Outrageous Fortune Four Concertos for Trombone Middle Tennessee State University Wind Ensemble Review Music Web International

Here’s a treat for trombonistas far and wide: a quartet of substantial millennial concertos from European and American composers, played by Black Dyke’s legendary principal trombone Brett Baker, with the prolific MTSU Wind Ensemble under the baton of the respected band specialist Reed Thomas. The disc is one of the initial releases on Toccata Classics’ new imprint Toccata Next, and according to Baker’s introductory note came about through a friendship with the composer Nigel Clarke, whose fascinating Symphony No 1 A Richer Dust was written for Thomas and his Minnesota players and was released on Toccata in 2017  (Rob Barnett’s finereview does ample justice to this complex piece). 

The concluding work on the new disc is Clarke’s follow-up Symphony No 2 – the composer characterisesOutrageous Fortune as a ‘symphonic drama’ rather than as a concerto per se, and it makes use of the accomplished vocal acting skills of Natalie Grady as if to reinforce the point. Clarke identifies Berlioz’sHarold in Italy as a structural model, while, as the title suggests, the literary inspiration is Hamlet, who is portrayed simultaneously (and in turn) in the piece by the solo trombonist and the actor.

The work begins in the depths, with a ghostly hum, gongs, distorted bell and other atmospheric percussive sounds. It’s Elsinore again, and it’s tastefully filmic. It’s gloomily lit. Natalie Grady delivers Hamlet’s monologue “O that this too, too solid flesh would melt,” with true theatrical intensity, in a pleasing voice that’s musical in itself and flecked with the sound of Lancashire rather than RP. Brittenish chords emerge from the wind backcloth. Violent drum tattoos and ostinati blast and nag, while instrumental voices that by turn growl, bark, and sneer build to a tumult; yet at 4:40 the belated entry of solo trombone is assertive but stumbling. Clarke certainly knows how to draw the maximum in terms of garish colour and unusual texture from this ensemble. I caught some almost Sibelian figures in the flutes.

Clarke’s first section here is roughly half the length of the “To be or not to be” monologue that succeeds it. This ushers in the protagonist’s descent into madness, which is reflected in suitably manic and repetitive fanfares in the trombone. This extended section is basically a theatrical cadenza for trombone and actor. It is a striking and uncommonly ambitious device on the part of the composer and Baker’s playing is mesmerising. This clearly isn’t jolly band music; it’s neurotic and unsettling, and the exclusively blown or struck sounds take a bit of getting used to. Outrageous Fortune is a piece that needs a few listens to fully convince, (and to grasp the concept) especially as the pace is pretty slow for much of the first half. When the introspective turmoil and self-loathing takes over in the music, Clarke’s new symphony is thrilling and uncomfortably uncompromising. I couldn’t help re-visualising the extraordinarily energetic and bloody conclusion on stage at the conclusion of the Brett Dean operatic version of Hamlet I recently reviewed. The composer describes it as a ‘birth to death’ piece, and it moves for sure from brooding silence via inner conflict, violent psychosis and death to a more abruptly realised silence, a trajectory punctuated by creepy little distortions and dissonances towards its end. I loved it.

It provides a huge expressive contrast to James Stephenson’s lyrical and exotic Concerto Braziliano which precedes it. This begins in a leisurely, hazy fashion, the band textures lusher, fuller and more unashamedly romantic than the Clarke piece. The nostalgic mood evaporates at around the six-minute mark though as the music becomes more sinuous, passionate and danceable, its bossanova rhythms delicately tinged with all sorts of unusual Latin percussion. The concerto never descends into the clichés of obvious light music, and its central section at times approaches the relaxed sophistication of Milhaud’s Le Bœuf sur le toit. A more intense, yearning interlude precedes a perky, Latinesque section, a thrillingcadenza and a boisterous conclusion. The MTSU group provide accomplished, tangy accompaniment, a colourful foil for Brett Baker’s fabulously ripe, full trombone sound, which rings out brilliantly in the brief solos Stephenson provides. 

The two opening works on this trombone world tour emanate from the arguably less temperate climes of Belgium and Denmark respectively. Jan Van den Roost is something of a scion in the somewhat niche world of band (wind and brass) composition, although he has written an impressive amount of music for more conventional orchestral forces too. His trombone concerto Contrasts was originally written for soloist and brass band and in that guise received rave reviews; here it appears in an arrangement for symphonic wind band. A menacing opening featuring timpani, bass drum and muted brass conveys cinematic foreboding and uncertainty. The muted trombone enters with a series of lightly confrontational, rather sardonic gestures. Van den Roost clearly enjoys playing with effects – there is plenty of writing involving mutes and bags of percussion, tuned and otherwise. The first movement ‘Sounds’ is somewhat diffuse, and seems to involve the alternation of extended soliloquys for the soloist and colourful, often dramatic content for the ensemble. There is a touching lyrical exchange at about 5:30 which disintegrates into a brief episode for Baker in which he presents a showcase of extended techniques. The conclusion of the movement is sombre, heartfelt and somewhat cinematic. The briefer finale Caprice provides a marked contrast, a jaunty and jolly panel which inhabits a soundworld far more familiar to aficionados of band music. Van den Roost’s solo writing is both engaging and challenging and Brett Baker clearly enjoys its shapes and gestures. The band accompaniment is vibrant and atmospheric while Toccata’s engineers have created a sonic banquet for the ears. If I have one beef about Contrasts it’s this: entertaining as the two movements are, I can’t pick any sort of conceptual or musical link between them – perhaps it’s sufficient to appreciate them as two distinct, unconnected pieces (It would certainly justify the piece’s single word title). Van den Roost’s ear for texture and the ripe sounds Baker draws from his instrument are always compelling in any case.

The late Søren Hyldgaard was clearly one of those versatile figures who could create convincing music in almost any genre- the booklet identifies his involvement in new-age music, film and television scores and pop, as well as more classically oriented projects. His Rapsodia Borealis projects a turbulent opening, and although the chordal progressions that follow might suggest minimalism, it is perhaps the sort of music one would imagine coming from the pen of an experienced soundtrack composer. The piece is essentially a series of brief, fitfully entertaining episodes, by turn dramatic, lyrical and rather doleful in its many hymn-like passages. While it’s superbly played by soloist and ensemble – indeed it would make a great technical display piece for any accomplished wind ensemble–I’m afraid I found it far less distinctive and convincing than its three bedfellows on this disc. It’s ultimately far more Rapsodia than Borealis.

In the final analysis, though, this is an issue filled to the brim with technically challenging and attractive music for unusual forces. Brett Baker’s playing is a treat in itself and the disc as a whole constitutes an impressive calling card for his abundant talents. These are early days for Martin Anderson’s new project, but this is another encouraging and auspicious release. I shall certainly be keeping a close eye as the Toccata Next concept continues to evolve.

Richard Hanlon

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