When Riley Mulherkar and his bandmates formed The Westerlies in 2011, there was much more to consider than just assembling and rehearsing a setlist.
“Much of the work at that time was divvying up administrative tasks, which meant reaching out to venues and setting up logistics. Even the smallest of tours takes a lot of communication with every venue we might hit along the way, and venue can be a generous term because in the early years sometimes it was house concerts, art galleries, anywhere we could get in front of an audience,” he says.
More than a decade later, the brass quartet now operates as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization with a board of trustees and performs internationally, most recently last fall with the Fleet Foxes. Still, those early days were foundational.
“We really learned so much from the fact that we were unorthodox and we had to find our own gigs in the beginning, present our own concerts, and create our own music,” Mulherkar says. “Those lessons are really valuable for students today since so much of a career in music is not having gigs handed to you, but it’s rather creating community and creating opportunities for yourself.”
When The Westerlies give a masterclass – like the one Friday, March 24, at UConn – Mulherkar says one of the main focuses is conveying the ensemble’s entrepreneurial spirit, the grit required to get where it is today.
“I try not to intimidate music students because it can be overwhelming,” he says. “But if it’s coming with enthusiasm there are some tips and lessons that can be very helpful for students to learn at an early age.”
Young musicians often have a lot of questions, UConn trumpet professor Louis Hanzlik says: how to develop a group, how to become a professional performer, how to prepare for that while still in school, even how to start a business.
The answers are applicable to any type of musician, which is why violinists, clarinetists, flutists, and bassoonists, to name a few, can benefit from a masterclass. Instructors also generally talk about broader concepts, like phrasing, sound, emotion, and expression, Hanzlik says, “These are things that are universal regardless of the instrument.”
Beyond advice, masterclasses, which resumed in the music department this year as traditional programming returned following the pandemic, also involve some kind of music-making. For The Westerlies, that means spending time talking about improvisation, Mulherkar says.
Oftentimes, that term is associated solely with jazz, he explains, but “we really try to emphasize and challenge students to improvise in structured games and activities in which we throw them into the deep end after giving them tools to start improvising and listening to each other collectively. It’s so often seen as a solo, when the core of improvisation to us is very much a collective and group activity.”
‘You don’t have to play what’s expected of you’
While the evening masterclass is geared toward student musicians, The Westerlies’ nighttime concert is sure to fill the audience of the von der Mehden Recital Hall, as the New York City-based group marks its first visit to Storrs, and only its third to Connecticut since 2017.
The original four members hail from Seattle, playing music together in middle and high school bands, and migrated east for college, Mulherkar says, noting that he and trombonist Andy Clausen met Hanzlik as students at The Juilliard School – where Hanzlik is a member of the American Brass Quintet, an ensemble in-residence there.
Hanzlik says that was a long time ago, and since then he’s had The Westerlies, which also includes trombonist Willem de Koch and trumpetist Chloe Rowlands, on his radar with the hope of bringing the ensemble to UConn for a performance, a process that started in 2019 and was curtailed by the pandemic until now.
“I’m really excited for this performance because it’s going to show the audience, but especially brass students, that you don’t have to play what’s expected of you,” Hanzlik says. “You can be a brass player and you can play folk music. That’s a great model for the students. They’re going to hear the unexpected, everything from jazz and pop to classical on the stage.”
That’s what makes The Westerlies so special.
Mulherkar describes the lack of composed music for a quartet of two trumpets and two trombones as both a blessing and a curse. The group has had to write its own music or transpose arrangements written for other instrumentation.
“That’s where we get so much of our sound, and all the discoveries we’ve made in terms of our own language within the ensemble has come from taking piano works or taking a string quartet or taking a vocal piece and seeing how we can adapt it in a way that feels true and accurate. Sometimes that means throwing out some standard brass techniques and trying extended techniques or improvising. A lot of our sound comes from that process,” Mulherkar says.
At UConn, the group will perform the piece “Move” by composer Nico Muhly for solo piano, Hanzlik says, which The Westerlies transcribed for an arrangement of four brass instruments. They’ve also adapted “Entr’acte” from Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, written for a string quartet and modified for brass in a process that took years.
Both are featured on the band’s latest album, “Move,” which will be released the same day as its UConn visit and which Mulherkar describes as the group’s “most ambitious album yet.”
It’s music that sounds different than what many might expect from a brass section, or what the audience heard at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in February during “Jazz at Lincoln Center: Songs We Love,” in which Mulherkar performed.
“That was a show very much rooted in ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, jazz repertoire,” he says. “We were featuring three vocalists and The Westerlies is acoustic music. We tend to fall under the category of chamber music more than anything else.”
And unlike Jazz at Lincoln Center, the von der Mehden show might feature a work in progress, Mulherkar says, since all four members are composers and arrangers and “every concert is an opportunity to experiment a little bit and try some things that are new.
“We love to get into universities and work with students, especially wherever there is incredible brass faculty like Louis Hanzlik,” he says. “This is going to be a very special appearance.”
The Westerlies will be at UConn on March 24 for a 5 p.m. public masterclass and an 8 p.m. concert, both at the von der Mehden Recital Hall. For details, visit the von der Mehden website.