USA 2022 (Part 2) by James Fountain

With this being my first time in North America with my Septura colleagues, I had been forewarned of the vast distances we would be travelling between concert venues, and you join me for this blog entry just in time for one of the longest journeys of the trip. 

We commenced the 716 mile drive from Harrisonburg, VA to Montreal, Canada after a short morning rehearsal at James Madison University’s fantastic Forbes Center for the Performing Arts. With a predicted journey time of well over 10 hours you might think we had plenty of time for ‘team bonding’? Not quite the case as we all plugged in to watch our respective Netflix series (other streaming platforms are available) or settled down for some well earned kip, a clear sign of the busy tour so far. We split the journey to Montreal up, stopping overnight in Poughkeepsie, NY after the first 7-hour stint. After a tiring day of sitting down doing nothing we all went straight to bed, not often the case with brass players on tour!

Upon leaving the following morning to complete our epic trek to Montreal, spirits were high, all of us very enthusiastic about our concert that evening. Fuelled by plenty of coffee and seemingly non-stop banter, the journey flew by despite a lengthy lunch stop for our guest bass trombonist Simon Minshall to showcase his infamous eating skills.

On arrival at McGill University in Montreal, we were greeted by one of the university’s trumpet professors, Russell DeVuyst who took great care of us during our short time in Canada. Straight to rehearsal then as we eagerly rehearsed the second of our two concert programmes on the tour ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. The clue is in the title, with a second half containing Mussorgsky’s masterpiece paired with two staples of the Septura repertoire to make up the rest of the programme. Our Prokofiev Suite and Shostakovich’s 8th String Quartet are both favourites of mine and pieces I know everyone in the group loves to perform.

We enjoyed a wonderful concert in McGill University’s Pollack Hall and afterwards took the opportunity to meet some of the students we would be working with at our chamber music workshop the following morning. It’s been a highlight of the trip for me to be able to connect with our audiences after the concert, making new friends and reconnecting with old acquaintances. It’s great to feel the support the group has on this side of the pond and hear how well the concerts have gone down with fans and promotors alike.

On a post-concert high, we enjoyed some much needed food and refreshment on recommendation of our effervescent host, Russ. Designated eater Simon Minshall again came up trumps on his food order with a magnificent hot dog, however I wasn’t completely sold on the local delicacy ‘poutine’. Chips with cheese and gravy… make it make sense please?!

The next day, we were privileged to hear the talented students of McGill University in a chamber music workshop. It was a pleasure to see their progress during the class and we also managed to dodge the frequently asked question ‘Why no French horns?’ without offending any horn players in attendance, or at least we hope so! 

A quick stop at Montreal’s ‘Time Out’ food market for a bite to eat and a rebalancing of coffee levels and we were on the road again. 

Onwards to Manhattan for our New York City debut at The Town Hall!

USA 2020 Part 8 (by Simon Cox)

It was hard to believe the last day of our tour had arrived – it had seemed so far away almost three weeks ago as we touched down in Atlanta. Since then we’ve zigzagged across this huge country, performed 12 concerts (with one cancellation), and encountered heavy snow, torrential rain, warm sunshine and (almost) tornadoes.

This group shot seems like a LONG time ago!

We always get told by people we meet how wonderful it must be to do something we love for a living, and that’s certainly true a lot of the time. It’s difficult to think of a much better job than one that allows you to travel to places like San Francisco, and perform great music with talented colleagues while you’re there. There are downsides though, and staying in 13 different hotels in 13 nights with a whole load of driving and flying in between isn’t quite as glamorous as it might sound. So despite having a great time, as the final day dawned we were all ready to head home.

Matt Gee and Alan Thomas with their masterclass students

Our venue for the day was San Francisco State University, and a matinee concert was to be preceded by classes with trumpet and trombone students, both from SFSU and San Francisco Conservatory. Alan, Huw and Gee seemed perfectly suited to this, so we sent them off bright and early to impart their wisdom while the rest of us continued to digest the sensational Nepalese curry of the night before. Who knew that buffalo wings and butter chicken were such natural bedfellows?

A final morning off for some San Francisco sightseeing

Soon enough we joined our harder-working colleagues for the concert. The McKenna Theatre felt slightly odd to play in at first – it’s essentially a theatre stage but with recital-hall-style seating – so we had to spend a bit of time during the soundcheck making sure we were in the optimal position to get the best out of the acoustic. A bit of local knowledge helped us to figure things out, and we were happy with the results in the end. Matt Knight and I were subsequently whisked off to take part in a pre-concert talk with our hosts Cyrus Ginwala and Brad Hogarth, with a number of interesting questions emerging from the audience, highlights including “will your work be impacted by Brexit?” (You tell us? Probably) and what our thoughts were on free jazz in chamber music contexts (I deferred to our resident expert Knighty for this one).

There was a palpable sense of anticipation at getting to the finish line, and the large and enthusiastic audience made it the perfect finish to the tour. As ever, the Clara Schumann went down especially well, and we’re delighted with this new addition to our repertoire.

Clara Schumann. It’s incredible to think that the piano sonata wasn’t published until the 1990s.

Afterwards I had a particularly interesting discussion with a local musicologist who was there to review the concert, about our approach to repertoire development – she was keen to understand why we have focussed on transcriptions so far, rather than commissioning living composers which she felt should be more of a priority. As I explained to her, our opinion in Septura is that the long-term health of the brass septet as a classical medium is best served by building a large counterfactual history of repertoire, allowing us to bring our music making to the widest possible audience rather than operating solely within the relatively narrow (albeit important) field of exclusively contemporary music. We intend to build on that foundation by commissioning the great living composers of our age to pen significant works for brass septet, ensuring its long term future as a serious artistic medium. The emphasis should be on quality over quantity, and we will take our time to make sure the results are what they should be.

All packed up, it was back into tour mode for our final journey. Smooth check in, quick burger in the airport, bit of attempted sleep in the hideously outdated British Airways cabin, and before we knew it we were back, reunited with wives, girlfriends, sons, daughters, and a particularly excited maltipoo puppy. We have a couple of days to recover before it’s back to it, performing in the Wigmore Hall for the first time on Thursday, and the Chilterns Arts Festival on Friday. It’s been quite a month!

USA 2020 Part 7 (by Matthew Gee)

Basketball, Baseball and bottoms. 

Everyday feels like a Monday – we have been working very hard. Travelling, early starts, concerts and masterclasses. But now we were in the unprecedented situation of having TWO WHOLE DAYS OFF! The first day would largely be spent traveling to San Francisco, but the following day we were at our leisure. Our journey to San Fransisco went like clockwork; connections made, bags arrived, ubers summoned. We made the most of it dashing straight out of our hotel to 1 Warriors Way, the home of the mighty Golden State Warriors, our newly adopted basket ball team. We were no lucky charm, the Houston Rockets thrashed us 105 – 135, but it was a great evening, despite paying $15 for a beer!

Our seats high up in the Chase Center

The time difference was now an additional three hours back, so a quick drink post-match and then bed…for most. A few hardy souls managed to find a late night curry/pizza, which was rumoured to be one of the culinary highlights of the tour! Personally, I have my doubts! 

Alan is an exercise addict. This was his 10 mile morning run, before the 55 km afternoon bike ride…

The next day greeted us with glorious blue skies. The morning was a relaxed affair, people taking the opportunity to do some private practice, exercise, or simply nurse themselves back to full health. Most of the group hired bikes for the day. Pete and Dan pottered around the city on Uber bikes, Simon, Alan, Matt and I hired more substantial ones, crossing the famous Golden Gate Bridge and exploring the other side of the bay, Sausalito and the famous coast redwoods of Muir Woods, before taking the ferry back to SF.

Pete and Dan on their e-bike tour
The rest of us on our epic bike ride
Huw chose to spend the day sampling San Francisco’s various bloody mary’s

The day didn’t unfold quite as we had imagined: a large bang during a rapid downhill section rendered Alan’s bike useless forcing him to walk a mile and a half for a replacement. I swallowed a fly, some now claiming that I have clearly failed in my American vegi. challenge. Simon quickly realised that all his dumbbell training had left him ill prepared for a 55km cycle, and perhaps a more balanced approach to exercise would have prevented him from continually bringing up the rear! We also failed to properly check the ferry times. Safe in the knowledge that the last ferry was at 8pm, we had assumed there would be plenty before it. Alas no. But by just missing the previous ferry we had plenty of time to indulge in the cocktails and oysters of Sam’s Cafe, recommended to us while stationary at some traffic lights by a chap driving a Smart Car. He wasn’t wrong, they were particularly good. People chatting to us en route was quite normal. One lady loudly announcing ‘that is soooo cute’ as Matt and I rode past on our tandem. 

We congratulated ourselves with some local oysters

We eventually regrouped at Evil Eye, a trendy East End style cocktail bar, where very soon just the under 40s were left standing.

Saddle-sore bottoms and tired limbs greeted us the following morning, but we felt fresh and ready to get back to work. The morning was still free, and seeing as the Six Nations was back in action, our nominally Welsh contingent Huw and Simon (with myself in tow) decided to head to a local Irish bar to watch the action. I think they would like it if I swiftly moved on, but I shan’t. It was like we were in Paris, everyone else supporting the resurgent Les Bleus as they gave the reigning champions a masterclass in counter-rucking and line speed. Seventy minutes in I decided to make myself scarce, not wanting my mood to be dragged down, and so headed out to expend some energy at a baseball cage. With a youth largely spent in cricket nets, I was excited to see how this would transfer to baseball, and I was pretty pleased to send some 75mph pitches back with interest. Matt Knight wasn’t quite so thrill seeking, and decided to do battle with the underarm pitcher instead. A little later Dan put us in our place by divulging that he can bat both left and right handed!

Pete delivering a tuba masterclass at Cal State East Bay

It was back to work in the afternoon, a short 45 minute drive to Cal State East Bay for some masterclasses and an evening recital. Simon imparted his considerable knowledge of horn playing during the masterclass, reminding everyone once again that he did in fact have a girlfriend (👏) and yes, she does play the horn. The concert went as well as we could have hoped, the audience one of the most responsive and enthusiastic we have encountered on this long tour. All that now remains is to decide our post-concert plan: should we call it a night, or should we see if this late night curry/pizza place really is as good as people say?

Until next time. 
Namaste 🙏

Tour stats

Concerts: 11

Distance travelled: 13429 miles (plus 44 cycled, and 10 run by Alan)

Time on the bus: 46 hrs

Time in the air: 29 hrs

States driven through: 13

Gee’s barrels: Still only 1

USA 2020 Part 6 (by Alan Thomas)

We’d had a nice restful travel day

Well rested after our Orono-Selinsgrove road trip stop off at Danbury, Connecticut we’re back on the road and heading for Susquehanna University.

The mammoth journey from Main to Selinsgrove, PA

In the various masterclasses we’ve given over the last fortnight we often get asked how we cope with being away from home and spending so much time on the road. Bar the odd ‘barrel’ from Mr Gee there’s been very little animosity and a real sense of unanimity and team work. The tour bus gets loaded efficiently without need of a word, the driving, navigation and blog writing shared. The back of ‘the bus’ is always a variation of slumber, laughter, clatter of laptops keys, rustle of sweet wrappers and hushed voices of FaceTiming the wives, girlfriends, kids and puppy, not to mention that unmistakable pungent aroma and rummage of the cheese ball grab. As the ‘older statesman’ of Septura I can probably appreciate the most how modern technology has made touring far easier. FaceTime, WhatsApp, free data roaming, noise cancelling headphones, in-bus WiFi as well as non-iron travel chinos (Huw’s pants are still missing btw) all make it a much easier experience and allow us to keep in touch with our ever patient and supportive families.

Still mostly getting on!

On such a long tour with such huge US highly calorific food portions and hours sat couped up in the hamstring shortening tour bus, many of Septura have been hitting the gym to keep the tour paunch at bay. A combination of Matt Gee’s yoga, Huw Morgan’s HIITs, the whir of Pete Smith’s seated bike and my treadmill all frequently interrupted by the yelp and dropping of Coxy’s heavy dumbbells. 

Alan reunited with fellow Birmingham Conservatoire alumnus Eric Hinton

We’ve made it to Selinsgrove and Susquehanna University. This was a particular venue I was looking forward to as I was to be reunited with former Royal Birmingham Conservatoire PHD conducting student Dr Eric Hinton. Eric was studying for his PHD in the Art of Wind Band conducting with the legendary Guy Woolfenden, and regularly conducting the wind orchestra and brass ensemble whilst I was studying as an undergrad fledgling trumpeter. Dr Hinton is now Director of Bands at Susquehanna and we saw many of the fruits of his 16 years hard labour in two thoroughly rewarding masterclasses.

West finally finds a seat to fit his ego

That evening we treated a large audience to our ‘Borrowed Baroque’. Most noticeable were the resplendent uniforms of 30 boys from St Louis de Montfort Academy, who were incredibly keen and inquisitive during our interval and post concert CD signings. 

The large contingent from St Louis de Montfort Academy

Concert done, off to celebrate Matt Knight’s birthday. A couple of beers, nothing silly. A medal of commendation to designated driver, part-time vegetarian and teetotaler for the night Matt Gee.

Canton, New York. It’s been bugging me where I’ve heard of Canton before. Finally, passing Scranton on the tour bus my memory is jogged. Memorable days in the East Sussex Prepreparatory Course in Music choir singing Sammy Davis Jnr’s ever popular classic ‘Rhythm of Life.’

‘Daddy spread the gospel in Milwaukee, Took his walkie-talkie to Rocky Ridge, Blew his way to Canton, then to Scranton, Till he landed under the Manhattan’

Perilous driving conditions as we head further and further north

Having braved blizzards and minus temperatures we finally arrive. Full from a lunch stop at Gangnam Style Korean Restaurant we head straight into our sound check and concert at Peterson-Kerman’s Performance Hall, St Lawrence University, Canton, New York. A gorgeous, resonant acoustic sets off the Maddalena Casalana and Lassus in our One Equal Music programme beautifully, and the audience receive the, new for this tour, Clara Schumann Piano Sonata with thrilling applause.

We came so close to Westy’s homeland…

Tomorrow sees travel to our final destination, San Francisco. Septura Artistic Director Simon Cox will soon breathe a huge sigh of relief. He has almost single handedly organised this whole trip. All flights, van rentals, hotel bookings and liaisons have gone without a hitch, no mean feat! I’m sure I can speak for all the members of Septura, audiences, venues and universities are all truly grateful. 

Almost worth the drive for these views!

Blog done, pass the cheese balls!!!!!

With thanks to Keelie Schock from Susquehanna University for including the Cheese Balls in our rider!

Tour stats

Concerts: 10

Distance travelled: 10512 miles

Time on the bus: 44 hrs

States driven through: 12

Gee’s barrels: Still only 1

USA 2020 Part 5 (by Matt Knight)

In America everything is bigger: the portions are bigger, the cars are bigger, the pots of cheeseballs are bigger, and quite a few of the people are a little bit bigger. Things are also LOUDER. Fine for our Texas-educated Canadian colleague, but a strange and unfamiliar environment for six shy, weedy Europeans. 

We had been forewarned that the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference was big. Estimates for attendance had varied between 25-40,000. Even so, nothing could prepare us for the total assault on the senses when we arrived at the exhibition hall. Never before have I been in a room where so many brass (and other) instruments were being played by so many enthusiastic students and amateurs so loudly. It was deafening. We couldn’t beat them, so we decided to join in – after all we simply don’t get this range of instruments, mouthpieces and mutes in London. Even the more curmudgeonly amongst our group found themselves swept away in the rip-tide of brass nerdiness, and soon we were all trying out everything we could get our hands on. 

The Matts hit the trade stands at TMEA, meeting Texan trombone guru Joe Dixon

The day had not started out quite so well. We landed in San Antonio at lunchtime, but our bags did not. We had our instruments, music, and the clothes on our backs, but crucially were missing our essential sets of Denis Wick mutes. Septura aficionados will know that this group is all about sound and colour. Mutes  provide brass instruments with a unique way of changing the sound completely and instantly – perhaps no other instrument but the organ has this ability. And so they have become an indispensable part of our sonic palette. Luckily a good friend of Septura was at TMEA to help us out. I made a panicked phone call to the ever-unflappable Steve Wick, and by the time we got to the enormous ballroom he had rounded up a full set of mutes for our shortened Borrowed Baroque performance. 

The cavernous 5000-seater ballroom for our performance

Concert done, we visited our various instrument sponsors in the exhibitor’s hall. Fearing for our hearing (and perhaps sanity) we limited our time there to a couple of hours, after which we thought a restorative margarita on San Antonio’s famous River Walk was required, before Steve took us out for an evening of Tex-Mex in a vibrant local haunt. It was great to meet Wick Artist and YouTube sensation Christopher Bill and online teaching guru Estela Aragon. 

Tex-Mex with the Wick team

On tours like this it’s hard to do anything more than scratch the surface of a city, but we couldn’t resist a late-night trip to the famous Alamo. Dan had filled us in on the crucial role of this building in the Texas Revolution, and it was an impressive sight – although our Uber driver had helpfully explained that it would have seemed much more imposing in the 19th century because people were much smaller back then…

Our late-night trip to the Alamo

For this tour we have basically had to pack for every season, and after the relative warmth of southern Texas it was time to head at American Airlines’ very leisurely pace to Maine. None of us had ever been to Maine before, but as we drove ever further north into the state the place names – such as Dover and Portsmouth – made us feel at home. Although Simon Cox sounds like he comes from Bristol and is now a London-dwelling Swiss citizen, and Huw Morgan lives in France, works in Switzerland, and has such a strong Euro-land accent at times that he has been known to put a ‘V’ in “brass qvintet”, they are in fact both nominally Welsh. And so they were delighted that we ended up in a small town called Bangor (home to the novelist Stephen King, as our Uber driver pointed out on the brief detour past his house).

I would hate to generalise about this beautiful place from such a brief visit to the University of Maine, but this is what we deduced about the snowy state:

  1. Lobster. And crab. Finally a state whose delicious cuisine works for all 7 of us, even the temporary and inopportune vegetarian, Matt Gee, who has hitherto been limited to baked potatoes. 
  1. These people seem to like brass chamber music a lot. Extra seats had to be put on stage to cater for a more-than-full house. We were reliably informed that only the Danish String Quartet has sold out the hall before, and the warmth and enthusiasm of the audience (culminating in a standing ovation) was unparalleled so far on this tour. After a week or so of playing Borrowed Baroque, we resurrected our One Equal Music programme and it was clear at the post-concert reception (and from the CD sales) that our Maine audience really got this incredible music. It’s always great to chat to brass enthusiasts at these events, who are often forthcoming with advice and ideas, and the reception proffered two particularly unique nuggets of geekery: the existence of the Bugle in G, which was suggested as a possible alternative for Simon’s part to help him with the lowest notes; and the possibility of using the angular trombone, which looks like an instrument that has suffered the worst effects of the BA baggage handlers, but in fact was designed to stop trombone players hitting the person in front of them with their slide!
Davis Schuman’s angular trombone
  1. Mainers throw epic parties. Jack Burt, the trumpet professor at UMaine, is renowned for his legendary hospitality – this guy can drink the Mnozil Brass lot under the table! He certainly didn’t disappoint (although our relatively modest intake may have) when he hosted the whole septet and an enormous range of local beers at his house after the concert. Luckily the next day is a travel day…
Jack Burt had stocked the fridge ahead of our arrival
  1. There are bears, possums and also skunks. And only one member’s natural odour led to him momentarily being mistaken for the latter.
A bear meets Dan West, who has already been mistaken for a 54-year-old on this trip

As I write we’re on a travel day, speeding down the freeway towards our next stop in the North East. The politics of the battle bus are delicate – a particularly loud sneeze from your author has just irked his colleagues, and resulted in the threat of Matt Gee giving “both barrels” if the heinous crime is repeated. But tensions are eased by on-board wifi and noise-cancelling headphones, the promise of a lobster lunch, and the the exciting prospect of a night in Danbury, Connecticut, chosen by Simon because at the beginning of the 20th Century it was briefly the hat-making centre of the US. It’s almost as if he wants us to have a quiet night…


Tour stats

Concerts: 8

Distance travelled: 6623 miles

Hours on planes: 21 hrs 30 mins

Time on the bus: 34 hrs

States driven through: 10

Matt Gee’s barrels: 1 so far (sneeze-dependant)

USA 2020 Part 4 (by Huw Morgan)

“I left my pants at your hotel” is not usually the first sentence I utter on a typical Wednesday morning, but those were indeed my words as I attempted to track down a much-loved pair of navy travel chinos that I’d forgotten in Clemson the previous week. ‘Pants’ in America are of course what we Brits refer to as trousers, and I had assumed that being reunited with my garment later in the tour would be a mere formality – after all, who would want to pinch a pair of well-worn gent’s slacks? As it turned out, the allure of a tailored pair of Charles Tyrwhitt’s finest must have proved too much for one of the housekeepers, since they had mysteriously ‘disappeared’…

More than a little disconcerted by this unanticipated turn of events, the only way to bolster spirits was to head for a re-energising morning workout. As has become customary during this trip, several other members had the same idea: while Alan, Pete and I pumped iron and hit the cross-trainer, our tenor trombonists decided to do their best Wim Hof impression – braving brutally cold conditions in the outdoor pool!

Our favourite haunt on the I35

Workout done, we replenished our calories by following official Texan protocol and heading to a BBQ joint. Dan navigated to his old haunt in Denton – Rudy’s – which served us so spectacularly well on our first visit to the Lone Star State two years ago. While the rest of us tucked into moist brisket, ribs, and turkey, Matt Gee stuck fastidiously to his vegetarian diet. I honestly tried my best, dear reader, to make his baked potato, corn-on-the-cob, and three-bean salad sound remotely appetising – but alas no such adjectives exist in the English language…

Matt Gee’s vegan barbecue

With Alan at the wheel of our trusty Ford saloon (this post will scrupulously ignore those who journeyed ‘first class’ in the Chevy!) we hit the highway for the trip to Oklahoma City University, accompanied by a selection of Radio 4 podcasts. This included a rather depressing episode about mortality, so we were rather relieved to arrive at our lodgings for the evening, a chic 21C Museum hotel which doubles as a contemporary art gallery. 

The art gallery in the midst of our hotel

After a swift check-in it was off to the Wanda L. Bass School of Music, where we met our gregarious host, Michael Anderson. An appreciative audience greeted our performance of ‘Borrowed Baroque’, and it was especially pleasing to meet many students who had travelled from all over the state to attend our performance. 

Huw in masterclass action

The following morning we returned to the OKCU campus for two chamber music classes. Dan and I teamed up in one venue, where we were treated to Ewazen and Bach, while the artistic directors coached brass quintets in the main hall. We were unanimously impressed by the quality of the performances, and the responsiveness of the students to our ideas.

The iconic Route 66

No sooner had we finished our sessions we were straight on the road to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The question of where to eat lunch en route is always of paramount importance, and occasionally we encounter diners or restaurants of variable quality. This time, however, Michael Anderson (a knowledgeable gastronome) had recommended Burn Co., a(nother!) BBQ joint located just off Route 66 in Tulsa. This proved to be a culinary highlight of the tour, so much so that I even bought an overpriced cap as a souvenir!

Tucking into a second barbecue in as many days

As the designated front-seat DJ, I was responsible for coordinating the soundtrack to our ride along Route 412.

Huw’s unique sartorial style

After an array of somewhat cheesy 80s hits and dubious Country music, Dan (a man of impeccably trendy musical tastes), suggested we delve into the intriguing oeuvre of Vulfpeck, The War on Drugs, and Cory Wong… Having little interest in contemporary popular culture, Matt Knight elected to choose his own music, donning noise-cancelling headphones in the luxurious splendour of the ‘hole’ (for the uninitiated, that’s the rear offside seat). As he dozed, speculation mounted as to his choice of soothing lullaby: was it Hubert Parry or Maddalena Casulana?!

It often seems like our journeys across the Bible Belt are an endless succession of wide open prairies, roadside cafés and billboards, occasionally punctuated by an American flag fluttering in the breeze. But as we crossed the border from Oklahoma to Arkansas, the scenery gradually morphed into something altogether more beautiful: the Ozark National Forest. Having wound our way through the woodland we approached Fayetteville, where one gargantuan building dominated the horizon: Donald W. Reynolds Stadium, the 76,000-capacity home of the university’s football team, the Razorbacks.

The spectacular hall at the University of Arkansas

Richard Rulli, the trumpet professor at the UofA, has been a tremendous supporter or the group for many years, so it was a real pleasure to reconnect with him and his talented students on this visit. Alan, Pete, and Matt Gee each led studio masterclasses before our evening performance in the Faulkner Performing Arts Center, a purpose-built venue with acoustics that truly allow the sound of the brass septet to blossom. 

Programmes signed, CDs sold, and photographs taken, we headed to the post-concert debrief in a nearby hostelry. After one or two local IPAs we drifted home, mindful of a 6am start the following morning and a trip to San Antonio, where we’ll appear at the 100th anniversary conference of the Texas Music Educator’s Association. 

Tour stats:

Concerts: 7

Distance travelled: 6623 miles

Time on the bus: 23 hrs 0 mins

States driven through: 7

USA 2020 Part 3 (by Dan West)

After a vintage Septura schlep (my alarm was set for 5am in Baltimore) we arrived in Huntsville 10 hours later (via 2 flights & a solid 2-hour drive) for the start of the Texas leg of the tour. Considering our indulgences at the reception in Baltimore the previous evening (thanks again to the Rosenbergs for their soup-er hospitality) it could be claimed that group morale was not at its peak through our journey. Luckily we had a couple of hours downtime on arrival to soak in the scenery of a rainy Huntsville, Texas. 

Huntsville is a small town 70 miles north of Houston which is famed for being the home to one of the most celebrated heroes of Texan history: Major General, President of the Republic of Texas and US Senator Sam Houston. As we pulled in from Interstate 45 it was hard to miss the 70-foot statue of the famous general and politician, who played a key role in securing the enormous state’s independence from Mexico and subsequent annexation by the United States. Our venue for the tour’s first proper outing of the Borrowed Baroque programme was located on campus at Sam Houston State University. 

The hall in rainy Huntsville

With our metaphorical batteries charged we took to the stage to polish up some corners in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella and bathed in the sonic warmth of another luxurious acoustic. As I’ve mentioned before, the wealth of stunning concert halls everywhere in the United States puts Britain to shame. The Stravinsky is by and large the most technically challenging piece we’ve brought with us on tour and I for one was looking forward to getting a performance under our belts in Texas. 

Inside – another stunning venue

As we stepped on stage for the concert I noticed a familiar face amongst the appreciative audience, in the form of a friend and colleague from my days at the University of North Texas: Aric Schneller. Aric was a doctoral trombone candidate at UNT while I belatedly finished my undergraduate studies in 2005 and is now the head of jazz studies at SMHU. Though we only crossed paths for a year or so at university, seeing him gave me a much needed boost of enthusiasm, which had flagged slightly after the rigours of the day’s travel. Despite our drained reserves of energy the whole group played a blinder and I think we set the bar pretty high for upcoming performances of the Baroque programme. The soloists in the Handel (suite from Rinaldo) were particular stars, and the Matts took showboating in the Prokofiev piano suite to new levels – they certainly kept me entertained. When it came to the Stravinsky I imagine the audience would never have guessed that it was Pete Smith’s first performance of the piece, and despite the difficulty of the arrangement it went remarkably well. The arrangement works really well and plays to the group’s strengths. I hope we get a chance to record it in the not-too-distant future. 

After the show we caught up with a few audience members, signed some CDs and then Aric showed us the infamous maximum security penitentiary which sits on the border of the SHSU campus and houses the execution facilities for the State of Texas. I’d personally be a bit unnerved doing my studies with a building full of convicted Death Row murderers only a few hundred yards from the university library, but the prison walls are reassuringly tall and perimeter patrol cars thoroughly scout the area for would-be prison breakers. That being said there have been the occasional escapee, one of whom pedalled his way onto the nearby Interstate on a stolen BMX before being returned to his cell. As there weren’t any sidewalks (pavements), the sight of 6 British musicians and 1 Canadian/British bass trombone operator must have looked pretty suspicious to the patrolmen and I thought I noticed them take an interest in us as we walked under the walls. Luckily it wasn’t a long walk to the town square which, in its heyday would have made a fairly typical backdrop for a spaghetti western shootout. We slid into a saloon and sampled some fine local craft beer before retiring to our beds back on campus, just over the road from Death Row.

Dan chose a nice local place for lunch

The following morning we cruised up the Interstate towards Fort Worth in our behemoth Chevy Suburban. I used to turn my nose up at people who drove these tank-sized comfort cruisers, hogging multiple lanes at any given time, but now I can see the appeal – especially in contrast to the latest Battle Bus we had in the Carolinas, a vehicle which lacked any charm (or suspension to speak of). A few of the lads drove a small Ford Hybrid while Pete, Coxy and I floated northwards on a 4-wheel-drive cushion of luxurious carbon emissions. 

As we entered Fort Worth our grumbling tummies (possibly stretched already by a week of American indulgence) navigated us towards a well-reviewed Tex-Mex restaurant for lunch before the group was due at Texas Wesleyan University for a Q & A with the students and faculty there. The students had some great questions for us and members of Septura provided some insights into the working mind of a British orchestral (or in my case ‘orchestral-ish’) brass player. We were asked to outline our philosophy towards individual practice, so I obviously deferred and allowed the group’s more committed practicers to respond. 

The second outing of Borrowed Baroque went well enough that we thought we deserved a couple of celebratory beverages, so we ventured into beautiful downtown Fort Worth to the Flying Saucer, which I have waxed lyrically about in a previous edition of this blog. There had been rumours that a legendary trumpet player (and fellow Canadian), Jens Lindemann, could be joining us for a drink since he was performing down the road at Texas Christian University the same night. Jens has been a hero of mine since he performed with my junior high school band in Calgary when I was just starting to learn the trombone. Soon after hearing him for the first time he became a member of Canadian Brass where his accomplishments there are widely acknowledged as some of the finest trumpet playing recorded to CD (in my humble opinion). Jens himself is a hurricane of energy & charisma, and he made a dramatic entrance by treating us to his best Game of Thrones-esque Northern accent whilst greeting his great friend Huw Morgan. Jens chatted with us about the direction of the group and what plans were currently in the pipeline. He even coached Knighty on the correct (North American) pronunciation of the term ‘baroque’ (bah-roake) which will come in handy as we continue on up the road to Oklahoma, Arkansas and then our return to Texas for the TMEA conference on Valentines Day. 

Our name up in lights at Texas Wesleyan

USA 2020 Part 2 (by Simon Cox)

Our drive to Davidson was a mere 90 minutes – child’s play compared to some of the epic voyages of our last trip Stateside. With plenty of space in the schedule we stopped off at California Dreaming for lunch, and couldn’t resist trying such local delicacies as onion ring loaf and fried crab claws. It’s a constant battle to maintain a healthy lifestyle when touring in this part of the world, so a few of our number ordered salads. Unfortunately they perhaps weren’t quite as low-cal as they were expecting (the croissants on the side were a particular surprise).

Failed attempt at healthy eating

Driving into Davidson it was clear that this was one of those rare American towns that has managed to avoid being dominated by the car. A lovely high street complete with book shops, cafés and restaurants all within walking distance of each other welcomed us, and we spent a while strolling around the nearby lake enjoying the scenery before heading to the United Methodist Church (venue for the next day’s concert) for a rehearsal. Kevin Turner, the church’s Pastor for Music and Worship and organiser of our concert, was on hand to greet us, and we were pleased to find a spacious room with high, vaulted ceiling and generous acoustics.

The church at Davidson

As ever rehearsal time had been tight prior to this trip, so this was our chance to polish up Stravinsky’s Pulcinella which features later in the tour. Matt Knight and I had made some tweaks to the arrangement since we last performed it 2 years ago in an attempt to make life a bit easier for the trumpets, and there was a real feeling of anticipation at the prospect of performing this superb music again.  A trip to a local Mexican eatery ensued (I backed up my triumph in the boxing ring with a comfortable edge in the unofficial extra-hot salsa eating contest), before it was off to meet the families who were providing our accommodation for the night.

The following morning we all spent time with our hosts, experiencing the legendary Southern hospitality in all its forms. Huw and I were staying with Jimmy and Charlotte (and their delightful dog Duff) in their beautiful home just outside Davidson, and were pleased to discover that he had a comprehensive tv sports package, even including access to the rugby back home. The rest of this paragraph was supposed to be about Wales continuing their unbeaten Six Nations run in their game against Ireland, but I’m running short on space so probably ought to skip ahead.

Simon and Huw’s companion, Duff

Alan and Pete were staying in Davidson itself with hosts Mary and Bob, who went out of their way to make sure their visitors were entertained for the full duration of their stay. It’s fair to say that they’re now the group’s resident experts on all things Davidson! Westy meanwhile so enjoyed his stay that he threatened to abandon the tour in favour of a new life in North Carolina, whilst Matt Gee was grappling with his need to avoid eating meat when in the home of an avowed carnivore. I think they reached some kind of understanding.

Alan’s bed for the night

Eventually we all drifted towards the UMC for our soundcheck, which was a little more thorough than we had planned due to the cancellation of our concert in Clemson. It’s always a challenge to perform a piece for the very first time, especially when it’s something as substantial as Clara Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, so we took the time we needed to really polish all the changes of tempo and character. Soon afterwards the audience began drifting in and we were pleased to see the locals had come out in force despite some bitterly cold weather. The concert even had to be delayed by a few minutes while Kevin printed out some extra programmes, always a welcome occurrence!

Everything went smoothly and soon enough we were into our usual post-concert routine of meeting audience members and signing CDs. It’s always gratifying to hear the lengths people have gone to to come and hear us live, and it was especially nice to meet some of the nearby brass professors and their students.  

The last few days have felt quite slow paced by our standards, but the tour gets going in earnest from now on. We have to be in Baltimore for a performance tomorrow afternoon, a mere 7-hour drive away, so with the battle bus packed we hit the road to make a dent  in the journey. Having all opted for a salad at tea time we’d by this point worked up a bit of an appetite, so a mammoth tub of cheesy puffs seemed the only sensible option. Racked with guilt and a little sleepy we pitched up at our hotel in Raleigh with the first evening concert of the tour finally under our now slightly loosened  belts.

Not even attempting healthy eating anymore

The morning found us driving through the pretty forests of Virginia in the bright sunshine. A couple of hours into the journey it emerged that our route was taking us through the heart of Washington, DC, so it seemed silly not to make a brief stop. A couple of photos and a slice or two of pizza later, we continued on our journey to Baltimore.

Septura in DC

By far my favourite tv show is The Wire, a 5-series epic set largely in inner-city Baltimore, and I was really looking forward to our visit. Unfortunately the nature of touring is that it’s very rarely possible to do much sightseeing in the places we visit, and given the tight schedule I had to accept that going to visit Orlando’s, the Pit and Kavanagh’s would have to wait for another time.

Our performance was at Goucher College, and we were to be the artists in the 60th annual Rosenberg lecture-performance. Flicking through the programme we saw a list of previous participants, and it gradually dawned on us what an honour it was to have been invited – we can now add our names to a list that includes Aaron Copland, Michael Tippett, Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma! A 2nd outing of One Equal Music in less than 24 hours was the order of day, and we particularly enjoyed performing Clara Schumann’s sonata – it’s really bedding in now and it will be interesting to see how our interpretation develops in the coming weeks.

Full marks to our hosts for the post-concert reception. Excellent food and conversation with the series supporters (a particular highlight was Dan West being told he was a spitting image of someone’s 54-year-old son) was the perfect way to finish the day, and bed (via some boneless wings, obviously) soon followed. Tomorrow we’re up before the crack of dawn to head to Texas for part 2…

Tour stats:

Concerts: 3

Distance travelled: 4484 miles

Time on the bus: 11 hrs 30 mins

States driven through: 3

Tubs of cheeseballs: 1

USA 2020 Part 1 (by Matthew Gee)

It was two years since our last tour around the USA. The previous one – an epic ten day dash, many six hour drives, culminating in some remarkable, against-all-odds concerts – had left us with some great memories, but a little anxious as to what might be letting ourselves into this time. 

On paper it looked tough: three weeks, one day off, the biggest test of our stamina yet. The only time we could rehearse was on the morning of the flight, so we all braved rush hour laden with instruments, mutes and suitcases for a 9am start at a church near Gloucester Road. Pete unveiled his newly pimped tuba – a modification job gleaming in gold and sure to bring tuba aficionados flocking to Pete with questions throughout the tour.

I surprised everyone by announcing that I was going vegetarian for the month. ‘In America…no chance’, I hear. Peals of laughter, mocking and the general lack of support suggested that they were intent of breaking me. Well played them – trash talking me typically steadies my resolve, so their witty banter was actually doing me a favour. 

Huw making sure to keep his lips well hydrated with a gender-neutral lipstick on the plane

Happily the rest of the day went as you would expect. Ubers to London Heathrow, a quick Bloody Mary and then a nice quiet flight over to Atlanta. We obviously had to endure the usual palava when checking in Pete’s tuba, but that is just expected now. Upon arrival we picked up the first of our minibuses. Traditionally they don’t seem to fair too well in our hands, and sure enough a few miles into our journey to Clemson we lost part of the boot. A few hours later, tired and hungry, we arrived at our hotel. Some of us popped out for a slice of pizza and then all crashed for some much needed sleep.

The author sensibly catching up on some sleep before an action-packed few weeks
Picking up the 2020 battle bus at Atlanta airport

A few of the group woke in the night to colossal claps of thunder, and sure enough the morning brought with it phone alerts warning us of flooding and tornadoes in the area. Sure, it was raining quite hard, but we had all expirienced far worse during the British Summer! We went about our morning relaxing, exercising, catching-up with admin and chatting to family back home before heading down to the concert hall for our first concert. However, disaster was around the corner. Halfway through our rehearsal we were interrupted by some very glum faces. The gig was to be cancelled. The Brooks Center had been ordered to close because of the weather. We couldn’t believe it, it was a mere shower – I dread to think what a dusting of snow would do to the place. The group was upset. We had been looking forward to getting the tour started, and at the eleventh hour it had been snatched away from us. It was a shame for everyone, not least the expected seven-hundred strong audience, one of whom had flown in from Florida, and trumpet legend Phil Smith, who was planning to bring his entire trumpet class up from the University of Georgia. 

We hunkered down in the hotel after this warning arrived on our phones

So we did what any group would have done in these circumstances and retired to the safety of the pub. The promoter very kindly took us out for a meal which we washed down with some local beer, before popping across the road to a classic American bar, to assault our senses watching sport we don’t quite understand, playing pool and computer games. Simon surprised everyone (even himself) when his thin, feeble frame somehow managed to win most powerful punch on the boxing game. 

Simon’s winning punch
Dan had a slightly different approach

We got chatting to the uber driver on our way back to the hotel. He very proudly spoke of how back in the ‘70s he had played soccer for Chelsea. He moved to Leicester first – my hometown, ‘go on, tell us more’ – and was picked up by a scout having never played professionally. It was only right at the end of the conversation that he dropped in that it was just once… for the second team. 

The venue for our first 2020 performance

The next day dawned bright and sunny, and we departed the hotel around 8:30am to head for the Hartness Performing Arts Center where we were to perform a short forty-five minute concert to high school kids. We took the opportunity to give the other tour programme, ‘Borrowed Boroque’, an outing. Some of the audience from the previous night had heard about this short performance and managed to come along, so hopefully they have not left Clemsen too disappointed.

So the tour is up and running, Davidson in North Carolina is up next which, barring another force majeure, should see the first performance of our latest programme ‘One Equal Music’, which you can also catch in the Wigmore Hall on February 27.

Ossiach, Austria (by Dan West)

Day 3 started slowly, at least by Septura’s touring standards. We didn’t have an early airport call to contend with so a few of us began with a leisurely breakfast at the hotel in Bad Horn Meinberg. Others took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep or adhere to strict fitness regimes in the chilly German rain. Matt Knight even took advantage of the morning to serenade the entire hotel with his trademark trombone warm-up routine. After a busy couple of days on the embouchure I decided it was the mark of true courage to leave it in the case and allow my chops a day of recovery. We all looked forward to a (hopefully) relaxing day traveling to Ossiach in Austria, but as is often the case in these adventures abroad, you can never fully prepare for what the travel gods have in store for you! 

Leg 1 of the journey to Austria nearly began with a casualty. Our Artistic Director, 2nd B-flat trumpet (doubling flugelhorn and occasional percussion) and bus driver, Dr Simon ‘Traffic Cone Magnet’ Cox nearly ploughed into a sapling a mere 30 feet from the hotel whilst syncing navigation devices. To be fair to Coxy, the young tree had no business being planted in the middle of the lane, and I for one would be surprised if it were to survive to a leafy old age. The near-miss provided us with a rare opportunity to tease Simon about the infamous incident in Dallas where a traffic cone appeared out of thin air and propelled itself at a previous Cox-piloted battle bus. 

Our inimitable driver.

We were faultlessly driven along the congested but swift Autobahn tarmac to Düsseldorf airport, roughly 2 hours from our starting point. Our travel arrangements for this trip were thrown into disarray earlier this month as the airline which a few of our flights were booked with, Air Adria, filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. In addition to making today’s travel a bit less convenient (involving different airports and more miles on the Autobahn than planned) I also have a less than straightforward journey to look forward to on Saturday when returning to London and my ‘day job’ in the West End. 

What followed was yet another edition of the traveling trombonist’s worst nightmare: our Austrian Airlines flight to Graz was on a Bombardier Q400 prop plane, and from experience as recent as our April tour in New Zealand I knew I had little to no hope of getting my precious and irreplaceable vintage bass trombone into the overhead bins. Heart rates accelerated, Pete Moore and Matt Knight boarded ahead of me and struggled unsuccessfully to load their own beloved hooters into the storage provided. I now knew I had no hope to get my girthy bass trombone bell into the overheads. With no flight crew cabinets available we knew we had to improvise or risk damaging the tools of our trade by surrendering them to the baggage handlers to stow in the hold. We quickly and calmly nestled our cases under our seats. Thankfully the air hostesses turned a blind eye and focussed their attention on Sasha’s tuba, and particularly its carry-on luggage (the pesky ever-present tuba mute). Another crisis averted, but another one potentially awaits me on my travels with the same airline on Saturday. 

Simon and Matt plugged away at their Dorico music notation software, using the time in the air to arrange music for some upcoming Septura projects. I diligently kept watch over their shoulders to ensure that Knighty (in particular) didn’t cheekily pawn off any overly difficult lines into the bass trombone part whilst allotting himself a luxurious amount of rests. The Austrian Alps cut a fine figure in the distance and, as the sun set brightly behind them, we descended to the tarmac. 

The stunning setting.

Shortly after landing in Graz we were back in another battle bus for the final leg of our journey to Ossiach. Just under 3 hours later we were unloaded in front of the Carinthian Music Academy, which for this engagement served as both the concert venue and as our accommodation. Though it was dark out it was apparent that Ossiach was a town with great natural beauty, nestled between mountains and a lake. The air was crisp and cleansing – a marked contrast to the stale battle bus air. 

Our humble accommodation in Ossiach.

We were directed to a seafood restaurant and spent the waning hours of Day 3 sampling local fare, including a delicious lake trout and a bottle or three of Roter Veltliner. 

Relaxing pre-concert.

Day 4, the final day of our tour, was sunny and brisk and highlighted the elegant aesthetic of our venue. The Carinthian Music Academy is built on the site of the Ossiach Abbey, and has existed in its current form since 2009. Our appearance here is part of their 2019 autumn brass festival, and our concert will be in the Alban Berg Concert Hall: a modern concert hall built across from the chapel on site. We were given access to the hall for the entire day, which made it quite convenient for individuals to visit its luxurious acoustic for practice and warm-up sessions before gathering for our afternoon rehearsal and soundcheck. While the bulk of the septet had lunch, coffees and apple strudel on the sunny lakeside Alan had an impressive 20k run around most of the lake. We gathered for rehearsal to go over the trickiest corners from the challenging ‘Human Nature’ programme, tonight being this edition’s second ever outing.

The Alban Berg hall.

The programme is what I might call a ‘slow burner’, with much of Blow’s Venus and Adonis being a funeral march and Skelbred’s Imprints featuring tragic themes centred around mass extinction. The audience appeared receptive and I hope we didn’t drive anyone to a deep depression! The second half starts with our most-streamed Spotify track, La Papillon et la Fleur, featuring Simon Cox and his trusty Flugelhorn ‘Frosty’. Safe to say, from that moment on we had the audience in the palm of our hand. The remaining Fauré mélodies feature much of the rest of the group as soloists, though Sasha and I remain very much in supporting roles throughout. Finally we end the programme with one of the latest arrangements in our repertoire, selections from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Some passages are incredibly challenging, and I find the Finale particularly difficult to execute at the end of a long programme. Having heard seven musicians on stage striving to master the most difficult music, the audience rewarded us with a standing ovation and we in turn treated them to a pair of classic encores from our back catalogue. All-in-all it was a very rewarding journey! 

As I put the finishing touches on this blog we’ve all dispersed to different airports and train stations to rush back to our various ‘day jobs’. We’ll next see each other in November for a week recording yet another volume of ‘Music for Brass Septet’ with Naxos. I think we’re all particularly excited about the American repertoire, having performed the Gershwin countless times around the world in the last two years. In the meantime I’m hoping the travel gods are kind to me and my trombone, and I am able to catch my connecting flight in Vienna, allowing me to arrive in London in time for my evening show at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Fingers and toes are firmly crossed.