By Sam Prickett
About three years ago, Scott Robertson got sick. His illness – kidney failure – was serious enough that, “I had to retire from everything,” he said, including his role as director of music at Homewood’s Trinity United Methodist Church and his position on the music faculty at UAB.
Retiring from the latter job also meant that he had to step down as a member of the UAB faculty brass quintet, the only year-round group of its type in Alabama.
Brass quintets, with occasional variations, consist of two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn and a tuba and can play a variety of genres, including classical, Celtic and jazz.
Despite his retirement and illness, which includes thrice-weekly dialysis treatments, it didn’t take long for Robertson to start wanting to play again.
“About a year and a half ago, I started feeling well enough that I thought I would start practicing again,” Robertson said. He reached out to his former colleagues, and soon they had formed a new group: Cathedral Brass of Birmingham.
The group consists of Robertson on tuba, Dr. James Zingara on trumpet, Dr. Doug Bristol on trombone, James Baker on French horn and Dr. Brad Sargent, also on trumpet.
It’s a “traditional” group, Robertson said, one that mostly plays classical arrangements of religious music.
For the past year, the quintet has performed at local churches “of just about any denomination,” Robertson said, and those churches often provide practice spaces for the group.
“Church music directors are always looking for brass players to come in and enhance their worship service,” Robertson said.
That doesn’t mean the quintet becomes the musical focus of the service, though.
“We’re kind of an accessory,” he said. “We’re not the main thing. We play along with their hymns to make singing the hymns special and new. … We combine with the organ, and it really makes pretty glorious music. … The type of music we do is very fitting in a cathedral-like setting.”
The quintet, however, will be the focus during one significant upcoming performance in April, when it will play at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. That opportunity came about, Robertson said, with the help of the Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church.
“Every year, Carnegie Hall auditions church choirs to be considered for their special concert season just for church choirs,” he said. “Vestavia Hills UMC decided to enter into this competition, and they submitted a recording of us along with them. And we were accepted!”
For some of the performance, Cathedral Brass will be playing solo, focusing on music composed by Alabama native K. Lee Scott, who specializes in sacred music, choral music and hymns.
“He’s from Birmingham, and his music is really nationally known,” Robertson said. “There’s hardly a traditional music department or a church anywhere that doesn’t have at least one of his works.”
In addition to playing some standalone pieces, the quintet will be joined on the Carnegie Hall stage by the Vestavia Hills United Methodist Church choir for a 20-minute rendition of Scott’s “Gloria,” which Robertson calls “a glorious standard.”
Like the adage says, performing at Carnegie Hall requires lots of practice. Though his illness makes it a “struggle,” Robertson said he, like his fellow group members, practice four or five hours a day.
“A lot of times, practice is difficult, to have the energy to pick up and hold the horn,” he said.” But I have to be able to play at the level that we play. Every professional musician practices four hours a day (at least).”
Robertson’s dedication is matched by his colleagues, he said.
“The entire group, they love playing, period. And they particularly love playing brass quintet,” Robertson said. “Most times, brass players don’t get to play parts (like these). This gives us the opportunity.”
For more information on the group, visit cathedralbrassofbirmingham.com.