Per Brevig: Teaching new tricks
Trombonist and conductor Per Brevig looks back on 50 summers at the Aspen Music Festival and School
Reprinted with special permission from the Aug. 15, 2019, edition of the Aspen Times.
As the Aspen Music Festival and School closes its 70th anniversary season this past weekend, Per Brevig concludes his 50th summer on its faculty.
The trombonist, conductor, and teacher originally came to Aspen in 1970 at the invitation of Gordon Hardy, the future festival president who was then dean of the Juilliard School and Aspen’s program. (Brevig noted the building where we held our interview was named for the transformative festival leader).
During the past half-century, Brevig spent 26 years as the principal trombonist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, traveled the globe as a soloist and conductor, and also has taught at Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music and New York University.
Through it all, summer in Aspen was a constant.
“I’ve been here all these 50 years, and I’ve enjoyed every one of them,” Brevig, 80, said Wednesday on the Castle Creek Valley campus.
The epitome of the Aspen Music Festival, he’s concluded, is on the concert hall stages where students play alongside some of the leading concert musicians in the world.
“This is what Aspen is all about,” Brevig said. “This experience, for the student, is nothing they have had, sitting in an orchestra with professional players — one on each side—in an orchestra of the highest caliber. There is nothing like it.”
Brevig began his professional career at age 16 in his native Norway, with the Bergen Philharmonic, and came to the U.S. to study at Juilliard, where he would eventually earn a doctorate.
He broke new ground for his instrument in the late 1960s, as one of the few trombonists playing full solo recitals, earning the instrument a newfound respect. A New York Times review of his Carnegie Hall recital in October 1969 noted, “It is not easy to give a trombone recital without giving the listener the impression that the circus is coming to town, but Per Brevig did so last night at Carnegie Hall.”
Along with playing the repertoire and performing with the Met, Brevig championed contemporary music for trombone.
The famed Mexican composer Carlos Chávez wrote a trombone concerto for Brevig, which he premiered at the Kennedy Center in 1978. He’s continued to champion and inspire new music—composer and Aspen Music Festival President Alan Fletcher just last year dedicated his new Fanfare and Variations on “Slane” to Brevig.
“Contemporary music is extremely important and it has always been so,” Brevig said. “Not only is it pleasurable but you have an obligation to work with composers and further their music.”
He traveled frequently as a soloist in the 1970s—“It was an interesting, busy life,” he said of that period—while playing with the Met Opera Orchestra from 1968 until 1994. In retirement, he embarked on a full-time conducting career that brought him to posts in Brazil and with the East Texas Symphony.
But teaching, and his relationship with his students, has been Brevig’s creative lifeblood.
“You walk the halls and you see those bright eyes—they’re soaking it up,” he said. “It makes life worthwhile. … The students are extraordinary these days. The talent is unreal. They catch on so quickly.”
After 50 summers and after teaching generations of trombonists in Aspen, Brevig is still inspired by his students.
“I learn something from every lesson I teach, and I’ve taught a few lessons,” he said.
In 2017, Brevig published the book Reflections on the Art of Trombone, which he said has simplified his instruction. He can use it to get the basics out of the way and get to more personalized coaching.
“I wish I’d written it sooner,” he said.
And while the instrument and the elements of music have gone unchanged over his half-century in Aspen, Brevig has seen Aspen transform mightily, including the modernization of the music tent and the Castle Creek campus.
“Look around, it’s unreal what you see here,” he said, noting the Bucksbaum Campus’ three orchestra-sized rehearsal halls, studios and pastoral Castle Creek setting. He also applauded the addition of Kay and Matthew Bucksbaum’s New Horizons Fellowship, which provides financial aid to talented students who couldn’t have afforded to study here 50 years ago.
“There are great talents that come here because of Kay Bucksbaum’s vision and the New Horizons fellowship,” he said.
Along with his work on stage with colleagues from around the world and his time with students in the studio, Aspen has been about family for Brevig and his wife, Berit.
“We have four children and they grew up in Aspen,” he said. “They know Aspen better than I do, because they had time to explore.”
His children, and now 10 grandchildren, have all maintained close relationships with Aspen. His son-in-law, Darrett Adkins, is on the cello faculty in Aspen.
“I come to the festival, but it’s not only that,” he said. “It’s family.”
During the festival’s closing weekend, Brevig will conduct Saturday’s Aspen Contemporary Ensemble performance of a Paul Hindemith piece of chamber music for piano, two harps and a brass section.
“It’s rather unusual,” Brevig said of the German composer’s composition, billed as part of Aspen’s Bauhaus 100 celebration. “But the piece is just wonderful.”
After the final note, Brevig will start looking ahead to next summer.
“I’m scaling down, doing less, but I’m doing what I want to do,” he said. “What better life can you have?”
“NY’S top trombone”: www.norwegianamerican.com/heritage/nys-top-trombone.
Per Brevig official website: www.perbrevig.net.
This article originally appeared in the October 4, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.