Melinda Wagner’s Trombone Concerto

Melinda Wagner‘s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra begins unpretentiously, with a delicate version of the composite attack/decay that is a standard opening ploy for so many pieces: a soft single note from the harp and timpani, with the decay provided by half the second violins, tremolo. Then the first phrase from the soloist is heard: pianissimo, curving up and then down. The pitches can be parsed into two octatonic scale segments, with that sustained tremolo note shared by the two segments. But what you attend to is not the harmonic structure, though that is what gives the phrase coherence; rather, what is most striking is the simple elegance of the shape, with its minor thirds to begin and end, with its highest pitch sounding like an upper neighbor, resolving down by step. Reiterations of the orchestra’s opening sustained note are fitted around the phrase at exactly the right time. For example, the highest note of the trombone phrase is also the longest note, so that’s the place for a fresh harp pluck. The rest of the second violins sneak in as the soloist reaches his cadencing minor third, and repeated horn notes affirm the end of the phrase. These opening bars are poised, suave, satisfying in a modest way. But what happens next raises the stakes.

It is an effect created by an different sort of composite sound: violas, cellos and contrabasses divided into a total of 8 parts, adding seven pitches to the sustained opening note, and bound together with the ringing sounds of piano, harp and a tam-tam stroke. It is as though the sustained note suddenly became three-dimensional, changing from a simple line to a geometric shape, heard in perspective – exactly the effect Mindy speaks of in her program note when she writes how she “tried throughout to imbue the orchestral writing with a sense of three dimensions – of space and the presence of a vanishing point.” The soloist enters as that low chord dies away, with a longer, more wide-ranging phrase, again beginning and ending with thirds, but this time one minor, the other major. The highest, longest note resolves downward again by step; in fact, the gesture is repeated – but one time with a minor second, one time with a major second. In both cases – the thirds and the seconds –  the contour is maintained, the precise intervallic content varied. If you clump together the notes of this second phrase, you get not an octatonic structure, but a chromatic cluster, one that intersects with the little octatonic segment to which the opening sustained single pitch has grown. The final note of the soloist’s phrase turns the sustained octatonic segment into a chromatic one. It is as though the major mode has turned to minor. And yet the structure stays in the background where it belongs – the focus is on the soloist’s eloquent arabesque and the deep perspective opened up by the low chord; craft is at the service of poetry.

That is just the opening eight bars of the piece, recently released on a Bridge CD, in a magnificent performance by Joseph Alessi and the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel.* The clarity, richness and deft subtlety of those opening bars are maintained throughout the piece. It’s a standard three movement form – fast, slow, fast, with a slow introduction to the first movement, and a chorale for the brass serving as an interlude between the second and third movements, returning (embellished and varied) in the body of the third movement – an effective formal touch.

Mindy has a genuine orchestral voice, commanding full-sized gestures that are devised with uncommon care. She enriches the “upward whooshes of sound, and spilling cascades” that she mentions in her program note by structuring them in overlapping waves – not just a single scale or arpeggiation upward, but layers of them played by different orchestral groups. Sometimes these take on a heterophonic character, with more or less simultaneous statements of a figure with small variations. She often deploys a counterpoint of gestures. This middle ground counterpoint – not motive against motive, but gesture against gesture – is an important part of what makes the piece so satisfying. Rather than one thing followed by another like beads on a single string, the musical discourse is more of a woven fabric encompassing many threads. In addition to these richly layered textures there are more direct moments, like the ear-teasing hocket-like passages where chords bounce around the orchestral choirs in rapid succession. The relationship between the soloist and the orchestra is varied, with the ensemble sometimes content to simply set the scene, sometimes closely echoing the solo lines with shadowy resonances. The trombone writing is eloquent and brilliant by turns, sometimes astonishingly brilliant. Mindy must have had a chart of trombone slide positions next to her drafting table, as well as consulting with her soloist.

The Bridge release also includes Mindy’s Four Settings, based on poetry of Robert Desnos, Denise Levertov and Emily Dickinson, and featuring soprano Christine Brandes with an ad hoc septet of superb New York instrumentalists, as well as Wick, written for the New York New Music Ensemble. Both pieces receive exemplary performances. I continue to be impressed by the uncanny, near telepathic precision exhibited by the NYNME players, thanks to their long experience working together.**

It is no small coup for an American composer to get a commercial recording of an orchestral piece by a top-flight American orchestra, and it must have taken a great deal of persistent fund raising to make the disc happen. It’s a pity, given the wealth of fine orchestral music being created in this country, that such releases are so rare.
*) This is the second of two superb concertos Joseph Alessi has premiered with the New York Phil, the first being that of Chris Rouse, which won him the Pulitzer in 1993.

**) Note that they will be appearing at Penn on April 4 with a program of Eric Chasalow, Rand Steiger, Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, and Zhou Long.