Trombone Concerto, Orion Machine, op. 55

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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 viola, flute, oboe, or clarinet.  And, of the brass, the trumpet and horn may 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.

            There survive a few attractive trombone concertos from the time of Mozart, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that more came to be written.  However, they almost without exception were not the focus of the great composers.  The latter generally 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 after about the middle of the twentieth century, and significant works were composed by highly respected composers—folks such as Milhaud, Berio, Pärt, Larsson, Tomasi, Bloch, Chavez, and others.   And recently, younger composers such as Augusta Read Thomas, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Rouse have contributed works, as well—so the situation for trombones is getting much better.  Takashimatsu’s Orion Machine is yet another intriguing example of the surging interest in the genre.

            Yoshimatsu, along with the somewhat better known Takemitsu, is considered one of the most respected Japanese composers who favor music in the Western style.  Like so many so-called “classical” composers these days, he early on was fascinated with popular musical styles, including rock and jazz.  Later in his youth he was attracted to mainstream, Western classical composers, and went through a period of composing works in the challenging atonal style of Schoenberg and his followers.  But, he eventually moved to a musical style based that featured more tonal, triadic harmonies.  A prolific composer, he has written six symphonies, a dozen concertos, works for solo piano, solo guitar, chamber works, and vocal compositions.  Finally, his breadth of musical interests has not neglected the traditional Japanese instruments, the shakuhachi and koto.

            Written in 1993 for the principal trombonist of the Japan Philharmonic, the concerto takes its name from the famous constellation of stars.  Furthermore, the five movements are named respectively after the main stars of that constellation.  The first movement, Betelgeuse, opens with floating, impressionistic atmospherics that feature the innate lyricism of the trombone, so familiar from days of yore, when the instrument was actually important in popular music. The following movement, Bellatrix, shatters this mood with a driving, frenetic “hammering” style that sounds almost better suited to rock electric guitar. Just when things seem almost out of control, a grand crash yields to the soft textures of the harp, piano, and percussion.  Quickly, the rather weird little waltz of Trapezium follows.  It's a brief respite, bookended by the harp, piano, and percussion. 

            What would a concerto be without a cadenza, and this one is a doosy.  It explores just about everything the player and the instrument are capable of, with comments from the percussion, contra-bassoon, and piano.  Anything is possible here, including elements of “free jazz,” the extreme avant-garde, famous musical quotations, free improvisation, and the general noodling around that all players do in their private moments.  When this panoply of musical madness ends, Rigel interrupts with a resplendent, lush musical “rainbow” that reflects the composer’s impression of the colorful, infinite world of the stars, ending as it began, with the instrument’s matchless capability for elegant lyricism.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan