On a bicycle, balance is everything. With a brass quintet too, it seems. For 34 seasons the seriously casual Canadian Brass has measured fun against weightiness, tradition against innovation. Audiences like the music well enough, but equally, it's the ensemble's light-hearted presentation that fills auditoriums.
"Our group is known for a sense of humor, but our focus is the music," wrote trumpeter Joe Burgstaller by e-mail last week from Stuttgart, Germany, where the quintet was performing. Just 33, Burgstaller is younger than the group he plays in.
The Canadian Brass performs a holiday pops concert with the Toledo Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Stranahan Theater.
Burgstaller has a near age-mate in the quintet with French horn-player Jeff Nelson, 34. These two, the former American and the latter Canadian, constitute the ensemble's younger generation. The "older generation" includes trombonist Eugene Watts, 68, and tuba player Chuck Daellenbach, 59, who have been with the ensemble since founding it in 1970.
Balancing old with new is trumpeter Stuart Laughton, 53, who is both a founding member and the group's newest member, having recently rejoined the Canadian Brass after a 33-year hiatus.
Even the quintet's nationality is balanced 50/50, at three apiece, noted Burgstaller.
"The Brass is exactly half Canadian and half American. Two are Canadian, two are American, and one is dual citizen," he wrote.
The ensemble is in residence in Toronto, though Burgstaller lives in New York City. Another sort of balance, I suppose.
Raised in Chicago, Burgstaller started performing with local bands at age 12. From there, he headed west, attending Arizona State University before embarking on a career that included classical music and jazz, as well as a heavy dose of experimental sounds. Along the way, Burgstaller recorded with Dweezil Zappa and performed at New York City's famous punk club CBGB's.
Still, joining the Canadian Brass was a natural, wrote Burgstaller.
"The Brass developed a signature sound and style, and I grew up with that as a major influence, as did almost every other brass player of my generation. What that means is that while there are two generations represented within the Canadian Brass, there is not really a generation gap in the style of play. Jeff and I were already very familiar with the style upon joining the group."
In fact, the generational chasm is also a bridge of sorts, added Burgstaller.
"Everyone in the group has different personal interests and pursuits, and some of them could be viewed as generational. But in my view, these different perspectives, including generational influences, only make our music more interesting."
The Canadian Brass has a repertoire of some 250 works, including more than 50 original commissions. Some music dates back 500 years. With others, the ink on the staves has barely dried. In concert, early Baroque masters are frequently balanced against Peter Schickele or a New Orleans-style jazz parade.
"The Brass has developed a repertoire that our audiences can enjoy and relate to, while also experiencing who we are as performers and persons," said Burgstaller.
Saturday's program is typical, with 19th-century American music of the Shakers, jazz sounds of Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, and a variety of seasonal favorites.
The group returns to North America just a day before their Toledo concert. But except for changing their watches, the return will require little shifting of gears. In North America, Europe, or even Asia, the Canadian Brass changes little in its day-to-day approach to doing business. As much as possible, even the group's easy-going banter with its audiences is kept up.
"We strive to musically communicate with our appreciative audiences wherever we might be. When traveling abroad we use the exact same repertoire and try to talk in the local language. If that is not possible, we use translators.
"No matter where we go, we are always ourselves. That's why people come to see us," Burgstaller wrote.
"Magic Horn," the group's latest CD, is being released this month on the Opening Day Recordings label. Featured is an eclectic mix of music, including: 19th-century violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini, Argentine tango king Astor Piazzolla, and the sounds of Motown.
The Canadian Brass joins conductor Chelsea Tipton II and the Toledo Symphony in a holiday concert at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Stranahan Theater. Remaining tickets are $41 and $48. Information: 419-246-8000.
Contact Steven Cornelius at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6152.