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Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
Group photo of American Brass Quintent members with their instruments.

‘The high priests of brass’ bring expansive classical program to Schwab Auditorium October 30

By Jennifer Pencek and John Mark Rafacz

John D. Rojak performs with one of the most lauded classical brass ensembles on the planet, but for much of his career the bass trombonist was more likely to be playing in an orchestra pit on Broadway than on the stage at Carnegie Hall.

Rojak first heard of American Brass Quintet when he was a student at The Juilliard School in New York City. Interested in establishing a career in the city that doesn’t sleep, he performed with orchestras and big bands and as a studio musician. Rojak also worked as a musician for various Broadway shows.

Eventually, Rojak was hired for a show that went on to be one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Beginning in 1987, he was a member of the orchestra for the sixteen-year run of Les Misérables. In 1991, he began his tenure with American Brass Quintet.

“Broadway shows are really fantastic opportunities, especially the ones that run a long time,” he says. “There’s a very generous amount of flexibility. In fact, I was in the fourth year of my run with Les Miz when the quintet opening came. I was able to take leaves of absence to go on tour and to spend nine weeks in Aspen in the summer away from the show. And whenever I came back, I had a job waiting for me all those years. That, too, was an opportunity to be playing all the time, and there’s a certain amount of stability and consistency that comes with playing a show.”

Despite a dream gig with Les Misérables, Rojak took his audition for American Brass Quintet more seriously than any previous tryout.

“It was really important for me to join the group and be part of that,” he says. “And it put a very sort of beautiful anchor in my career in New York that I had this fabulous musical outlet.”

American Brass Quintet, that “fabulous musical outlet” that’s spent more than five decades entertaining audiences around the world, comes to the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State for an October 30 concert at Schwab Auditorium.

The program features Renaissance madrigals by Italian Luca Marenzio; Renaissance chansons by Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prés; five works by nineteenth-century German Ludwig Maurer; Fantasia and Rondó, a composition by Osvaldo Lacerda who, in 1963, became the first Brazilian composer to earn a Guggenheim Fellowship; Copperwave, a quintet-commissioned work by Grammy Award-winning contemporary American composer Joan Tower; and Cadence, Fugue, Fade, a piece written for the quintet by American Sebastian Currier that has its world premiere in New York City two weeks before being performed at Schwab.

[The audience] should expect to hear … some beautiful, perhaps exciting, and perhaps stimulating brass music.

John D. Rojak

The expansive offering should please the audience, Rojak says. “They should expect to hear—and I hope we’ll provide—some beautiful, perhaps exciting, and perhaps stimulating brass music.”

“The high priests of brass” (Newsweek) have amassed a discography of fifty-plus albums and premiered more than 150 contemporary works. Tours have taken the quintet, founded in 1960 when brass music was still relatively unknown to classical concert audiences, to five continents and all fifty of the United States. Along with Rojak, the ensemble, in residence at The Juilliard School since 1987 and the Aspen Music Festival since 1970, features trumpeters Raymond Mase and Kevin Cobb, hornist David Wakefield, and trombonist Michael Powell.

The quintet is this year’s recipient of Chamber Music America’s highest honor, the Richard J. Bogomolny National Service Award, for “significant and lasting contributions to the field.”

“It was just really humbling and really wonderful,” Rojak says of the award, “and made us feel that what we have been doing—playing chamber music at the highest level we can—has been recognized and we’ve made some sort of impact.”

In conjunction with the Center for the Performing Arts Classical Music Project, the quintet is scheduled to participate in four master classes and a classroom visit at University Park, plus programs at Foxdale Village in State College and Centre Crest Nursing Home in Bellefonte. A performance and other activities at Penn State Altoona, along with additional engagement programs in Altoona, are planned for October 29.

Outreach is essential, and having a residency is so much more gratifying, I think, from both sides—from our side and from the audience side.

John D. Rojak

“Since I’ve been in the group for over twenty years, outreach is essential, and having a residency is so much more gratifying, I think, from both sides—from our side and from the audience side,” Rojak says. “We don’t come in, do a concert, leave, and just wave goodbye on our way to the airport. We tend to make connections, and it’s really nice to have these classes—and not only for music students or aspiring musicians, but for any sort of audience members and for any ages.”

Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring a visiting artist, is offered in Schwab one hour before the performance and is free for ticket holders. Go to cmp.psu.edu for more information about the quintet and its three-day residency at Penn State.