It’s no secret that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra brass section has a dedicated following that extends far beyond the city and its suburbs. There are CSO Brass aficionados in every corner of this country as well as Europe. None, though, is more fervent than a certain enthusiast in Arkansas.
Richard Niven, 69, of Dardanelle, Ark., is an unabashed fan of the CSO Brass (whose annual yuletide concert is Dec. 16). A retired band director, the trumpet player and father of eight owns 114 CSO CDs and 40 LPs. “I’ve got just about everything Reiner recorded and just about everything Solti did, too,” he says. “I also have some DVDs.”
Niven first became aware of the CSO in his freshman year at Arkansas Polytechnic College in Russellville (now Arkansas Tech University). “When I started college in Russellville, I had no knowledge of classical music,” he says. “What I knew was band music from junior high and high school.” But Niven’s trumpet teacher at Tech was Robert Bright, who had studied with CSO trumpet Vincent Cichowicz and with CSO principal tuba and brass pedagogue Arnold Jacobs.
“When I studied with Bright, he’d tell stories of Jacobs, Cichowicz and Bud Herseth [CSO principal trumpet from 1948 to 2001],” he says. “Over four years, I became enamored with the Chicago Symphony Brass. I bought all the recordings I could buy — mainly the ones that featured any kind of brass playing. I was enthralled with those guys.”
Niven’s interest in the CSO recording catalog began with those classic LPs conducted by Fritz Reiner. “The one I remember the most was Pictures at an Exhibition,” he recalls. “And then there was all the Strauss – you know, Heldenleben, Zarathustra, Don Juan. I couldn’t get enough of that brass section. I’d listen to those recordings, try to copy the sound and pretend I was there with them. So when I got out of college and was ready to go to graduate school, I didn’t have any desire to go anywhere other than Northwestern to study with Cichowicz.”
Studying at Northwestern in the early 1970s allowed Niven the chance to hear the orchestra in person. “I had heard all the CSO recordings, but the first time I heard that brass section live, my mouth just dropped open,” he says. “I would have gone to every single CSO concert if I could have. I still would!
“I started my teaching career in Fayetteville, Ark., after I finished my master’s degree at Northwestern,” says Niven, who moved around a bit, and for a time, left teaching. Eventually, though, he returned. “As far as teaching band and music, I was at it for 35 years. Now that I’m retired, I try to practice every day — not long sessions but I’ll play an hour or an hour and a half a day. I couldn’t always do that when I was teaching. I play in the Little Rock Wind Symphony, which is a wind ensemble, and I’m in a local brass quintet that plays at weddings. I just love to play.”
He loves to teach, too. Even though he’s retired, he still gives trumpet lessons, passing on his concepts of technique and tone production. “I’ve had people tell me that they really like my sound,” he says. “Well, it’s not anything that I came up with. It’s those years of study and listening to those CSO recordings. It’s the sound. It’s the style, the concept!”
Many times Niven has made the trek from Arkansas to Chicago to hear the CSO, especially its brass concerts. “Going to brass concerts — that’s just part of my life that will never go away.”
The annual concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass — this year, an evening concert at Dec. 16 at 8 p.m., instead of the usual matinee — features works by Gabrieli, Holst, Nielsen, Praetorius and Strayhorn. After the concert, ticketholders are welcome to attend a discussion about Arnold Jacobs, former CSO principal tuba, in honor of his centennial. Among the participants will be CSO musicians Gene Pokorny, Jim Smelser, Dan Gingrich, Jay Friedman, John Hagstrom and Charlie Vernon; the talk will be moderated by WFMT-FM host Carl Grapentine.
Jack Zimmerman, a Chicago-based writer and novelist, is a recovering trombonist.