Two Brass Ensembles, Aspen Music Festival, One Pandemic

The Barbary Coast Brass Quintet. From left, Michael Thompson '22, Nikki Hillis '18, James Chen '21, Robert Giambruno '19, and Carolyn Tillstrom '19. Photo by Christopher Torrisi '20.

Carolyn Tillstrom ‘19 on Building Brass Trio and Barbary Coast Brass Quintet

Tuba player Carolyn Tillstrom (MM ‘19) heard the San Francisco Symphony play Mahler 7 in an auditorium in New Jersey (following its performance at Carnegie Hall) her junior year of college back in 2014. The hall was tiny but the experience made a huge impact. Tillstrom never forgot the orchestra’s brass sound. From then on, Tillstrom knew that she belonged in San Francisco and at SFCM (where many symphony musicians teach). But she had no idea how much of a community there would be at the Conservatory, or how she’d continue that spirit of camaraderie after graduation with two groups: the Building Brass Trio and the Barbary Coast Brass Quintet.

Finding community at SFCM

After driving across the country from her New Jersey home to San Francisco—and playing “Ride of the Valkyries” on her tuba in major national parks along the way—Tillstrom started her masters at SFCM in the fall of 2017. Almost immediately, she met future quintet collaborators Robert Giambruno ‘19 and Nikki Hillis ‘18. Tillstrom and Giambruno were in the same chamber group, while she and Nikki met in studio class and further connected through a concert produced by her teacher Jeff Anderson.

[Jeff Anderson] is just such a musician. He could play one note on the tuba—one B flat whole note—and it will be the most musical B flat whole note ever.” —Carolyn Tillstrom, ‘19

“Jeff throws Octubafest every October, and my first year at SFCM...we played “Triangles” by John Stevens, which is for a horn, a trombone, and a tuba,” recalls Tillstrom. “Nikki joined us for that, so within a month of coming to [the Conservatory] we were rehearsing together.”

Tillstrom and her collaborators were in and out of ensembles together during her time at SFCM, where she grew both musically and entrepreneurially.

“Working with Jeff [Anderson] was awesome. He is just such a musician. He could play one note on the tuba—one B flat whole note—and it will be the most musical B flat whole note, ever,” says Tillstrom. “I’ve played rep for him that I didn’t think I could play like Brahmns’ horn trio, but on tuba, down the octave.”

Tillstrom lists Brass Choir (taught by faculty member Paul Welcomer) and Brass Chamber (taught by department chair Adam Luftman) as two of the most influential classes. The former gave her experience in a wide range of repertoire—standard brass pieces, large excerpts, big symphonies—and culminated in a rehearsal where students played side-by-side with San Francisco Symphony musicians at Davies Hall. Brass Chamber offered Tillstrom the chance to work on her sound and learn about the business side of being a musician.

“You’re only required to take Adam’s class for two semesters. I took it all four semesters. A lot of people [do that], because Adam is so phenomenal,” says Tillstrom. In Brass Chamber, Luftman brings in other musicians to work with students in the class and discuss their careers, such as how they got where they are or how they started a nonprofit business.

What Tillstrom learned at SFCM became useful when she began navigating post-conservatory life. As did the community of artists—both students and faculty—she met while in school.

Forming two music ensembles within a year of graduating

After SFCM, Tillstrom and Giambruno (along with Avery Roth-Hawthorne ‘19) started Building Brass Trio. They auditioned for and were accepted into San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music (AIM). A partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District, AIM contracts music ensembles, like Building Brass Trio, to perform mini concerts to SFUSD students and teach them about instruments.

Tillstrom’s first enterprising effort post-graduation is the Barbary Coast Brass Quintet, which she formed with Giambruno, Hillis, and two current SFCM students, Michail Thompson ‘22 (an entrepreneur in his own right) and James Chen ‘21. The latter two were brought on because Tillstrom loved their sound after hearing them at the Conservatory.

The quintet’s mission is to bring music—that smooth, balanced brass sound—to the greater San Francisco area. They have a good partnership with the Noe Valley Ministry, and SFCM Dean Jonas Wright has also been supportive in bringing the quintet back to SFCM for performances. The quintet performed Y.M.C.A. at the topping out of The Bowes Center last December.

They’ve also focused on competitions and recently won a place at Aspen Music Festival. Their submission for the festival included a recording of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 5 (the first movement) arranged for brass by faculty member Tim Higgins—a challenging piece as it takes a significant amount of work for brass instruments to emulate the balance and expressivity of strings.

Later, like so many other musicians during the global pandemic, the quintet’s gigs were postponed due to shelter-in-place orders. The Building Brass Trio could only complete 67 of its 140 contracted concerts for SFUSD students.

Tillstrom is rescheduling the quintet’s gigs at Noe Valley Ministry, an art gallery in Marin, and SFCM for this fall. She and other members of the quintet performed during Brass Night of SFCM’s Tiny Dorm Concert Series (curated by Thompson). Now, she’s looking toward the future.

“We will come out of this virus kicking,” says Tillstrom.

It’s a testament to the strength of the community she has found with her collaborators both at SFCM and post-graduation in the greater Bay Area.

Learn more about SFCM’s brass department.