In the 1970s and 1980s, the Portland Brass Society (PBS) was very active in the Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA area. The members ranged from students to professional brass players. The meetings were held initially at Portland State University. Each month there would be a reading session where everyone would gather to read through lots of brass music. It was a great experience for students and non-professional adult brass players to sit next to professional players with everyone reading the same music. Everyone had fun at the reading sessions, and even taught many of us little “tricks of the trade,” depending on what instrument you played. Those reading sessions gave me an idea that grew eventually into the group named Solid Brass.
Following one of those reading sessions in 1981, I met with Carol Smith and Jack Dalby and asked them if they thought I could put together a group for adult non-professional and professional brass players with an emphasis on playing brass music to the best of our abilities. Their response was positive and the seed of my idea germinated. Carol Smith volunteered to become our first conductor, and Jack Dalby gave the group our name — Solid Brass.
Word was sent out to members of PBS and other friends asking if there were any adult brass players over the age of 21 interested in forming a new brass choir — an ensemble that was serious about playing and would provide a musical outlet for adult brass players who wanted to perform and improve their musical ability under the guidance of many professional and semi-professional brass players in the Portland area. It did not take very long at all to get a positive response. Hence, Solid Brass holds the title of Second Oldest Functioning Brass Ensemble in the area.
Our first rehearsals were held in the band room of David Douglas High School, thanks to one of our members, Jay Burchak, the band director for David Douglas High School at that time. He also assisted Carol with the conducting chores. The group decided to rehearse every other week to enable those who played in other groups to continue to do so and be available for our rehearsals. It was decided that our season should start in September with a performance at the end of November or the early part of December. We would start rehearsals again in January and play our final concert at the end of May or early June. That gave everyone most of December and the entire summer off to focus on family and/or travel. Given the every other week rehearsal schedule we adopted our motto: Eight Rehearsals Then Perform, or more simply put the “Do or Die” system of rehearsals and performances.
All of our music, in the early years, I purchased myself to start building a Solid Brass music library. Eventually it was agreed that everyone would contribute $20 each series to help offset the cost of music with the bulk of the expense remaining in my pocket. That no longer is in effect as there were some members who could not afford to contribute to the music fund. Today, we are fortunate to be able to borrow music from the Encore Brass Music Library, other private brass ensemble libraries, and the Warner Pacific College brass music library to expand the options for Solid Brass programs. There have been a few opportunities where we have been asked to perform a special concert for a church or adult living facility in exchange for a financial award that goes toward the purchase of new music for our library. None of our players nor our conductors are paid for their services. Those special requests are always welcome as they provide our sole source of income for purchasing music for our library. They are also a lot of fun to do to!
Our original Solid Brass logo was designed by one of our trombone players, Paul Hanau. When he showed it to us everyone was excited about it and felt that we were definitely on our way!
Our goal for each of our performances is to raise money for various charities in the local region. The charities that we have chosen in the recent past have been the Portland Old Church remodel and the Cycle Oregon Scholarship fund. Our upcoming concert will be a benefit for the local charity, Snowcap. Many of our concerts have been in a church that has extended free rehearsal space to us. In those instances, a free will offering is taken to help offset the cost of heat and lights for our rehearsals. None of our members nor our conductors are paid.
We’ve moved from one free rehearsal space to the next free rehearsal space over the years — Marylhurst College, Providence Hospital, Warner Pacific College, First United Methodist Church, Rose City SDA, and several other churches. We were forced to go on an extended hiatus for a couple of years due to the lack of free rehearsal space and a conductor. In 2012, we were able to resume rehearsals at West Hills Christian School under the direction of Sally Kuhns (former assistant principal trumpet in the Oregon Symphony).
Former conductors and mentors have been many over the past 33 years of Solid Brass existence — those already named, plus Dan Cole-McCullough, Rob Murray, Ric Faunt, Fred Sautter, Warren Baker, John Richards, David Woods, Michael Landers, and even myself. Each conductor left Solid Brass better than when they arrived! We are most grateful for their willingness to work with us over the years.
Unfortunately, we have lost some members over the years. Jack Dalby played with us until he was 92. The last two concerts that he played with us were embellished by a black eye and stitches… one concert was the right eye, and the second concert was his left eye. He said that he ran into a door! Y’vonne Clemenhagen played with us for many years until her unexpected death from complications following a surgery. Among our conductors who were lost were Dan Cole-McCullough, David Wood (owner of Sheet Music Service of Portland), John Richards (former Oregon Symphony tuba player for 50 years) and Richard Thornberg (former trumpet player in the Oregon Symphony), who was lost when he was only 50 years old.
Solid Brass was honored to be asked to play at the memorial for Richard Thornberg. Our very own Michael Landers has written many pieces for Solid Brass, with the most important one being the piece he wrote as our tribute to Richard to be performed by Solid Brass at Richards’ memorial. Richard valued our commitment and encouraged us to do our best through his support and coaching. We were honored and gratified to be given the opportunity to publicly acknowledge the generosity and the many talents of one of our mentors. Richard gave willingly and freely of his time and expertise to so many in the adult, non-professional brass community. We truly are a brass community, for his spirit lives on in the many who were touched by his kindness. We were thankful to have been able to call him Friend. Following our performance of the piece, we gave Richards’ wife, Melissa, a special copy of the score in honor of all of the assistance and support that Richard gave to us.
Our “father” of brass choir music, brass instruments, and performance in the Portland area, John Richards, was also lost to us following his death at the age of 93. His wife and son preceded him in death. John was the conductor of Solid Brass for a couple of years. Members of Solid Brass joined other brass players to perform for each of their memorials. The loss of John was a huge loss for the entire performing brass community including the history of the music over the centuries. No matter what the piece of music we would play under his baton he knew the history of the piece, the composer, that period of time in the musical world, and how to get us to play it extremely well! He was also a fount of information regarding the different instruments that evolved into the brass instruments we play today.
Today, Solid Brass is a large brass ensemble with 8 trumpets, 5 horns, 4 trombones, one baritone, one euphonium, and 2 tubas. We are fortunate to have the flexibility to perform large brass ensemble pieces, British Brass Band pieces, and even those little brass quintets. Over the years we have had the honor of playing brass and pipe organ music with Jonas Nordwall and Tom Skyler. Two years ago we were extremely fortunate to have George Hoyt volunteer to arrange the entire William Byrd Suite by Malcom Arnold to fit our instrumentation plus a pipe organ with bells. We performed that piece at a benefit concert for the Portland Old Church. We hope to play that piece again sometime in the future in a church that has a very large pipe organ with a full set of chimes.
There are a few members that have been with Solid Brass almost since its inception: Gary Michael, Dennis Crabtree, and myself. Many other players have come and gone for many reasons over the years, but the heart of Solid Brass remains performing for the love of brass music, and our love of playing brass instruments. The members of Solid Brass continue to pursue our dreams of playing extremely well for the benefit of local charities while having fun doing so. Maybe we will see you at one of our concerts in the future!
-Arlene Weber, founder of Solid Brass