A resonating note: After 25 years, the Syracuse Brass Ensemble continues to flourish

Chase Gaewski | Photo Editor

James Spencer directs The Syracuse Brass Ensemble during Sunday's Hendricks annual Chapel Holiday Concert. The ensemble, currently in its 25th year, preforms 18 concerts a year. The 38 members consist of SU faculty and students, as well as residents of upstate New York.

The Syracuse Brass Ensemble is a group that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  

Members make fun of other members who make mistakes. They crack jokes, pull pranks. Between songs, they talk about their kids. It’s the kind of group that grabs beers after practice on Monday nights.

“There’s a socialization around the music that is really special,” said James Greenwald, a trombone player. “These are people who love the same things I love.”

But 45 minutes before the concert starts, the Syracuse community rushes to find seats for the annual holiday concert. Within minutes, the main section of the chapel is already full.

Now in its 25th year, the ensemble serves as the official university band and is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. The 38 members come from all over. Some are SU students, faculty and staff; others are doctors from the State University of New York Upstate Medical University or residents of the Upstate New York area. 

“It is people who are full-time professors and musicians and come and volunteer because they just love playing in an ensemble like this,” said James Spencer, the ensemble’s director, conductor and co-founder. “It helps that we’re all friends, but I think it’s really the music that draws us together.”

Spencer and Robert Spradling, SU’s former director of bands, created the ensemble in 1988 as an outreach to community musicians.

“I think it provides an outlet for people like me: people who are solid players who maybe aren’t being challenged enough by being in a community concert band,” said Greenwald, a family doctor and faculty member at Upstate Medical University.

Mary Kasprzyk, a percussion player, said she’s played with other community bands during the years, but the ensemble is the group that gives her “a light-hearted feeling.”

Kasprzyk, who is an SU alumna and video editor for the university, said the ensemble is the most musically talented group she’s ever played with and everyone enjoys playing with one another.

Said Kasprzyk: “It’s a family. It really is.”

The Syracuse Brass Ensemble is unconventional; it’s American.

The sound is different than most brass bands, which are predominately British. Instead of being “loud and brassy,” the unusual use of French horns provides a mellower sound while contrasting the big sound of the trumpets, Greenwald said.

Spencer said many are surprised to hear the “melodic choral sounds as the brilliant loud sounds.”

The ensemble is not technically considered a brass band because of its use of trumpets and French horns. Usually, the instruments in a brass band consist of one specific family of brass.

Being an American brass band gives the ensemble the opportunity to play the repertoire of a brass band in addition to every other musical genre ranging from opera to pop to movie classics.

“It’s never boring. It’s such a variety of music; there’s something for everybody,” Kasprzyk said.

The ensemble is one of the few brass bands in the region. The closest groups are in Buffalo and Ottawa, Canada.

The ensemble placed first in the North American Brass Band Association’s national open division competition in both 2001 and 2002.

The Syracuse Brass Ensemble is there for the university.

The group is there every spring in the Carrier Dome for the graduating seniors; it’s there every holiday season to bring in Christmas cheer with local residents; and it was there for the university to mourn the 35 students who lost their lives in Lockerbie, Scotland.

“We look at ourselves as ambassadors for the university,” Spencer said. “We put forward the good things that are going on in the university.”

As ambassadors, Spencer and the members of the ensemble travel all over Upstate New York representing the university and showing people, especially kids, that one doesn’t need to be considered a professional to be a high-level musician.

Although it is the ensemble’s mission to serve the community, the members also serve as a support system for each other.

“As individuals there are times where we all have difficulties in our life, but it helps just being able to get together on Monday nights and rehearse for three hours,” Spencer said. “Within the first 10 or 15 minutes all the problems seem to fade away — to melt away. You are able to leave them behind for a little while.”

Spencer and Greenwald both praised Arts and Sciences and Hendricks Chapel. The university has warmly embraced the ensemble, specifically the members that are directly a part of the SU community

“There’s really a close relationship (with SU),” Spencer said. “I’ve been here for 26 years and my heart is with the university, and I think a lot of us feel that way.”

For the final number, “Silent Night,” the only light in the chapel was candlelight. The choir and every audience member held a candle while the Syracuse Brass Ensemble smoothly played the classic.

When the ensemble reached the final verse, the audience members raised their candles in the air, bringing the Syracuse community together through light and sound.


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