A new trombone concerto, Itzhak Perlman
“If this doesn’t work, it’s all your fault,” composer Geoffrey Gordon and trombonist Megumi Kanda told me, in unison, when we met to discuss the concerto that Kanda will premiere this week with the MSO.
They were kidding around, but I did have a little something to do with this. I go way back with Gordon, who in another life was an on-air personality at WFMR when it was a classical music station. He called me now and then in that capacity, and we got to know each other as he made the transition to full-time composer. In the last 15 or so years, Gordon has enjoyed a remarkable international career. He has a place in New York and spends a lot of time in Europe, but he lands at his home in Cedarburg as often as he can. His music has not been heard that much in Milwaukee, but we’ve kept in touch over the years.
He called out of the blue late in 2009 to say that an anonymous donor had commissioned him to write a concerto for an MSO principal. He asked for suggestions. Any MSO principal would flatter a new piece. Kanda’s came to mind, first because she’s so good and second because the Ferdinand David concerto she’d played in Jan. of 2008 was so bad.
“Write a trombone concerto,” I told Gordon. “Trombonists need a good concerto. Megumi is a great player and a really nice person. You’ll love her.”
“I was bitching to Dietrich (Hemann, her husband and a horn player in the orchestra) over the three choices,” she said. “It was like, which poison do I want to take? I said, ‘You know what I need? Someone to write me a really awesome piece.'”
They very next day, Hemann got a call from a friend, a Chicago horn player, who is also a friend of Gordon. The essence of it: Hey, my friend Geoff wants to write a concerto for Megumi.
She researched Gordon’s work — these days, it’s not hard to find music online. She liked what she heard. A few days later, VP Larry Tucker, the chief program officer, and music director Edo de Waart OK’d the project.
Kanda and Gordon met for the first time at The Cedarburg Coffee Roastery, near Gordon’s house, where we also held our interview. They hit it off right away, and the coffee shop became their regular hangout.
What did they discuss when they got together?
“Mostly, I begged for mercy,” Kanda said.
“And I refused to grant it,” Gordon said. “I want that first glance to cause panic. But give it a few weeks, and…”
Kanda finished his sentence: “I could play it. He knows what he’s doing.”
Gordon worked quickly and consulted often with Kanda. He orchestrated fully as he wrote, and programmed his computer to synthesize the orchestra part. She’s been able to play her solo part against mp3s, in Music Minus One fashion, rather than practice alone or with a piano part.
“We made it on time, and we’re comfortable,” Kanda said.
“By normal standards, this is like a vacation for me,” Gordon said.
He finished and distributed parts far in advance and asked for feedback from the orchestra. Some players have offered suggestions and fixes, all of which the composer dealt with before the first rehearsal.
“You don’t want to find in rehearsal that you gave the bassoon a note that’s not on the bassoon,” Gordon said. “That’s when everything comes to a halt and they all start to hate you.”
Kanda feels ready, too, and appreciates the luxury of time and the reasonable facsimile of the orchestra part that Gordon provided.
“Without the mp3s, this would have been really scary,” she said. “The first movement is so atmospheric that it took a month of listening to really grasp it. Now, you can show me any part in the orchestra and I will know exactly where my part would be. When Dietrich practices his horn part, I can sing the trombone part over it. It will be nice to hear the real sound, with real people digging into it.”
Gordon cast the 25-minute concerto in three movements, in the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern. The composer described the first as declamatory and free; the second as lyrical and rich with harmony, with the beauty interrupted by a fiery cadenza; and the finale as essentially rhythmic and endowed with great momentum, with a roaring finish built on entirely new material.
He asked Kanda if the cadenza is sufficiently explosive.
Kanda is a slip of a thing, as sweet and innocent-looking as can be. Turns out she’s a bit of a wise guy.
“Oh yeah! It will make trombonists wet their pants!” she said.
Kanda listened attentively to Gordon’s poetical description of the way he imagines the “lush, buttery trombone sound gliding on the rich orchestra part” in the second movement. “Will do!” she replied, brightly.
And about that finale?
“It reminds me of Godzilla knocking down buildings,” she said. Well, Kanda did grow up in Tokyo.
“I’m pretty sure that Godzilla was not in my head when I wrote that,” Gordon replied, as they shared a good laugh over the image.
This is a big premiere for both of them, but they’re not nervous. They’re ready and confident.
And if the concerto doesn’t work, they can always blame me.
Guest conductor James Gaffigan will conduct the Trombone Concerto, Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 3 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) in concerts set for 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Jan. 14-15) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$92, at the MSO website; at the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605; and at the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206.
And that’s not all!
Violin legend Itzhak Perlman will join Gaffigan and the MSO in a special, one-night, all-Mozart program at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13, in Uihlein Hall. The Overture from The Abduction from the Seraglio, the Symphony No. 41 and the Violin Concerto No. 5 are on the program. The $50 and $70 sections are sold out, but some seats remain at the $90, $110 and $160 price points. Ticket sources are above.
Perlman is famous, among other things, for the glorious singing quality of his playing. Here’s what he has to say about the importance of singing.