Dunedin (by Matt Knight)

A leisurely 10 am start in Christchurch continued the theme of this being the most relaxed Septura tour in history. To Matt Gee’s chagrin, a couple of us even committed the cardinal sin of being slightly late for the bus – it seems that Kiwi baristas are quite laid back, and the making of the perfect flat white definitely cannot be rushed. We were relieved to see that for the short flight down to Dunedin we were on a slightly bigger plane than the day before, so at least the tenor trombones could be squeezed into overhead lockers. 

Ahead of the tour I had done an interview with the Otago Daily Times and whilst most of the article seemed to really capture the essence of Septura, we were amused to read in the published version that Pete Smith – in reality Principal Tuba of the Philharmonia Orchestra – had been given a considerable upgrade, and was credited with holding that position in the Royal Philharmonic.

On the battle bus to Dunedin

We had been told that Christchurch was the “English” city of New Zealand (we were staying on Regent Street there), and that Dunedin was the “Scottish”. It certainly seemed that way as we arrived. After flying past stunning mountainous landscapes we descended through thick clouds and landed in pouring rain, a stark contrast to the beautiful sunny weather that we have experienced everywhere else on this tour. As we were driven to our hotel in the centre of town several of the players remarked on how much it reminded them of Glasgow – two, Huw Morgan and Matt Gee, having actually lived in the Scottish city early on in their careers.

The Glenroy Auditorium

After a healthy lunch all together we had a bit of a rest before heading to the Glenroy Auditorium for our brief soundcheck. Now that we have performed both programmes in New Zealand we try not to rehearse too much before the concert, preferring to keep our lips fresh in the knowledge that the music is all extremely well-practiced already. We were slightly relieved to find the auditorium was a good-sized chamber hall, seating around 500 – rumour had spread (from our knowledgable taxi driver Starsky) that the hall was a 5000-seater, and despite the press coverage we weren’t fully confident of filling a hall that size.

As it turned out we performed our Pilfered Piano programmes to a respectable audience, and it was warmly received with enthusiastic and frequent applause. We always try to go out to the front of house in the interval and at the end of the concert, and it was nice to meet some of the audience and sign CDs for the keenest of them.

Work done for the day we decided to sample some of the pinot noir for which the Otago region is famed, and we retired to our hotel (via a Scottish-inspired kebab shop) content with another great day on tour.

Christchurch (by Dan West)

It’s hard to fathom that over a week has passed since we took off from Heathrow. On Friday morning we departed Nelson, NZ with heavy hearts after a very successful residency at the NCMA. We met in the hotel foyer at a very civilised 8:30am before piling into the airport transfer which was kindly arranged for us by our generous hosts, Chamber Music New Zealand. During the short drive we covered very familiar territory: it had only been a few days since we cycled along the same motorway during our epic 40K ‘Tour de Richmond’, heroically fending off jet lag on Day One. We reflected on the more gushy reviews we received from the enthusiastic pupils and participants at the end of the course. The manner in which everything was organised & curated by the legendary New Zealand trombonist David Bremner was exemplary, and I hope he doesn’t mind if we essentially steal all his ideas & use them as a framework for future brass workshops!

Arriving at the modern & modestly-sized airport I was amused to see that there were only 2 gates: Arrivals and Departures. Michael— sorry, Matthew Knight & I had our greatest fears realised when we boarded the tiny twin-prop aircraft & found the overhead containers were significantly smaller than our trombone gig bags. Using what could only be described as coolness under pressure, Knighty discovered that his trombone fit underneath the seat, leaving me to buckle myself in with a bass trombone wedged between my knees. Thanks to years of Jedi training, the air hostess didn’t seem to notice this on her final security check. We promptly took to the skies with what I assume must have been numerous violations of the aircraft safety code!

Squeezing trombones and trombonists into their seats

Luckily it was only a 40 minute journey to our destination. Christchurch is a city on the east coast of the South Island with a population nearly 6 times that of Nelson’s 50,000 residents. We were informed by the front pages of all the national print media that our esteemed Duke of Cambridge was visiting the city on the same day.  He was in town to meet the survivors & honour the victims of the vicious mosque shooting which took place here last month. Perhaps if he needs some light relief after a sombre day we could end up seeing him in the audience for the performance of our uplifting American In Paris programme this evening. After a power nap I met a few of the others for lunch in a very sunny & warm spot just a short walk from our hotel, which is located over the road from the earthquake-damaged and cordoned-off Christchurch Cathedral. Pete & I were mocked by the Artistic Directors for ordering mocktails, but the joke was on them because the beverages were both refreshing and delicious! A quick coffee in the square was then all we had time for before setting off down New Regent Street – an historic stretch of tarmac which features a tramway, pastel-fronted storefronts and evokes a very similar vibe to San Francisco – towards tonight’s venue for rehearsal & soundcheck.

Christchurch Cathedral

Regent street

The Piano, Christchurch

The Piano Centre for Music & the Arts features an immaculate modern performance space, which is only a year old. We were delighted to find that the acoustic was as pleasing as the aesthetic, and after a classic Septura ‘Top & Tail’ rehearsal we dispersed to make our final personal preparations for the gig. I have to admit that energy had reached a particularly low ebb, mainly due to jet lag – though it was suggested that we were possibly all suffering from a post-workshop comedown. Those few days in Nelson were knackering but also rewarding; it’s a rare treat (for me especially) to work with pupils as enthusiastic & receptive, but the opportunities for ‘switching off’ and relaxing weren’t in abundance.

I took advantage of the break between rehearsal & concert  to video chat with my family back in London, catching my wife & the kids just as they woke up. The 11-hour time difference has taken some time for me to get my head around, especially factoring in early bed times (for the kids – not me!). If I lie in until 7am here (8pm at home) I completely miss the kids, and then my next opportunity to chat with them doesn’t arise until 6:30pm here (7:30am at home) which can be tricky depending on what venue we’re about to perform at and whether there is decent WiFi. 

Though we’ve traveled so far we’re constantly reminded what a small world it is, especially in the wider brass community. Amongst the audience members tonight were a former pupil of Alan’s from the RCM and there was also a bass trombonist who happened to be the very first teacher of Kiwi celebrity trombonist & great friend of the group Blair Sinclair of Opera North in Leeds. These deep-lying connections are apparent everywhere in New Zealand, even down to the names of the cities and the streets within. 

After the concert, which I particularly enjoyed due to an acoustic which gave us plenty of encouragement, we successfully limited ourselves to the oft-promised but rarely-achieved mantra ‘Only a Couple of Beers’. A late night snack at the classic Kiwi pizza chain ‘Hell Pizza’ was all we could manage before our beds summoned us. The news of a 10am shuttle to the airport was music to everyones’ ears, and with any luck my alarm clock will wake me after a solid night’s sleep. 

Nelson residency Day 4 (by Simon Cox)

On our final day in Nelson we were up bright and early for another rehearsal, this time for our upcoming recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It says a lot about how busy Septura’s members are in their orchestral ‘day jobs’ that the only time we could get everyone together to do this was on the other side of the world. The effects of the brutal jet lag (caused by an 11-hour time difference) are still being felt in some quarters, but we still managed a productive session, observed by the residency students. We’ve performed this piece several times in recent years, so are really looking forward to recording it and giving a wider audience the opportunity to hear it.

Lunchtime saw the culmination of all of the work we’ve done with the students during our residency here, as they took to the stage in their pre-formed chamber ensembles for a final performance. It was great to see them putting into practice what they’ve learnt, and how supportive they all were of each other. The concert finished with a performance of Richard Strauss’s Feierlicher Einzug, in which all the students and members of Septura joined together in a rousing finale. With so many brass players in a relatively small hall, we had to be careful not to overdo the volume. Luckily our conductor Matt Knight quickly mastered ‘the hand’ – a gesture familiar to brass players around the world, meaning it’s time to dampen your enthusiasm.

Matt Knight rehearsing the whole company in some Strauss

We were given the difficult task of awarding scholarships to three students, allowing them to buy equipment to help further their studies. From a very strong field we chose Jackson Bankovic (trombone), Sophie Spencer (trumpet) and Toby Pringle (trumpet), three talented and hard-working students who surely have bright futures ahead of them.

Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of a course like this is the chance for students and teachers to chat informally about much broader issues than just music making – it’s hopefully an enriching experience for the students to be able to ask us about anything that pops into their heads, and certainly an interesting one for us.  It was decided the most suitable venue for this was a local freehouse, and as the afternoon turned to evening we enjoyed discussing all manner of topics, from the best places to study abroad (the Royal Academy if Music, naturally), to whether Wales might finally beat the All Blacks at this year’s Rugby World Cup 🤞🏻 

Our number one fan Tadao had become something of a mascot for the course by this point, so it was a source of great delight when he was persuaded to perform a set with his Ukulele, including passionate renditions of Yesterday and Danny Boy. Cries of T-Bone (his affectionate nickname) rang out around the town as he drew to a close (to get a sense of the volume, think of the roars accompanying Tiger Woods around Augusta during the latter stages of his recent Masters triumph).

It became apparent at this point that non-liquid sustenance was required, and that the Little India restaurant was our only option – given that curry is generally the dish of choice for most brass players, this seemed like an appropriate way to round things off.  The students’ education continued as a chilli eating contest ensued – they might be talented but as Dan West demonstrated there’s just no substitute for experience.

Tomorrow we’ll pack our bags and head to Christchurch as the concert tour begins in earnest…

Nelson Residency Day 3 (by Matt Gee)

The morning after our New Zealand debut was gloriously sunny – any fuzzyness from a rather short night’s sleep quickly cleared; Pete was even heard whistling in the shower such was his happy outlook.

Group warm-ups kicked the day off at 8am – Matt and Dan gave away their playing secrets, and reduced everyone to fits of laughter with some very amusing brain-gym games, while Huw demonstrated a warm-up that would frighten even the hardiest of pros!

Matt and Dan talk warm-ups

It was time for us to down instruments, pick up our batons, and prepare the students for a lunchtime concert at Nelson’s Christ Church Cathedral. The repertoire focused entirely on Gabrieli, which, as all brass players will testify, is notoriously tricky – one wrong move, a missed 6/4 bar or an ill prepared tempo change could bring the entire piece to its knees. The students did a fantastic job however, filling the cathedral with warm, majestic sounds to a large and appreciative audience.

We had a half hour break during which refreshments were taken with our Japanese super-fan, Tadao. Over the last few years he has followed the Septet all over the world. He’s been to London to watch us play, Germany, Wales, Finland and now NZ. It’s safe to say that he is more than a little excited about the group visiting Japan later this year.

Septura with super-fan Tadao

Refreshed, Matt and I dashed off to run a trombone workshop, while Dan gave the only bass trombone player on the course a two hour grilling on Respighi’s Fountains of Rome – his chops may well have been shot, but he spent the rest of the day enthused about Dan’s teaching and everything trombone-related.

The workshop allowed students to perform a wide range of music, from orchestral excerpts to solo pieces. Matt Knight’s singing turned out to be a particular highlight as he got wildly carried away demonstrating the supporting vocal part in Tuba Mirum from Mozart’s Requiem.

It was a special day for Matt, because an article about the group was being published in the popular New Zealand Herald. Matt had been interviewed over the phone a few weeks before, but unfortunately something got lost over the airwaves – Septura’s ‘Michael Knight is not the least bit sniffy about brass bands’ the article claimed! We immidiately went to work mocking him, photoshopping all manner of Knight Rider pictures, replacing David Hasselhoff’s face with Matt’s… this may go on for a while!

NZ Herald’s “Michael Knight”

More chamber coaching followed, with some last minute tweaks before the following day’s concert. Dan and I had been released from our coaching duties, and took a well-earned coffee in the sun before heading back to watch the other guys in action.

We popped into a restaurant for a bite to eat and as luck would have it had the most fantastastic meal: flat iron steaks washed down with a great local bottle of Pinot noir. Matt and Simon unfortunately had to miss this meal and deliver a talk on stylistic considerations in brass chamber music (we kept reminding them how good it was), before we all came together for a panel discussion led by Dave Bremner, the course curator and principal trombone of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. A few crates of beer appeared which set just the right tone for this Q & A session, which very naturally concluded in the pub.

Nelson residency Day 2 (by Huw Morgan)

After the festivities of the previous evening, the second day of our residency began with Matt Gee bravely volunteering to lead the 8am group warm-up class. Rather unsurprisingly for such an early morning session, the attendance of Septura’s other members – which had been enthusiastically mooted some twelve hours earlier – failed to materialise, as many enjoyed the opportunity of an extra hour in bed, a leisurely breakfast, or an early morning run.

Matt Gee in full warm-up flow

Shortly afterwards, it was straight into another intensive couple of hours of chamber music coaching. I had the pleasure of working with a very talented high school trumpet quartet from Christchurch, as well as an advanced student trombone quartet, who performed a beautiful arrangement of Debussy’s Trois Chansons. It’s tremendously enjoyable for us all to work with such enthusiastic and dedicated participants, and especially since they are so receptive
to our suggestions.
Among the highlights of this Chamber Music New Zealand residency has been the daily ‘Geeky Brass Stuff’ (or GBS) sessions, which allow the students and players to discuss a variety of topics. Since some of Monday’s questions had been clearly sabotaged by fellow Septura players, course artistic director and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra principal trombonist Dave Bremner’s deft moderation ensured that Tuesday’s Q&A ran rather more smoothly, with an emphasis on ‘overseas study’.

Septura members answering some geeky brass questions

Most unusually for Septura, we also welcomed a horn player into our midst as a guest professor for Tuesday’s classes. Alien as this species might be to us, the face was a familiar one – Sam Jacobs, who, after a period as principal horn in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (alongside Matt Gee and Matt Knight), is now the section leader of the NZSO. Sam’s job, of course, was to lead the french horn masterclass, and we’re looking forward to seeing him again during our visit to Wellington later in the tour.
The first session of the afternoon also allowed some of our members to demonstrate their burgeoning conducting skills, as we rehearsed several brass ensemble works for Wednesday’s lunchtime concert, which will be dedicated to the music of the great sixteenth-century Venetian composer, Giovanni Gabrieli. Techniques were varied – from tautly rhythmic, baton-like pencil methods to flailing histrionics reminiscent of dodgy choral society conductors, we ensured our students would never be surprised or disappointed by anything they may encounter as a professional musician!
Tuesday night also marked the opening concert of our tour. A large and appreciative audience at the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts, who were also treated to an informative pre-concert talk by Simon and Matt Knight, greeted our ‘Pilfered Piano’ programme – containing works by Rachmaninov, Debussy, and Mussorgsky’s epic Pictures at an Exhibition – with rapturous applause.

Septura in concert for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere

The post-concert debrief was once again conducted in a local hostelry, which afforded us the opportunity of chatting with our CMNZ friends over a pint or two of New Zealand’s finest craft ales. While those of us involved in Wednesday’s ‘red-eye’ warm-up class soon headed to bed, the remainder continued to avail themselves of our Kiwi hosts’ first-class hospitality, as the party headed into the early hours with no sign of slowing down!

Nelson residency Day 1 (by Alan Thomas)

Today our long awaited residency in Nelson begins. Over the next four days  we’ll give a performance of our Pilfered Piano programme, coach various young chamber groups, conduct a concert of Gabrieli in the Cathedral and combine together with the students in the final concert in a big Strauss finale.

The Nelson School of Music

After doing our individual daily warm up routines we gathered in the main hall for welcomes and introductions by our affable host and friend David Bremner, who is also Principal Trombone of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Septura with our fantastic host from the NZSO, David Bremner

The students have arrived in already established chamber music ensembles from all over New Zealand and two from Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia. After an outline of the course from David and some housekeeping from Rachel, our Chamber Music New Zealand host, we were able to mingle over a rather generous buffet lunch in the very plush, newly refurbished foyer of the Centre of Musical Arts.

The afternoon saw the first of 3 allocated chamber music coaching sessions. The forces of Septura divided up into different rooms, quirkily named after legendary brass players for the week, such as Maynard Ferguson, Wynton Marsalis, Arnold Jacobs and Alison Balsom. I was able to float between rooms to see how my colleagues were getting on and help to choose a group to receive the honour to warm up the audience prior to our performance tomorrow night.

Coaching students

It was apparent the standard was incredibly high and the level of preparation by the groups was to be commended. It was also refreshing to hear new music and varied ensembles, including ‘Brass Quad’, an ensemble consisting of 2 trumpets trombone and euphonium, playing all of their own arrangements.

Alan in masterclass action

This was followed by the first of the daily ‘Geeky Brass Stuff’ sessions in which a different ‘no holes barred’ topic is discussed each day. Today’s was ‘mouthpieces’ which generated some interesting discussions, especially from our resident expert Huw Morgan.

To finish the day, it was time for Septura to put all our wise coaching words into practice in our own rehearsal for our 5 Chamber Music New Zealand performances.

Having focused on Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition the previous day, this was a chance to reacquaint ourselves with our American in Paris programme. Although we have now played this many times, one of the joys of brass chamber music is how these works evolve and improve over time. For me the enjoyment of this programme increases in every airing. Coming back to something afresh often means getting the rubber out on old pencil markings and trying new ideas and learning from previous performances.

On the theme of reacquainting, it is great for us to have our very own super-fan Tadao from Japan observing the whole course, armed as always with his camera and iPad hanging around his neck. Tadao is adding to his ever increasing portfolio of Septura visits including Finland, Germany and London, documenting his trip with pictures of local landmarks and various cuisines on Facebook to his merry band of followers back home.

It’s not long until we return the favour and join Tadao’s own Tokyo Brass in our forthcoming trip to Japan in June!

NZ Day 1 (by Matt Knight)

We celebrated Easter Sunday with the first rehearsal of our New Zealand tour, at the Centre of Musical Arts in Nelson. To be honest it was a bit of relief to feel slightly human again, and for our lips to have returned to a more normally responsive state. Brass instruments are fairly unique in that it is actually a part of the body that is responsible for making the sound. And it turns out that flesh and blood don’t necessarily respond well to over 30 hours in an aeroplane. So when we forced ourselves to have an individual practice session shortly after our arrival from the UK on Saturday, the results were for the most part less than optimal.

We had set off from Heathrow on Thursday lunchtime. Huw had already clocked up a few hours in the air, having flown straight in from New York, but the rest of us were fresh – full of excitement for our first tour of 2019, taking us further from home than we had ever been before. 

2 flights, about 27 hours and next to no sleep later we arrived in Auckland, and since morale had sunk to just slightly above total despair we decided to buoy our spirits with the best gourmet breakfast that the airport had to offer. Almost totally rejuvenated by our Bacon and Egg McMuffins, we boarded the small plane to Nelson.

As the short final flight progressed the sun came up over New Zealand, giving us our first glimpse of this stunning country.