As I noted the extra excitement at the Perth Concert Hall on Friday night for the premiere of Paul Stanhope’s Trombone Concerto I paused to wonder what concerts must have been like pre-19th century when it was uncommon to include music written by dead composers and most concerts included world premieres. Audiences would have arrived to every occasion wondering what the music might say to their world. This is the power of contemporary art.
Paul Stanhope’s much-anticipated Trombone Concerto is his third, following on from works for piccolo and cello. The work was premiered by the WA Symphony Orchestra and conductor Asher Fisch with principal trombonist Joshua Davis as soloist. My overwhelming impression from their performance was the beauty and flexibility of the trombone as a solo instrument. Stanhope eschewed bombastic brass writing for a warmly melodic and intricate solo line revealing an instrument with both the beauty of the French horn and the flair of the saxophone.
Davis presented Stanhope’s buoyant opening theme with dexterity, his breathy horn sound coloured by light vibrato, the occasional low notes rumbling with power. When needed Davis blazed effortlessly through the orchestral accompaniment but the majority of the writing was mellow and conversational.
Stanhope’s orchestration was colourful, requiring a harp, triple winds and a vast percussion section. The work was split into four sections. In the first a chugging off-beat gave an urban groove while the second featured an attractive quasi-pastoral dialogue between the soloist and wind players descending into a duet with the low brass via flashes of marimba and bongo drums. The third section was a cadenza for the trombone, utilising harmonic overtones, lip glissandi, multiphonics and trills. In the final movement the trombone and orchestra paired in an energetic dance with the trombone remerging for two punchy concluding statements. The concerto – and Davis’s technical and musically commanding performance – was warmly received by both the audience and the orchestral musicians and is well worth hearing again.
Syzmanowski’s rarely heard Concert Overture opened the programme, with Asher Fisch navigating a path through the Straussian excesses by weighing the heft of blazing brass writing against the delicate beauty of pianissimo passages.
Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was also described by Fisch in his introduction from the stage as under-appreciated and underplayed. Fisch believes the work still has something to say to our world and together with WASO he was an effective advocate. Conductor and orchestra brought clarity and cohesion to the symphony, handling the blocks of architecture deftly in this early example of through-composed music. The orchestra moved as one condensed body of sound through Schumann’s recurring themes. The punchy first movement pivoted briefly on a chord before releasing into the warm leisurely oboe solo of the second movement. Under Fisch’s direction the stomping third movement minuet was juxtaposed with an impossibly weightless trio drifting like a feather on a puff of air. The final movement was a recount of Schumann’s themes culminating in a fabulous release with the orchestra racing to an explosive end. It was fabulous music making – Schumann’s symphony needs no further pleading.