Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2018, Onyx Brass continues to be the leading light in establishing the brass quintet as a medium for serious chamber music, inspired by the pioneering early years of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble. To this end, the group has commissioned and performed the world premieres of well over 150 new works, with many more in the pipeline for performance and recording.
It is a point of justifiable pride for the group to play authentic and sometimes challenging music, yet remain a group which is utterly accessible to audiences: there is no need to “dumb down” when programmes are presented in the entertaining and articulate fashion that has become the group’s trademark. A brief snapshot of the composers whose work Onyx has premiered includes David Sawer, Thea Musgrave, Stuart MacRae, Michael Nyman, Joe Duddell, John Tavener, Judith Bingham, John McCabe, Tarik O’Regan, Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Timothy Jackson, Gabriel Jackson, Giles Swayne, Graham Lynch, Steve Martland, Jonathan Dove, John White, Paul Mealor, Julian Philips, Rory Boyle, Kenny Wheeler, Guy Barker, Gwilym Simcock, and Trish Clowes.
Onyx Brass has toured extensively: there are very few corners of the UK that remain unvisited! The group has also performed regularly at festivals and concert halls in the USA, Ireland, France, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Nigeria, Bermuda, and Borneo to unanimous critical acclaim, acclaim that has been similarly forthcoming for its recordings. Its albums are notable for their innovative and entertaining programming: for example, pairings of Bach and Shostakovich fugues, contemporary music linked with the renaissance music that inspired it, and a partnership with the extraordinary baritone voice of Mark Stone. BBC Music Magazine described the group as “easily the classiest brass ensemble in Britain”, Gramophone hailed “some of the most thrilling chamber brass-playing of its kind” and the Observer described “an eclectic ear opener of a disc, virtuosically played”. Onyx and its recordings are also regularly featured on BBC Radio 3.
Education is a large part of the remit of Onyx Brass: they have led workshops and master-classes in an enormous variety of contexts that range from Primary School reception classes to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. They have held various residencies, including at Radley College, The Royal Welsh School of Music and Drama, Westminster Abbey Choir School and Imperial College, University of London.
Working with singers also forms a central part of Onyx’s work: the group recorded the music of Parry with the Westminster Abbey Choir, which reached the top spot in the specialist classical chart. The group has worked regularly with the BBC Singers and the Choir of St. Bride’s, Fleet Street, as well as superb amateur choirs such as the Brighton Festival Chorus and the choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge. Much of this work has been under the auspices of the remarkable John Armitage Memorial trust, with whom Onyx Brass has been affiliated since its inception.
The individual members of the group are also active orchestral musicians: they hold permanent positions in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of English National Opera, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and the English Chamber Orchestra.
During 2014, Onyx Brass toured the country, bringing contemporary brass music to bandstands, parks and public spaces as part of the Tour de Brass! The project was generously supported by PRS for Music’s New Music Biennial Scheme, and the Tour passed through London’s Southbank Centre and Glasgow UNESCO City of Music for special performances coinciding with the Commonwealth Games. The featured commission, Bronze and Iron by David Sawer, was recorded live for by BBC Radio 3 and released on NMC Recordings.