Chamber septet bold as brass

Matthew Knight is artistic director of Septura. Photos: Supplied
Matthew Knight is artistic director of Septura. Photos: Supplied
Setting up the first brass septet to play chamber music has been a challenge the members of Septura have revelled in. Rebecca Fox talks to artistic director Matthew Knight about putting brass chamber music on the map.

A need to get the brass section out from the back benches of the chamber orchestra and on to the front of stage is behind the creation of London's brass septet.

The idea of trumpeter Simon Cox was to get the seven-member group of brass musicians - three playing trumpets, three trombones and one a tuba - to be considered as a serious artistic medium.

''It didn't really exist before in chamber music,'' artistic director Matthew Knight says.

There was only one problem, there was no chamber music written for a septet.

''We had to arrange music from scratch so we've spent the past seven or so years building up a canon of music,'' Knight says.

Septura, as they named themselves (based on septet), attracted some of London's top brass players - Knight is Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's co-principal trombone. Also principals of their orchestras are Cox (Aurora Orchestra), Huw Morgan (Sinfonieorchester Basel), Matthew Gee (Royal Philharmonic), Alan Thomas (BBC Symphony Orchestra) and Peter Smith (Royal Philharmonic) while Daniel West plays the tuba for Phantom of the Opera, London.

The members of Septura play trumpet, trombone and tuba.
The members of Septura play trumpet, trombone and tuba.
Knight says the players all had similar feelings about playing in their orchestras.

''Everyone in the group felt playing in an orchestra is a great thing. We love doing it. Quite often in the orchestra we sit in the back of the orchestra not doing very much. Not feeling that musically engaged.''

While it was great to sit there and watch their colleagues play in between their small parts, they wanted to play more ''proper chamber music''.

''We were all drawn to this idea because it was a brand new formation. Every generation wants to put their stamp on brass chamber music. Wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch was an exciting proposition.

''The sound world we could create with the septet is something I think other brass groups before haven't created. It automatically gave us an edge.''

The concept appealed to music label Naxos who signed Septura up to 10 recordings.

This allowed Cox and Knight to arrange chamber classics for the septet.

Each of the discs focuses on a particular period or composers allowing them to build up the group's repertoire.

''We are imagining the repertoire the great composers would have had.''

This lack of repertoire meant the group had recorded two CDs before it performed its first concert.

They have so far recorded seven CDs and two more are in the pipeline this year, so they now had a range of music to perform.

''We're much busier now with concerts.''

In the 2017-18 season Septura launched their debut concert series, Kleptomania, at St John's Smith Square, London and toured to Switzerland, Germany and the United States. They will perform Kleptomania: Pilfered Piano in Dunedin.

It is also allowing the group to look at arranging music just to perform, so last year Cox and Knight arranged An American in Paris for its first American tour which they will play in New Zealand but not in Dunedin.

They are also looking to commission more repertoire from living composers.

''We are keen to explore lots more now. We are trying to create the brass septet as a medium for chamber music. It's not just about our group. The septet needs music of its own.''

Arranging existing chamber music for the septet does not come without its challenges, Knight says.

He and Cox teach brass chamber music at the Royal Academy of Music where they talk about arranging for brass with one of the big considerations - stamina.

''Its difficult for brass players, even if you have some of the best brass player in the country, it's difficult for players to play non-stop - everyone has to have enough time to get the blood back in their lips so they can make it through the concert.''

There are also certain difficulties transcribing music techniques from one particular instrument to another - the piano's sustain pedal is an effect difficult to replicate as well as capturing all the expressive detail in choral music.

''What we like to do when we arrange pieces is to create pieces that sound like an original brass pieces not pale imitations of the real thing. We are trying to capture the expressive, that heart of the piece.''

It means while there are a lot of pieces they may listen to and think they would like to play, there is often parts which they ''can't imagine that sounding natural in brass instruments''.

Despite that they maintain their ''over-arching aim'' of proving brass instruments are as capable as any other of playing ''profound and serious chamber music''.

They have often come up against audiences with preconceptions about what they are about to hear.

''They often say it wasn't at all what they expected after it. People have quite fixed ideas about what a brass concert will be like. There's quite a strong stereotype.''

Knight encourages people to get over their preconceptions and listen to their music, reminding people a brass septet is included in all orchestral brass sections.

Now that Septura has released a lot of music for brass septet's they are starting to pop up in many places.

''Hopefully that will help get brass chamber music back on the map.''

Knight has been a brass convert since he chose the trombone to play at school at just 7 years old.

''It looked like a lot of fun. I think its a natural pick for a child.''

His parents were not so sure.

''I think they were disappointed I didn't want to play something smaller, like a flute or obo, so they wouldn't have to lug this huge case around.''

Then there was the sacrifice of having to listen to him practising.

''A beginner on a brass instrument isn't that nice to listen to, I suppose. I remember after playing for two weeks my Dad sitting me down and saying maybe I ought to give it up as 'I don't think you're very good at it'.

''It just made me want to do it more.''

After that there was no looking back. He went on to play in the National Youth Orchestra from age 13 and played brass chamber music on the side.

''I was lucky my first teacher was a fantastic professional player in London . He had a beautifully vocal quality, I think its one of the things that lies behind the sound we try and create.

''It's capable of an incredible musical range which is the thing that makes them so interesting to play. You are always trying to find new colours and new way of expressing things but also interesting the audience.

''While the trombone can make massive impact loudly, it can also create something delicate and beautiful as well.''

He went on to study at Cambridge University graduating with a starred first in music and then the Royal Academy of Music, London. Knight has performed with almost all of the UK orchestras, and frequently appears as a guest principal with orchestras including the London Philharmonic, London Symphony and Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

Knight now juggles his work with Septura with the philharmonic. Septura is now requiring increasing more travel alongside that he does with the orchestra.

''New Zealand is the furthest afield I've gone.''

After their New Zealand tour they will head to Japan for their first tour there, then Italy, Poland and Austria.

''We have a great time on tour. It's important as a chamber group that everyone gets on. We drove ourselves around the US in a mini bus so we spend a lot of time together.

''We're good friends, as well as musical colleagues.''

Many of them had worked or studied together in the past and the intense periods of recording their CDs had stood them in good steed, he says.

''It brought everyone together.''

Knight and Gee have known each other since they were 13 years old and both play with the philharmonic.

He is looking forward to visiting New Zealand and catching up with New Zealand brass players he knows who have worked and studied in the UK.

''I'm excited to finally find out what the country is like.''

To see
Septura, Glenroy Auditorium, April 27.


We actually have had several similar groups to this in NZ. Not sure if there are any currently but they have come & gone over the years. The Navy band ex members have been involved in one in Auckland. There is a trombone quartet called Bonanza. The RNZAF often have quintets & more. And Dave Bremner has put the NZSO brass on stage.