Trombone Concerto

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            Let’s face it, trombone concertos on symphony orchestra programs are fairly rare; concertos for piano, violin, and violoncello are the norm, and that pretty much has always been the case.  Occasionally, other instruments share the limelight, such as flute, oboe, or clarinet.  And, of the brass, the trumpet and horn usually get the call.  But, the trombone, along with its compatriot, the tuba, as well as the saxophone, and various percussion instruments, appear infrequently.  Not that there is a paucity of concertos for all of the standard orchestral instruments.  Important works for all of them have been written, and, of course, are frequently heard in music schools and conservatories, as young virtuosos and faculty members strut their stuff for their fellow musicians.  But, stage time for professional groups is limited, so understandably, that and financials dictate what we generally hear:  piano, violin, and violoncello concertos.

            Trombones, of course, have been an integral part of the symphony orchestra since the time of Beethoven, and in opera well before his time.  Their power, timbre, and general usefulness in the weft of orchestra sound are almost irreplaceable.  Admittedly, their simple construction (they haven’t changed in their essentials for well over four hundred years) places them at some disadvantage in speedy passages.  However, modern players have overcome many of these limitations with surprising ease—driven by higher expectations and assiduous practice.  While concertos for trombone are perceived as rare, someone has counted over a thousand of them--you will never hear most of them, for good reason.  Sure, there survive a few attractive trombone concertos from the time of Mozart, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that more solo works came to be written.  However, they almost without exception were not the focus of the great composers.  They found better fish to fry.  So, we are mostly left with minor works by minor composers, much of which is, frankly, mediocre. The situation improved greatly during the twentieth century, and significant works were composed by highly respected composers—folks such as Milhaud, Berio, Pärt, Larsson, Tomasi, Bloch, Chavez, and others.   Recently, composers such as Augusta Read Thomas and Jennifer Higdon have contributed works, as well—so the situation for trombones is getting much better.

            What’s more, the situation got much better still in 1993, when the eminent American composer, Christopher Rouse, won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his trombone concerto.   Since the early nineteen-seventies, Rouse has become a giant of American composers—winner of the most prestigious prizes, and a composer of commissions from the most eminent orchestras and soloists.  In general, he is a powerful artist whose works have garnered praise from almost every well-respected contemporary critic and performer.   A native of Maryland, he was graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory, and later studied composition with Karel Husa and George Crumb.  He has taught at the University of Michigan, the Eastman School of Music, and the Juilliard School.  His many published works include almost two-dozen compositions for symphonic orchestra (including five symphonies) and a significant number of solo concertos with orchestra (including ones for guitar, organ, oboe, flute, trumpet, clarinet, and—of course—trombone).

            An affable, articulate, modest, and genial man—married, with four children—he has divers interests; for many years he enthusiastically taught a course on rock and roll.  But, all of this sometimes surprises folks when hearing his music for the first time.  As one waggish critic once put it:  “He means what he screams.”  His music is powerfully expressive, it is often very loud, but perhaps most significantly of all, it is the voice of someone who is anguished about the contemporary human state.  It’s not for the faint of heart.

            The trombone concerto was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, for its principal trombonist, Joseph Alessi.   Completed in 1991, it was given its première in New York City in December of 1992—winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  The work is dedicated to the memory of Leonard Bernstein, who had passed away in 1990.   It is the first of several intense compositions by Rouse which embody his reaction to the deaths of personages important to him--including composers Bernstein, William Schuman, and Stephan Albert—and that of his mother.  In Rouse’s words:  “[Bernstein] remains for me a figure of inestimable importance in the history of music, one whose passion for and commitment to his art was insurpassable . . . ”

            The work is in the usual three movements of a concerto, but played without pause between them.  Reversing almost 350 years of tradition, Rouse begins with a slow movement, putting the fast movement in the middle, and ending as he began.  Scored for full orchestra, the work calls for a large and varied percussion section, including bongos, tom-toms, and tam-tams.  The trombone historically has been used for solemn ceremonies—especially obsequies—and its ability to suggest the declamatory human voice has long been noted.  Consequently, it’s a most suitable instrument for a concerto conceived in—to quote the composer—“a somber and introspective character . . . .”

            Dark, ominous strings, harp and percussion introduce the first deep tones of the soloist—spaced and mysterious.  The pace is glacial.  The musing trombone gradually extends the slowly rising line, as the strings create a winding, sensuous accompaniment.  The tension becomes almost unbearable as the soloist ascends into the highest register.   After the return to the quietude of the beginning, an extended cadenza for the trombone ensues, but it’s almost as apt to hear it as a vocal declamation as a “cadenza.”

            Then without warning, the searing frenzy of the middle movement scherzo explodes with a fury.  Slamming, banging orchestral gestures alternate in an almost hysterical dialog with the trombone soloist.  This wildness turns into a dark, frenetic dance, sometimes soft, but always menacing.   Building to a (very) loud climax—the solo trombone encounters a cacophonous challenge from the trombone section in the back of the orchestra.  It’s a serious one, but the soloist soon triumphs, and everything gradually subsides to the crepuscular shades of the opening, with the pensive low notes of the soloist, as the last movement is prepared. 

            A meditative, harmonious duet in the bassoons now sets the mood.  After which the inherent ability of the trombone to sing now comes to the fore.   Marked “Elegiaco, lugubre,” elegiac and lugubrious it is.  The trombone’s tragic lament gradually rises to a tremendous climax, pauses, and then ruminates deep in its range in an exchange with the bass drum.   A stumbling funeral march begins and leads us inexorably forward, tension constantly building to yet another wild climax, after which the stentorian bass drum heralds a totally unexpected moment.  Muted, soft horns intone a beatific homage to Leonard Bernstein, with a quote from his Kaddish symphony (No. 3).  Bernstein based his deeply emotional 1963 work on the Jewish prayer chanted for the dead, and dedicated it to the recently assassinated John Kennedy.  Now, after some twenty-five minutes of grief, agony, and despair, Rouse eloquently demonstrates why—despite his “blood and dissonant thunder”--many consider him a “neo-romantic” composer.  The solo trombone rises to spin out a warm, lyrical paean of hope and acceptance.  Then gradually, amidst a soft halo of strings and percussion, the trombone sinks lower and lower, reaching final and ultimate resolution—de profundis—on a pedal G.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan