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Wondering why you’ve never heard of the ophicleide before? With a mouthpiece like a trombone, the ophicleide is a forerunner of the modern tuba but uses keys like a saxophone. A prominent part of the Romantic brass section, the ophicleide was invented in 1817. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner and Verdi all wrote for the instrument, yet by 1900 it was obsolete.
Very few contemporary musicians own or play the antique ophicleide. Yet, one of our own has caught American composer William Perry’s interest. After hearing Sydney Symphony trombonist Nick Byrne’s CD 'Back From Oblivion', Perry says, "I knew that I wanted to write a concerto for him. He is not just a player but a true virtuoso on the instrument. His musicianship is extraordinary, and he can make the instrument sing with the natural sound of the finest operatic tenor or baritone."
Also a composer of concertos for piano, violin, cello, trumpet and flute, Perry’s major ophicleide concerto features four movements, each reflecting the personality of the ophicleide in the modern era. The first, Blue Ophicleide, is heavily jazz inspired whilst the second is a series of marches including a Bourbon Street cakewalk called Military Ophicleide. A tranquil Pastoral Ophicleide follows in the third movement, and the concerto concludes with Latin Ophicleide, a spectacular conversation between two unlikely partners, the ophicleide and the marimba.
Byrne speaks highly of the ophicleide’s prospects in the 21st century: "After relative obscurity [for] over 125 years, unjustly in my opinion, the ophicleide is making a comeback. With a great new concerto being written for this much-maligned instrument, [it has been] firmly thrust back into the public eye. This renaissance is really exciting for me as it brings this resonant and unique instrument out of the 19th century and into the modern era."
Perry's complete concerto for ophicleide and orchestra will be performed with Nick Byrne and the Brown University Orchestra in October 2013, conducted by Paul Phillips. A recording will follow in June 2014 with Byrne, Phillips and the RTÉ National Symphony of Ireland to be published by Perry's company, Trobriand Music.
A graduate of Harvard University, William Perry studied under Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston and Randall Thompson. In addition to his many compositions for stage and concert hall, Perry is the former Music Director and composer-in-residence at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Movement 3: Pastoral of Perry's concerto will have its world premiere at the Sydney Chamber Music Festival, September 22