Orion Trombone Quartet returns to Southeast

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2004

It's been 12 years since four college kids from Ohio - two born and raised in Sitka - showed up with their trombones for a month-long tour of Southeast Alaska by ferry and floatplane.

The Orion Trombone Quartet played shows all over Southeast (Juneau, Ketchikan, Haines, Sitka, Skagway, Kake, Angoon, Pelican, Gustavus, Metlakatla and more), missing just bits and pieces of Prince of Wales Island (Point Baker, Hollis, Craig, Thorne Bay and Klawock).

Roger Schmidt, in Sitka, and Wade Demmert and Don Immell, both in Seattle, play together regularly. The fourth member, Nat Dickey, recently moved from the East Coast to Minnesota, making a reunion more feasible.

The Orion Quartet plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, at Northern Light United Church. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students and seniors and available at Hearthside Books or the door.

The performance is a fundraiser for the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, of which Schmidt is the director. Orion will also play in Sitka, Haines and Haines Junction.

"We've talked about (a reunion), it's just amazing that it's taken so long to happen, even just to see each other," Schmidt said. "I thought the time was right, and everybody was excited about it."

The evening's program will include a few selections from the 1600s, some jazz, some music from Brahms and Bach, a few transcriptions from "The Nutcracker" and some re-arrangements of traditional holiday classics. Former Sitkan Ed Littlefield, now living in Idaho, will accompany the group on percussion.

Demmert and Schmidt, both born and raised in Sitka, collaborate often. They played a holiday brass concert last year in Sitka.

"If you go anywhere in the Lower 48, if you're in a city or an urban area, you'll find that a lot of brass concerts are happening around Christmas time," Schmidt said. "For some people it's part of the holidays, it's part of that holiday spirit."

Schmidt and Demmert grew up next door to each other in Sitka. Demmert was a few years older. As fifth-grade approached, Schmidt prepared to join his elementary school band and began deciding on an instrument. Bagpipes and piccolo were his first choices.

"(Wade) suggested that the trombone would be a better choice," Schmidt said.

And so, the neighbors were soon both trombonists. They continued to be throughout high school.

"After I got over REO Speedwagon and Asia, I started getting into trombone recordings," Schmidt said. "At some point, someone gave me this trombone quartet album. There weren't many around back then, and I played it and played it and played it. Wade and I just loved the sound, and we started trying to form these groups."

In the Renaissance Baroque era, circa 1600, it was common to find trombone quartets providing background support to choirs. Even today in Europe, Schmidt said, it's not unusual to stumble across the quartets playing holiday music on street corners in Germany and Austria.

"Trombones are the most human of voices out of the orchestral family, and the instrument also has this tremendous range of tonal expression," Schmidt said. "Historically trombone quartets are not a novelty, but today it can be a bit of a novelty. It's certainly a novelty outside of the trombone world."

Demmert went off to Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., where he met Immell. They formed a successful trombone quartet.

Schmidt attended Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, and formed the Orion Trombone Quartet in 1988 with Dickey and two other students. They practiced three to four times a week and soon became a showpiece group for the college. Oberlin sent them all over the country. In 1989, the group finished first at the Coleman Chamber Music Competition, a prestigious annual event in Pasadena, Calif.

Orion toured Southeast Alaska twice. The first time was in 1991, with the all-Oberlin lineup. The group returned in January 1992 with Demmert and Immell. After Alaska, the group traveled to the International Trombone Quartet Competition in Detmold, Germany, where they were finalists.

Demmert, Dickey and Immell continued to graduate school at Rice.

Demmert performs throughout the Northwest, including with the Seattle Symphony, the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra and the Bellingham Festival of Music. Dickey performed with ensembles and orchestras throughout New York and Boston and is now the instructor of low brass and the director of bands at Concordia College in Minnesota.

Immell is the professor of trombone at the University of Washington and an established soloist all over the world. Schmidt is the executive director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and plays frequently with the Juneau Symphony and Crosssound.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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