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CLASSICAL  May 2006

CLASSICAL May 2006

Subject:

Oompah

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 15 May 2006 03:38:01 -0700

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text/plain

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     British Tuba Concertos

*  Gregson: Tuba Concerto (1978)
*  Steptoe: Tuba Concerto (1983)
*  Vaughan Williams: Tuba Concerto in f (1954)
*  Golland: Tuba Concerto (1980s)

James Gourlay, tuba; Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sutherland.
Naxos 8.557754 Total time: 64:15

Summary for the Busy Executive: Plays well with others.

Solo music for the tuba usually comes across either as dutiful (like
Hindemith's sonata -- not one of his strongest) or as a bit of a stunt.
For many years, the most well-known concerted piece was Kleinsinger's
Tubby the Tuba, a charming Prokofievian melodrama in which a narrator
assumed almost as much importance as the instruments.  Other than that,
composers generally thought of the instrument as an orchestral color,
the bedrock of a grand sonority.  And yet, we had no shortage of virtuoso
tuba players: Harvey Phillips and Roger Bobo in the United States,
John Fletcher in England, probably the best-known.  Most of these
guys commissioned pieces (the relation between Phillips and Alec Wilder
bore much fruit) or worked with transcriptions.  It took, however,
Vaughan Williams to imaginatively transform what had been mainly a utility
instrument into an heroic, romantic soloist.  To this day, his is the
one concerto that has established a foothold in the repertory, not only
of every virtuoso tuba player, but in the occasional repertory of symphony
orchestras.  It's not just a novelty, but a poetic composition in its
own right.  Vaughan Williams's success has encouraged others, as one can
tell by the dates of the works on this program.

Edward Gregson began as a bit of an enfant terrible.  Of the works here,
I think his tuba concerto the second-liveliest.  His idiom in this work
shows a mellowing since his salad days.  The concerto comes from the
Walton wing of British music.  It just misses achieving classic status,
due to a weak slow movement, which incidentally recalls his more strenuous
music.  It never seems to go anywhere, content to play with half-light
shifts of color and little fragments that come across as merely decorative,
rather than a full-blown symphonic argument.  Nevertheless, the vigorous
outer movements carry the listener through.

Roger Steptoe, the youngest of the composers here (b.  1953), gives us,
of all things, a dodecaphonic tuba concerto.  After all, he *did* study
in the Seventies, when we were all supposedly heading to the New Jerusalem
of Total Serialism.  The dodecaphony, however, matters less than that
he has also given us an expressive one.  Steptoe never loses sight of
the song as an essential part of music.  While he doesn't trade in actual
tunes, we at least get a structure apprehensible to the ear, rather than
to the eye, first.  The opening movement moves with a purposefulness
reminiscent of its counterpart in the Vaughan Williams concerto.  The
second movement, a fleet scherzo, has the tuba dancing as fast as it
can, without losing its essential character.  The finale, a slow one,
is genuinely beautiful.  In uninspired hands, serial music - like tonal
music, by the way - can be a dreadful bore, with a limited emotional
palette.  Steptoe puts the tuba through a range of moods, even whimsical
ones (12-tone whimsy!  Imagine!) and comes up with a concerto that rivals
the Vaughan Williams in gravitas.

Why has the Vaughan Williams become such a touchstone?  First, he took
the tuba out of its utility and comedy roles and recognized that the
monster could sing.  Then he gave it great tunes.  The second-movement
"Romanza" in particular surprises in its depths.  You don't expect to
find something this good in what the musical world would consider a
marginal work at best (I speak of the sociology of concert programming,
not of the intrinsic quality of the score).  Steptoe has followed Vaughan
Williams in this particular.  Vaughan Williams treats the tuba as an
expressive instrument, rather than as a color, finds music suited to it,
and shows us its heroism, amorousness, and wit.  He never writes down
or writes it off.  The listener experiences a lot in fourteen minutes.
The themes, which lead you around some surprising twists and bends, seem
in retrospect inevitable.  Just about every phrase tells.

John Golland died young, in his mid-Forties.  Beginning with violin and
piano as his primary instruments, he took up the euphonium and played
in brass ensembles.  His concerto comes across as one written by a player,
rather than by a composer.  There's an amateur quality to it: surprising
ideas dulled by insufficiently skilled treatment.  The orchestration in
particular brings this piece down.  Everything seems to sound in the
middle register, which palls after a while.  A shame, because one finds
here some very good ideas indeed.

The orchestra, led by Gavin Sutherland, is good enough, but don't
expect the sparkle of Previn's LSO or the barbaric splendor of Barenboim's
Chicago Symphony, both contenders in the Vaughan Williams stakes.  Soloist
James Gourlay, however, stands out.  His pianissimos are ravishingly
smooth and solid.  He phrases almost like a cellist.  He negotiates the
zip of the VW finale (which the composer described as "Falstaff among
the fairies") without the listener wondering whether he's going to lose
his grip on the line.  My only carp is that his tone, while handsome,
isn't as gorgeous as some of his competitors'.  Nevertheless, his
musicianship carries the day.  The Steptoe is, after all, a fairly subtle
piece, and Gourlay brings out both its subtleties and its eloquence.

Steve Schwartz

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