USA Autumn 2022 (Part 4) by Aaron Akugbo
Aaron here!! I’ve been given the honour of writing about the last couple stops of our tour. After a week of exclusively driving everywhere, our next stop, Belton, Texas, meant us taking our first domestic flight of the trip from New York to Dallas/Ft Worth International. And after a very sleepy/antisocial 150-mile drive to our hotel, we arrived in Belton.
With a good night’s sleep for everyone (having had lots of early starts so far on the trip), we headed to the Sue and Frank Mayborn Performing Arts Centre at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor for a masterclass with some students. Me and Simon Minshall were exempt from this masterclass so had the rare treat of being able to do some practice, and also took the time to research the interesting history of the university.
A quick rehearsal (observed by some of the masterclass students) was followed by tucking into our dinner, provided by the university and delivered from a local restaurant to give us our first Texan food fix of the tour! The concert was attended by a large audience with a real mix of ages present, and it was great to meet so many of the enthusiastic students.
After the concert, we headed to a neighbouring town, Temple, for chicken wings, tater tots, beers, and most importantly shuffleboard which I think was one of the group’s highlights wherever we were. On this occasion, a game of trumpets vs low brass saw the trumpets get absolutely demolished… and unfortunately that was the last game of shuffleboard for the trip (you’re only as good as your last game).
The next morning, we had an early rehearsal for the group’s upcoming concerts back in the UK and Germany, which was fuelled by possibly the most hastily eaten breakfast of my life, due to the INCREDIBLY slow service that we received at the hotel. But spirits were lifted with music by Humperdinck and from the Nutcracker, to really get us in a Christmassy mood (despite starting the rehearsal at 9:30am).
To heighten morale even more, we stopped by Rudy’s Bar-B-Q on our way to Dallas airport for our obligatory Texas barbecue experience! And the food was thought to be so good that even a takeaway brisket was purchased for the remaining journey by designated eater Simon Minshall. #busbrisket
Our final destination of the tour was Florida, and landing in Orlando, we had the joy of a long delay as the car rental company had no 12-seater passenger vans available (which was strange since we had booked one). Some expert diplomacy from Pete Smith and Simon Cox resulted in not one but two vehicles: one for trumpets, one for low brass, and a definite improvement on what we’d been expecting. We drove to our accommodation in Kissimmee (via the inevitable burger/wings stop) – no shuffleboard, so table tennis had to take its place.
We were staying in two houses at the Emerald Island Resort, one generously lent to us by our trumpet-playing friends Mike Allen and Julie Ryan (thank you!), and the other just a few doors down, booked through airbnb. Being a stone’s throw away from Walt Disney World, each room in the trumpets’ house was themed on a different Disney film, and I lucked out with a childhood favourite, The Lion King. (Simon claimed to be less pleased with Minnie Mouse and unicorns, although I have my suspicions.)
The next day was finally the point of the tour which where we had a whole day off, even without any travel required. I believe the trombones were slightly more productive with their mornings than we were (except Simon’s visit to the gym), but we eventually all linked up at Universal’s Islands of Adventure , which we’d been reliably informed had the best rollercoaster rides in the area. I got a hard time for not having seen essentially any of the movies that the rides were all based on (to be fair I wasn’t born when Jurassic Park was released), but still managed to have an incredible time. Group consensus was that the Velocicoaster was the best ride of the park, with very close second going to Hagrid’s Motorbike adventure. We joined the queue for the latter with the sun still high in the sky outside, and after mazing around inside for 2.5 hours, were surprised to emerge into the dark for an brilliantly original rollercoaster experience.
The concert day in Florida started very relaxed with some time by the pool, a little food and a relatively short drive (for Septura) from Kissimmee to Indialantic, and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church (just a few minutes’ walk from the beach!)
The concert was such a nice end to the trip with another receptive and eager audience – many of them hadn’t been to a brass concert before, but left converted to the world of brass chamber music. Our last night involved some food, drink, and even dancing, but what goes on tour stays on tour…
Our last morning was again spent next to pool before a very important mini golf tournament with Minshall taking home the 1st prize, recovering in style from his spectacular 20-over-par 3rd hole the previous day. After lunch, we drove back to Orlando for our flight home. Some final souvenir shopping was done in the airport’s many Disney shops before boarding the plane for our 8-hour journey back to London. Landing in London at around 7:30am (which felt like 3:30am to us) wasn’t the most pleasant, and in our hazy, sleepy state we collected our suitcases and said our goodbyes before all heading our separate ways.
This was my first ever trip to America and quite honestly, I don’t think I could have asked for a better way of doing it! Thanks to all you guys for inviting me to play and for putting up with me for two weeks! Looking forward to the next one ✌🏾
USA 2022 (Part 3) by Matthew Gee
The midpoint of our tour was our visit to NYC. This had much potential: we were performing in central Manhattan just down the road from Times Square, it was an early afternoon performance so we had some serious post show activities to plan, and we also had a free morning to explore or lounge about in our plush hotel.
Now about that hotel…
We pulled up at the Ramada Hotel, New Jersey to be greeted by the dopiest, most disorganised, check-in staff in a hotel that would be more fitting in a horror movie. This was the least of our issues. My room had clearly hosted an all night vigil to the weed gods, Si Minshall opened up his room to find someone already in it, and Knighty’s bathroom seemed to be locked from the inside. It was not a good start. We then headed into Manhattan for what (in my opinion) was one of the worst burgers I’ve ever eaten and served by dope-headed waiters – the legalisation of cannabis in NY appears to be at odds to their tipping culture. The only good thing that came from the meal is that James and Simon managed to secure refunds for the second night in Hotel Horror and instead book us into the Hilton Garden Inn just down from Central Park. It was game on.
Pete and I woke up bright and early to go into Manhattan and catch-up with friends, James was woken up by workmen, banging their way through the paper thin walls, but everyone else seemed to sleep fitfully. We met for a sound check in the Town Hall, a fantastic venue just down the road from Times Square and performed the Copland programme to a wonderfully full and receptive audience. Many of them hadn’t heard a brass chamber concert before, and it’s fair to say we confounded expectations with Appalachian Spring in particular, which requires all the finesse we can muster to bring to life. Spirits were high.
After checking in to our much-improved hotel, we headed up out for the obligatory visit to PJ Clarkes; an institution, a must visit every time we go to NYC (with these incredible, listed toilets). A little of the black stuff held off our pangs of hunger until our visit to Quality Meats, one of NYC’s celebrated steak restaurants. On the way we dived into a very nice cocktail bar, which required a small amount of remortgaging to experience, but the drinks were worth it; the Pisco Sour a particular highlight, this white beauty really getting us in the mood for the ensuing feast. The food at Quality Meats was exceptional, any mid-tour blues were blown away.
Games have been keenly embraced on this tour, and with that in mind we headed to Cellar Dog, NY’s famous Jazz and Games Bar. Pool, Table Tennis and Shuffleboard were all fiercely played, everyone’s competitiveness paling into insignificance as Matt Knight dictated, changed rules to suit him, and generally ruled with an obnoxious, iron fist.
The Stonewall Inn was our final stop of the night. An historic venue, the site of the 1969 riots which launched the gay rights movement. After a nightcap here it was definitely time to call it a night, and we headed off to our comfortable hotel. There was a twist in the tail however, as an early morning fire alarm roused us from our slumber. My gilet seemed to be the obvious attire in which to head down to the foyer, causing much amusement to the rest of the septet. I don’t really see what all the fuss was about.
We were flying to Texas later that day, but we still had time to enjoy Manhattan, some of the group choosing to cycle around Central Park, others heading off down to China Town for an absolutely fantastic lunch, followed by a moving visit to the 9/11 Memorial. All in all our visit to New York reminded us all how lucky we are to do this for a job, to tour and perform great music with such good friends.
So Texas was up next. Minshall was particularly excited; it was news to me that he holds a firearms licence!
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 2022 (Part 1) by Simon Cox
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of the Septura Travel Curse, which strikes without fail pretty much every time we go on tour. I’m pleased to say nothing has changed, and in fact this time we got started a little earlier than usual. With about 4 days to go our guest trumpeter Aaron Akugbo still hadn’t received his passport containing the required visa back from the US embassy in London, and we feared the worst. A few frantic phone calls and emails later, the opaque defences of the consular bureaucracy had been breached, and we were assured that his documents were ready for collection.
Phew. Now to actually get Stateside. Those of you who live in the UK will no doubt be aware of the difficulties currently faced by Heathrow Airport as they wrestle with chronic staff shortages, and with this in mind we arrived nice and early at Terminal 5. All seemed calm, and we began to relax and contemplate some pre-flight refreshment. How naive we were. A glacial check in process began to bring our departure time into view, and by the time we headed for security the previously non-existent queue had transformed into something even a British monarchist would be proud of. At this point the group had become fragmented, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself moving serenely through security and drifting towards the departure gate. Assuming my colleagues had fared similarly, I settled into my seat certain that the tour really was going ahead after all. The only thing missing seemed to be the aforementioned colleagues. Somehow they’d been sucked into the Heathrow vortex, and were still trying to get through security with about 15 minutes to spare. Some of James Fountain’s finest diplomacy at the gate seemed to do the trick, and aside from the usual request from a member of cabin staff that Pete Smith’s tuba should go in an overhead locker (politely declined on the basis that it would be impossible), we were off.
Our last trip to the States was immediately before the pandemic struck in early 2020, and we’re retracing the initial portion of that coast-to-coast epic on this trip, flying into Atlanta first and then driving north, ultimately as far as Montreal in Canada, a mere 1,250 miles away. Our first stop was at the University of Georgia in Athens, where we finally pulled in at 1am local time (feeling like 6am to us), tired and ready for bed, but at least not hungry after a scenic tour of supposed-to-be-open-but-actually-not drive thrus on the i85 (we finally struck gold with Sonic Burger).
The next day, the focus shifted to our first performance, which would be the debut of our Special Relationship programme, featuring English and American music. Two years ago we recorded a new version of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, but Covid cancellations meant that we hadn’t been able to perform it until now. This is one of the most substantial (and difficult) pieces we have ever arranged, so we allowed ample rehearsal time to fine tune all of the tricky corners. Towards the end of the rehearsal, we were slightly awestruck by the arrival of Phil Smith, former principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic, and a huge inspiration to all of us through his many recordings with the orchestra. Phil is the trumpet professor at the University of Georgia, and we enjoyed taking part in a Q&A session with his students ahead of the concert.
As with so many venues we visit in the States, the acoustics of the university’s performing arts center are superb, and coupled with a sizeable and enthusiastic audience helped us on the way to a memorable performance. As well as featuring the first performance of the Copland, the concert included the world premiere of Time out of Joint by Pete Walton. This piece is based on key character relationships in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and was written for Septura during lockdown in the UK – you can listen to it here.
Afterwards, with audience chatted to and CDs signed, it was time to hit the road for the long journey to Virginia. After a (very) brief overnight stay en route, morale was surprisingly high as we pulled into Harrisonburg and headed straight to the Forbes Center to meet some of the brass students for a Q&A session, led my tuba and euphonium professor Kevin Stees. Questions ranged from subjects like how and why Septura was formed, through to how we all manage our diaries with so many varying commitments (with difficulty). We always find these sessions enjoyable, and it seemed the students did as well.
Another wonderful hall ensured that the second concert was as memorable as the first, after which finally, after three days of travelling we were able to explore somewhere other than a concert hall, hotel or airport when we wandered into the historic centre of Harrisonburg to enjoy some local refreshments.
It’s good to be back on the road, and we hope to see plenty of you at our remaining concerts in Montreal, New York, Belton (TX) and Melbourne (FL)!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!