Australian composer Paul Stanhope was thrilled when the West Australian Symphony Orchestra approached him about commissioning a new concerto for trombone. “I jumped at the chance!” he tells Limelight ahead of the new work’s premiere, which will see WASO’s Principal Trombone Joshua Davis in the starring role, under the baton of Asher Fisch.

“I’m often influenced by extra-musical meanings, narratives or sometimes other musics, but this time I have written a piece of pure music,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed the challenge of composing on a large canvas where only the musical ideas matter.”

Paul StanhopeAustralian composer Paul Stanhope

Other concertos under Stanhope’s belt include his 2013 Piccolo Concerto and a cello concerto, Dawn and Darkness, written in 2016 for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Narek Hakhnazaryan as the soloist. “With each of these concertos I’ve tried to create distinct orchestral worlds, defined by orchestral techniques and colours – for example, using oboe quarter-tone scales in the cello concerto or carting in two octaves of tuned cowbells in the Piccolo Concerto,” Stanhope recalls. “I think the cello concerto was the trickiest to manage in terms of finding balance solutions, even though it was for a much smaller orchestra. The piccolo also has its balance challenges when it is in its lowest octave, but it has the advantage of being able to cut through punchy orchestral textures in its upper register. Fortunately a trombone, in its sweet registers, can pretty much balance a whole orchestra!”

“In this new concerto, I have a full triple winds orchestra with a large percussion setup, which allows for tremendous possibilities of orchestral colour,” he explains. “My view is that concertos are for both a soloist and orchestra, and thus the orchestral fabric is very important. That is certainly the case with this piece and the idea of a conversation is an important element, for sure.”

“The piece is in a single movement, but divided into four conjoined parts,” he says. “The third part comprises a solo cadenza, which is the real showpiece for the trombone. In the slow section, I’ve put the trombone solo with a series of duets and trios with other brass instruments to really highlight the beautiful low brass sonorities.”

Joshua DavisJoshua Davis, Principal Trombone with WASO

Writing for the trombone as a solo instrument was a new experience for the composer. “I’ve written for the instrument orchestrally,” Stanhope says. “But this has really opened my eyes to its versatility. I relied on some local Sydney trombonists to give me a big run-down on what the instrument can do first up. Josh has then helped finesse that conception of the trombone with some really creative input. I’ve learnt a lot about how the overtone series can be used to great effect on the trombone, to create lip glissandi, and also in conjunction with the slide to play fast scales and a whole variety of articulations. Add to that a huge dynamic range and you have some real expressive possibilities!

Davis has proved a mine of information through the composition process, and besides trading notes on what a trombone can do, he and Stanhope have also worked together on the concerto’s more soloistic aspects. “Joshua is unusual in the creative decisions he brings to a soloist’s role,” says Stanhope. “He has come back to me with new ways to re-think the cadenza at every stage. We have collaborated through five drafts and I have a feeling it might still morph a little more before it is performed. Josh has contributed not only to the technical details of the cadenza but, unusually, to its form. I welcome this, as the tradition of cadenzas relates to an idea of a performer improvising on a composer’s material.”

While inspiration for the work seems to have flowed relatively easily, for Stanhope the biggest challenge of this project was one of time management. “I worked on it for a solid six months, two to three days a week most of the time, and then in uni breaks and other occasions as often as I could,” he remembers. “I also worked 14 days straight leading up to the deadline. Working in a university job (at Sydney Conservatorium) is a great privilege, but it necessitates dividing time between teaching and composing. Picking up threads after a week’s break can be challenging. I’m happy to say that I felt I had a clear plan and good strategies with this piece and it all proceeded mostly according to plan with relatively few setbacks. Looking forward to a day or two off now!”

With the Trombone Concerto’s premiere performance only a few days away, Stanhope is looking forward to hearing how the work comes together in concert. “I’m interested to hear some of the combinations I have with orchestra and soloist,” he says. “I think the way the piece spirals down seemingly into oblivion and then back up again is a structural device that should – I hope! – be exciting. I hope the musical journey speaks in a clear and dramatic way, and that perhaps the audience might gain a new respect for the beauty and capabilities of the trombone.”

Joshua Davis will perform Paul Stanhope’s Trombone Concerto with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra November 17 – 18 at Perth Concert Hall