photo (l to r): Adam Luftman, trumpet; Robert Ward, horn; Harry Gonzalez '17; Lucas Jensen '17; Tim Higgins, trombone; Mark Inouye, trumpet

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