Apr 13, 2008

David and Goliath

This month's reflection's column will focus on the David Concertino, which for many decades has been the most asked for solo in auditions. I will critique the 1st page, as this is most commonly asked. I would like to categorize the most common faults I notice in the performance of this work. However I will wait until the end of the article to focus on what I believe to be the most important and commonly overlooked aspect in the performance of this work. Of course there are many ways to interpret this work, and each nationality and school of playing has it's own way of interpreting it, but I believe there are certain basic technical demands that must be met before any interpretation can be implemented.

First, I believe the low Bb pick-up in the second phrase to be the most important single note in this piece. This is often played as either an eighth or dotted-eight note with a space between it and the Eb in the next bar, thereby making a poor sounding phrase and style right at the beginning. In the Muller edition there is even a tenuto sign inserted between these two notes indicating no space. Also important is the sound on the low Bb. If the piano dynamic is played too softly the sound on that note will not sound full enough. Combine that with a hole between those two notes and you have one bad sounding phrase. I tell people to think of the low Bb as a full bow-stroke on a cello; resonant, full, and sustaining right into the next bar. The dotted-eight and sixteenth in the next phrases are often played as a triplet rhythm, but even more commonly played as an eight, sixteenth rest, sixteenth note, which gives it a hard, clipped sound and style. The dotted-eight should played with a lively accent, full value and a slight diminuendo, followed by a perfectly 4-to-one ratio sixteenth, that starts at the same volume as the dotted-eight note. This figure is one of the most difficult to learn to play musically, but also the most telling as to the musicality of a player. After the Cb in that phrase, which should also have an accent/diminuendo, there is a sixteenth note going to a triplet figure at the end of the bar. This sixteenth is often played as a triplet to match the triplet figure, which is a mistake, as well as in the following, similar phrase. I find many people have trouble with the triplet run starting on Gb. It is either played short, hard and clear, or long and soggy. What it should be is marcato-tenuto, which as I've said before is the basic style that 80% of the time is called for in both orchestral and solo playing. One note should start clearly and energetically and sustain into the next articulation. When I say sustain, I don't mean a dull, pseudo orchestral style; I mean a lively attack that rings into the next note like a bell-tone. The Eb, F and G half notes in this phrase should be played with plenty of energy and vibrato, in the marcato-tenuto, bell-tone style I mentioned before. The Bb7 arpeggio at the end of this section is difficult and there are several ways to do it. If your able to single-tongue it in tempo, good for you. If you can double-tongue it with a great sound, ditto. But if you can't do either of these, then turn your inability into a musical decision. Do a rubato on the first two sixteenth's and only play the last four in tempo. Incidentally, I prefer the use of vibrato throughout the appropriate places in this music, as it adds to the soloistic quality desirable.

That brings us to a basic decision that must be made. Do we play this piece like an etude in order to impress the audition committee that we can execute all the technical aspects of it? Apparently many people think so, because I hear a lot of performances like this. I think the solo portion of an audition gives us a chance to show musicality, which many excerpts don't. Try to show your musicality on something like William Tell. Tough, huh? Play this solo like a violinist would play a concerto, with expression, rubato, and sensitivity. It may be one of the only chances you get to show your musicality.

The next phrase starting on the upper G should start with a singing sound, forte, with a real sixteenth note going to the triplet figure. On the repeated D's I like to change the style suddenly into a Rochut type phase. When finishing this phrase on the low G it is important to remember that sound comes first and dynamic second. So a good way to judge this is to calculate the diminuendo from the low G going backwards, which will make sure the G has enough resonance and fullness. In the next phrase I like to play the quarter notes in an accent-diminuendo style, lively and buoyant, and then in the legato portion, completely change the style again, because I think contrast is a good thing in solo playing. Once again in the next fanfare-type phrases, the dotted-eight and sixteenth's should be played as previously described. The extended triplet passage should not be played staccato. A better style is marcato-tenuto. I like to start this phrase with a meno-mosso from the high Bb and a small accelerando down to the low Gb and Db. Then the passage with staccato and legato markings should be played with an articulation that is half legato, and half articulated, as if you were trying to cover the articulation, but couldn't quite do it. For some reason this marking is almost always interpreted as being short only, with no attention to the legato marking. This is a special marking which composers reserved for special moments in a piece and should have the feeling of someone "walking on egg's." I prefer a small poco ritardando here to set up the next section. This section, again is in a fanfare mode, and has sixteenth's going to triplets. Care should be taken to play a real sixteenth going to the triplet figure. Then, make a melodic accent each time up to the Db tied quarter-note. In the last phrase of this section the upper Eb should have a big singing, resonant sound, with a slight "zeit lassen," and the Bb scale down should be calculated from the last low Bb backwards, to make sure it is not too thin in sound.

The next "dolce" section should be played pianissimo espressivo, which will approximate the indicated piano dynamic. The sound should be very focused and intense with a suitable vibrato. I prefer hearing the various notated articulations rather than a slur over the entire phrase, as long as there are no holes between notes. The grace-note turn is almost always played too fast and mechanically. The best way to interpret this figure is as an eight-note and 4 sixteenth's over a triplet. It should sound smooth and unhurried. The next phrase sounds best if all of the quarter-notes are played with the aforementioned melodic accents, which should sound like bell-tones. The trills on F and F# need to be carefully thought out according to the ability of the player. If someone can nail them quickly and evenly, OK, but many people don't have a great trill. The secret is to start them slowly and accelerate moderately, instead of running out of speed at the end of the note. It must sound easy and comfortable, and it will if the trill doesn't implode at the end.

I have found that the most obvious flaw in many performances of this music is the tendency for the sound and style to be too heavy and cumbersome for a solo rendition. This is almost always caused by the dreaded "slow air" syndrome. When notes don't speak instantly, the style becomes heavy and stodgy, and the trombone doesn't sound like a suitable solo instrument. The best performances of this music are characterized by a lightness and liveliness of style, as you would produce when playing an Arthur Pryor solo, although the true Pryor style is quite different than what we are discussing here. The point is; it is our job as trombone players to take, basically, a piece of plumbing and make a nimble, musical, solo sounding instrument out of it. That means the sound has to literally jump out of the instrument as if it were a flute. Let's lighten up people!

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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