Trombone Concerto

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        The trombone has been characterized as a “donkey” among horses, owing to the inherent difficulty of operating the slide with the facility that comes easily to all other instruments.  And, the general demise of bands--both “big bands” and “military bands”--as important elements in American musical life has had a deleterious influence upon the instrument’s popularity.  You just don’t see as many of them as you used to--even in combo jazz.  Nevertheless, the trombone has long been an important part of serious music--it has been there from the late middle ages in the church when the trumpet was still only a military signal instrument and the French horn was still out hunting foxes.

        The number of trombone concertos pales compared to those of all the rest of the instruments--you can count the number known to the average music lover on less than one finger.  Yet, they do exist and have a long history.   It is a tribute to the resourcefulness of today’s generation of composers that they are much less hidebound in their musical expression than that of earlier generations.   The concerto by Jennifer Higdon is a refreshing example of the new “egalitarianism.”

        In the hands of a virtuoso the trombone has a surprising facility and a smooth melodic expressiveness second to none (it doesn’t hurt to remember Tommy Dorsey, here).   The Higdon concerto is a perfect vehicle for these qualities.  Higdon’s career is booming right now with commissions from a variety of distinguished symphony orchestras and virtuosi.  She has a degree in flute performance and was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an MA and a PhD.   She went on to study composition at the Curtis Institute; her composition teachers include the distingushed composers George Crumb and Ned Rorem.   She was a relatively late bloomer--she points to musical influences from Peter, Paul and Mary, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel.  With four Grammy nominations under her belt, she wrote the trombone concerto for the principal trombone of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 2005, with the première the next February. Critics and audiences alike are already praising it for its “listenability” and its infusion of romantic lyricism in a contemporary context.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan