Viennese nasal appraisal

The Mnozil Brass septet does a lot more than just play instruments

jazz 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
jazz 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Imagine, if you can, a combination of Monty Python and Mahler, and you get some idea of what to expect when the Mnozil Brass septet from Austria blows into town next week (Haifa, March 18 and Tel Aviv, March 19).
As the name implies, all seven members of the group play brass instruments – from trumpets to trombones and a tuba, and much between – but they do a lot more than that, and in many different ways.
They all sing, but it is not just a matter of exercising their vocal chords. They produce operatic vocals and indulge in yodeling, with a wide selection of sonic departures mixed in to the program. And there’s plenty of very visual slapstick humor in there, too. “I call some of our humor very dark,” observes 40-year-old tuba player Wilfried Brandstötter. “People have compared us with Monty Python, and performers like [late legendary Danish pianist-comedian] Victor Borge and Spike Jones are also an inspiration.”
By now one starts to get the impression that Mnozil Brass is basically about getting the audience to laugh while the musicians clown about on stage. But we are talking about a bunch of highly trained, very experienced and talented classical musicians, albeit with lots of other influences thrown in.
All the current and founding members – only two have changed since the group started out almost 20 years ago – attended the prestigious Vienna College of Music and met while playing at the nearby Mnozil pub. “We’d go across the road from school to the pub in the evening, after we’d finished studying for the day,” Brandstötter recalls. “We’d have a few beers, eat something, and once a month there were jam sessions.”
It was love at first sound byte for Brandstötter and his cohorts to be.
“We quickly discovered we had a lot in common musically, and we all knew the same 20-25 pieces of music, so it was easy for us to play together. We also got free drinks and cigarettes and food from the owner of the pub.”
The group soon started getting paying gigs. “We started playing at weddings, funerals and farmers’ markets and that sort of thing. After about three years we started doing about three or four concerts a year.”
Things really took off for the ensemble about nine years ago.
“We all had daytime jobs, teaching music and playing in jazz bands, classical ensembles and other stuff. By 2002 we were doing 60 concerts a year, and we realized we had to decide if we wanted to step up a level. We discussed it with our wives and families, and we gave up our other jobs and went full time with the group.”
It proved to be a wise move. Mnozil Brass now performs all over the world.
“A few days ago we received an invitation to play in Indonesia, and we have performed in Japan and China, too. There is something universal about what we do. We offer music through humor; everyone understands that.”
Brandstötter says they never take their success for granted. “If someone had told us 15 years ago we’d be where we are today, we would have laughed in his face.”
One wonders what the likes of Mahler and Mozart would have thought of the brass playing dudes.
Brandstötter and his pals maintain a totally unapologetic position on their seemingly irreverent approach to the genre. “People sometimes take classical music too seriously, but things are getting better. Orchestras now have to fight for their place in the market, so they are looking to present themselves differently. In the 1960s and 1970s, the classical musical scene was very stiff, and now it is only stiff,” laughs Brandstötter.
The tuba player and his cohorts weave all sorts of musical strands into their act, including more contemporary material.
“We all grew up with pop and classical music, and jazz and traditional Austrian folk music, and we do all of that on stage.
We also adore [1970s British rock band] Queen, and we do something with [landmark Queen smash hit] “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We all like performers like Barbra Streisand and Sinatra, too.”
There is also a belly laugh-inducing number in the ensemble’s act when they play recorders with their noses. “That’s sort a running gag we do in every show. The audience always waits for that to happen.”
Mnozil Brass is also in the enviable position of being able to choose its own material. “We decide what we want to do, and we have developed different programs, like the Magic Moments program we’ll be doing in Israel,” explains Brandstötter. “We did something with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, and we also wrote and performed an opera in which we did all the playing, and we sang and danced too. It was great fun.”
In between the comic slots there is some serious endeavor as well, when the band members’ polished musicianship comes to the fore.
There is a strong chemistry among the players which, considering their longevity, is only natural. “We are very comfortable with each other, and I think that comes with age,” muses Brandstötter. “When we were 25 everything was the end of the world, but now we are all around 40 and we are much calmer.”
The members of the band also try to keep things interesting and evolving. “We are always looking to do new things,” says Brandstötter. “We are a work in progress.”
Mnozil Brass at the Haifa Auditorium, March 18 at 8:30 p.m. and at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv on March 19 at 8:30 p.m.