Steven Mead needs no introduction: his activity as a musician and teacher is known by all those who love the euphonium. Steven is also one of the world’s most recorded solo brass artists, with about 80 CDs to his credit.
Despite his worldwide fame, not many know the instrument he plays, the flugelhorn in Bb, called euphonium. Euphonium or the “beautiful sound” , as this is its meaning, from the Greek ‘euphonos’. Yet, the euphonium is unmistakable for its dark, warm and enveloping sound. It is a young instrument, which has found collocation within military and musical bands in general. It is also increasingly emerging as a solo instrument.
Steven is the most influential “ambassador” and virtuoso of the euphonium. In addition to his intense worldwide concert activity, (over 500 world premiere performance), he teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and also likes sharing his art and technique through much appreciated two or three-day euphonium Masterclasses. He is holding one these days in Italy, at the Conservatory of L’Aquila.
Why, as you say, is the euphonium one of the most “musical” instruments in the world?
“Well, it’s only musical if it’s played musically! Most people that I meet when I travel haven’t heard or don’t know too much about the euphonium and they fall in love with the sound. They say it sounds like a voice and is very “human”. The reason for this stems from the design of the instrument. The euphonium is conical, and this means that as soon as the tubing leaves the valve group, the tubing gets increasingly wider. This creates its very reach tone, which gives great cantabile possibilities. Thanks to the 4th valve, added almost from the beginning of its design, and the compensating system, we now have an instrument that has massive chromatic possibilities arranged in nearly five octaves. The only reason why the euphonium is not better known is because it never made it into the symphony orchestra, as all masterpieces had already been written when it was created’.
The origins and development of the euphonium are linked to the tradition of Italian belcanto. One of the methods most used by euphonists is Marco Bordogni’s an Italian tenor active in Paris between the 18th and 19th centuries. How is the euphonium developing in the 21st century, and what further development margins do you foresee? Can Italy play an active role in this evolution?
“The euphonium has its own existence with wind and brass bands. Wind orchestra writers, especially those who know the euphonium, write good parts, which encourages more good players. But we don’t want good players that will eventually try to get a job playing tuba in an orchestra. We want educated, informed, virtuoso euphonium players like Italy had a few generations ago. From 1870 to about 1920, Italy had the best euphonium players in Europe, possibly in the world. Because of the Depression, most of the top players went to America. Italy’s Simone Mantia and Johnny Perfetto were absolute masters of the euphonium. Mantia went to America in 1890 and he joined the Arthur Pryor’s Band and was soloist in the John Philip Sousa’s Band. Today, it is our responsibility as players and teachers to ensure the euphonium’s future development. We need more players and teachers who are organised and disciplined, who practice so much and play so well that everybody around them takes notice and invite them to play solos, to do masterclasses. The next stage is for them and all of us euphonium lovers to influence composers, so they can compose more and more quality music for the euphonium. We also need institutions to recognise and accept us because we have a status when we are inside Conservatories and we don’t have it when we’re out. The Italian system is very slow to respond and to adapt. It is a pity, because there is no justification for not including the euphonium in Conservatories: we have the repertoire, we have the players, we have some employment possibilities with the military bands. Conservatories should also offer brass band programs. The development of the euphonium, in my opinion, should also be in experimental music and in particular with jazz. US euphonium jazz players are world-renowned, skilful jazz players who can sit in any normal jazz band. It also helps of course if they have mixed skills and can also play the trombone or have arranging talents. In Japan, euphonium tuba players are also very popular”.
The ABRSM (Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music) is the world’s leading provider of music exams, with over 650,000 assessments in 93 countries each year. ABRSM qualify students to receive university credits outside Italy, where no musical certification is recognized outside the State Conservatories. Would you still encourage Italian students to take the ABRSM exams?
“Absolutely! ABRSM is a recognised ladder of achievement that enables a student to work with a teacher to get to a certain goal. In Asia, ABRSM are widely encouraged and recognised. They contribute to the development of very young students and allow them to achieve impressive levels of performance. ABRSM encourages overall theory and practical development in the sense that is required by Conservatories and Academies all over the world, because it creates a uniformity of excellence. For us in Manchester, ABRSM grade 8 is an assumed pre-requisite for 18-year old students when they join the Royal Northern College”.