Brass Buddies Concert

By Bruce Duffie

Science is made up primarily of absolutes.  Things you can count and count on, theories you can prove or disprove, experiments that either work or don't work.  The arts, on the other hand, are mainly subjective.  Taste dictates whether one likes something or not.  In music, there are not many absolutes beyond accuracy of pitch or precision of rhythm.

One of the few certainties is that the Chicago Symphony is in the very small but select group of orchestras at the top of the heap.

There are reasons, and one is depth.  I've often mused that pretty much anyone in any section could be the first chair player.  This takes nothing away from the outstanding qualities of the principals.  They have that certain something which does make their sound special and their solos unique.  But everyone in the ensemble is individually superb... or they simply would not be there in the first place.  That is the depth which we have come to know and enjoy.

That said, it is also understood that the glory of the Chicago Symphony is the Brass Section.  Even before Sir Georg Solti came along in 1969 and allowed them to shine as never before, the trumpets, horns, trombones and tuba were known and revered by audiences and players around the globe.  Many scores have special moments for them, but Mahler, Wagner and Bruckner must be smiling in Heaven when the CSO plays their works.  Great parts of wonderful orchestral pieces.

So, it's an extra special treat when that superb brass section gets to play alone.  Just those few wind players whose conical and cylindrical tubes are controlled by valves or slides.  Cup-shaped-mouthpieces are required for their buzz, which is carried on their breath through the bells and into the air where the resonance is simply amazing.

On Sunday, March 25, those fabled players will gather together to shine forth on the stage of Orchestra Hall in a concert that benefits the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, and honors Adolph Herseth, who is about to retire from his chair as Principal Trumpet, which he has held for over half a century.  Called "Brass Buddies," it will be the first all-brass concert by these musicians in over 20 years, and will feature just about the entire section, plus a few alums and a couple of other friends.

Why so long between gigs?  "It's just difficult to get us all together," says Jay Friedman, who joined the CSO in 1962 and has been principal trombone since 1964.  "I decided we needed to just do this once more before Herseth retires."  Friedman speaks of his friend with admiration.  "He set the standard and invented the style in my view.  It's a logical way to play a brass instrument.  He's got this incredible concept of music."

Friedman goes on to describe it as, "a strong, powerful, intoxicating style that he plays.  I don't mean loud. He's got this incredible discipline.  He'd always play just exactly how loud he needed to play to be heard.  He never let anybody force him to do something he shouldn't have done.  That's what's amazing."

About his own instrument, Friedman says a player "needs good sense of pitch - like a string instrument.  That takes a long time to develop."  He continues, "Sound on a brass instrument is the most important thing.  You gotta have a great sound or you can't be a good player.  Sound is the number one thing.  It is for all instruments, but especially brass.  That's what I teach - really good sound, beautiful sound."

Friedman grew up listening to the CSO and its brass section, and always wanted to play in an orchestra.  "It's just got so many possibilities for color.  It's like a big kaleidoscope.  That's why I started studying scores and that's how I got into conducting."

Besides holding his CSO chair for all these years, Friedman is also the conductor and Music Director of the Symphony of Oak Park & River Forest, and it's this organization which will benefit from ticket sales of the "Brass Buddies" concert.  This orchestra was started in 1933, and recent conductors have been CSO players - Milton Preves, principal violist, and then for 25 years Perry Crafton, a CSO violinist.  "As soon as they see me work with an orchestra," Friedman says, "they realize that I'm very string-conscious.  A lot of people are amazed at the string sound that I get out of an orchestra."  He continues, "I just encourage them to play with a really good sound, and it seems to work."  On the other hand, he says he pretty much leaves the trombone section alone.  "The strings are playing all the time and there's so many notes to take care of, so that's my main concern."

Besides the Oak Park group, Friedman has been resident conductor of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, and will be taking over that ensemble next year.  He's heard on all the CSO recordings during his tenure, and he has his own solo CD coming out soon called "The Singing Trombone" which will be available at Symphony Store on the Educational Brass Recordings label.

For this upcoming special concert, Friedman will play in one piece, but he'll mostly conduct.  "I've never tried to copy any conductor, style-wise or physically.  I've always gotten my inspiration from the score."  There will be music of Gabrielli, and Friedman's own arrangement of ‘An Alpine Symphony' by Richard Strauss.  The concert will also be videotaped as a documentary.

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Bruce Duffie was an Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for just over 25 years.  His personal website is

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This article was linked from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Website, March, 2001