Thoughts on the CSO brass section…. (From the CSO brass section)

The brass section of the Chicago Symphony were refered to the other day in my post refereing to Kim Diehnelts Elgar article. Writing that post reminded me of a wonderful article I read some years ago on CSO principal trombonist Jay Friedman’s website. Mr Friedman’s website has a wonderful collection of essays and articles on brass playing, auditions and orchestra life. Most brass players already read it, but every non-brass-player conductor should read it too. Anyway, Friedman reminds us that what many people think of as the “CSO Brass” sound may be something else…

If you play in an orchestra full time, your choice of mouthpiece should have a great deal to do with the hall you play in. If I played in a great hall I could use a smaller mouthpiece because I wouldn’t have to create so much warmth at the point of origin. I could get more help from the acoustics. The hall the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays in is dry and hard sounding. Therefore, we must create most of the resonance ourselves, which requires that there be no edge in the sound whatsoever. That begs the question of whether you pick equipment that is the easiest to play or that sounds the best, and those two are usually not the same (emphasis added). As I have said before, American style instruments have a tremendous ability to focus the sound in the louder dynamics and lose core in the softer ones. Our job as players is to reverse this tendency. It may feel good for you to drive a hole through the wall with your fortissimo sound, but that is not music. Try to keep those hormones in check. (emphasis added) I wish someone had told me this when I was starting out. My concept is to make the biggest sound that I can still focus in the medium and soft dynamics..…

I would like to finish this column with some comments about the recordings we made with the CSO and London records with Georg Solti in the 1970’s and 1980’s. In my opinion, these recordings are a poor way to judge the sound of the CSO, especially the CSO brass section. London Records was never interested in capturing the natural sound of the CSO. They had a pre-conceived sound which they were determined to force on the orchestra that focused on hard, edgy sonics in a boomy, over reverberant space. Most of those recordings were made in Medinah Temple, which was never designed for music, but more for circuses.

I remember the horn section was placed 50 feet or more from the trumpets and trombones in order to get a gimmicky stereo effect. The results of these sessions produced a raucous, rough, hard-edged sound that in no way represents the CSO, especially the brass section. Solti was a great conductor, but was unable or unwilling to get the people at London (Decca) to give an accurate sound picture of a great orchestra. However, I do remember his unhappiness with the sound of the first Mahler 5th recording. He wanted to cancel the recording, but it was too late.

In latter years, many times we in the brass section would complain about the reproduction of our sound when London, Decca recorded us, but Solti would always say “Listen to the latest recording, I think you will be very happy.” Needless to say, we weren’t. To get a true picture of the CSO brass sound, one must go back to pre-London Decca recordings or better yet listen to live recordings of concerts….


Friedman here points out two things you are hearing when you hear the CSO on those classic Solti discs- the hall (“dry and hard sounding”) and the recording setup (which Friedman calls “raucous, rough, hard-edged”). Of course, the Decca recordings of the 60’s are considered classics of the art of recording, but in the 80’s the world became (in my opinion) a little over excited by the high-frequency possibilities of digital recording (I could write a book about this paradigm shift), and words like “brilliance” and “sparkle” replaced “depth” and “warmth” as things to look for in a recording.

I’m a huge Solti fan- can’t help it, he was the man when I was growing up, but he was naturally an angular, wiry guy, and he got that kind of sound from all orchestras. It was an exciting, focused, intense sound, but not always a round one.

However, having heard the CSO many times in person as a youth, and listening to them on the radio every week for years, I have to agree with Friedman that theirs was a warm, rounder and more beautiful sound than you hear on the discs (still pretty damn loud, but that is what brass instruments are for). Still- they deserved a better hall (I haven’t been back since the re-fit in the 90’s, so I have no idea if it has improved). It’s sad that so few of the major US orchestras play in first rate halls- Orchestra Hall was always problematic, Davies in SF has a spotty reputation, Avery Fischer in New York has always been controversial…..

Finally, I have to say that no recording could ever capture Bud Herseth’s sound with any degree of accuracy. On disc, he sounds great and loud, but in person it was like he was in color and the rest of the orchestra in slightly faded color. He was the closest thing to a great opera singer I’ve ever heard in a brass player. Those that imitated the discs were going down the wrong path and just ended up with something fat and overpowering that missed the sweetness, the roundness and the flexibility of his tone live.

Anyway, I guess the whole point of this post is just a general reminder that what you hear on a CD or concert is the end product of a whole bunch of different and contradictory factors- you can have players who like a dark sound working with a conductor who tends to go for a bright one, recorded on a muddy set up. Sometimes those contradictory factors actually make for something better than what any given particpant could have come up with, sometimes not. Anyway, a piece like Friedman’s at least gives us a great window into the thinking that goes into a famous collection of performances many of us know well.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Thoughts on the CSO brass section…. (From the CSO brass section)”

  1. Paul H. Muller

    I remember a visit to Orchestra Hall in the 90’s and one of the things that impressed me was when the trombones tuned up together after arriving on stage. For all its dryness, Orchestra Hall was filled with this luminous sound for a few seconds. I suppose they had home field advantage, but it was amazing what they could do with their horns and the acoustics in just 3 seconds.

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