Euphonium Concerto (“Swimming the Mountain”)

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            This composition is surely a first for most orchestras and audiences.  It features one of the most neglected of instruments that is yet one of the most beautiful and technically proficient.   It does make an appearance in a few orchestral scores, most notably in The Planets by Gustav Holst and Don Juan by Richard Strauss—as well as the “Bydlo” movement of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.  Wearing that hat it generally is called a “tenor tuba,” for that is exactly what it is—the smallest member of the tuba family, a family with many different-sized members.  Over the years since its invention around 1830 or so, it has functioned as an essential member of the band, and every band that you have ever seen or heard has one or more in it.  The euphonium is the important baritone voice in the band, and it is often called (not quite correctly) the baritone horn in this country.  So, ironically, it’s always there, always important--just always overlooked.  Euphonium etymologically stems from the Greek for “beautiful sound,” and it surely excels at musical lyricism.

             Although it has the usual three movements of a traditional concerto, it boasts an unusual program, or “story.”  The first movement depicts Zeus “surveying, enjoying, and commanding his realm.”  You’ll hear a difficult section of high counterpoint in the solo, followed by a cadenza.  The orchestra then takes the main theme, accompanied by more counterpoint in the solo part.  An exciting section that features ripping scales in the solo part brings the first movement to a conclusion.  All three movements are performed without break, and so the slow movement, depicting an eclipse, follows immediately, featuring the muted soloist.  Listen for the end that evokes the reappearance of the stars after the eclipse.  The last movement lopes rapidly along, fully exploiting the euphonium’s considerable virtuosity.  Featured are a “contest” with the piccolo; a test of strength with the timpani; and a “showdown” with solo violin that includes two notes played simultaneously in both respective instruments.  Double stops for the violin, every concert-goer has heard, but multiphonics for a brass instrument are much more rare—some would say weird.  Musical pyrotechnics brings the whole thing to a close.

            “Swimming the Mountain” is a real treat, and should be an ear-opener for those not familiar with this noble and amazing instrument.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan