First things first, Melinda Wagner's new Trombone Concerto, given its premiere by the New York Philharmonic, principal trombonist Joseph Alessi, and Lorin Maazel Thursday night, mercilessly puts Alessi through his technical paces, and he never falters. Wagner has written some phrases that cover impossibly wide reaches of the horn, the kinds of phrases that keep brass players up at night, and Alessi sails through them.
The three movement, 25-minute concerto is a largely lyrical work with the occasional abrupt, jarring and blaring passage. Wagner looks back to the trombone's spiritual connotations, the church composers who traded on it (and, while I'm thinking of it, there's a touching scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man in which the protagonist hears a trombone quartet playing on the college chapel's stairs) for weighty pronouncements.
Wagner is one of these composers given acclaim for her orchestration skill, which is akin to complimenting a chef on presentation. Of course it looks good, but what does it taste like? Is the work all effect and no cause? From the very beginning, Wagner buries exquisite ideas in layers of unnecessary complexity. The trombonist begins the work with a lyrical line that's clearly seen and heard as being in D minor, but the work quickly moves on to tightly packed chords that obliterate any sense of a key. It's almost as if she's worried that it will be too accessible or pretty.
That being said, the trombone writing gave Alessi a lot of room to show off and dazzle, and he did. If that was Wagner's goal, and her program note (PDF) doesn't say it is, she succeeded.
The rest of the program also highlighted members who usually only get bows if they have solos in the evening's symphony in Mozart's Flute and Harp Concerto and Schumann's Konzertstueck for Four Horns. The horns were in fine form in Schumann's ode to all things brassy, creating a steely wall of sound of crushing impact. A little less firing of bazookas would have been welcome, frankly, but
a heart-on-sleeve Konzertstueck isn't really one worth hearing.
The Mozart was a mess, starting with Maazel's superficial, melody-driven conducting. Every accent had to be cued via a sharply jabbed elbow, and if he ever tried to coax some directionality out of the accompaniment, I missed it. Principal flutist Robert Langevin sounded wheezy, and likewise unconcerned with matters of form, but principal harpist Nancy Allen was a graceful presence.
Gershwin's An American in Paris closed the concert, and Maazel's tics actually served the music. The slow perorations were taken at a glacial pace, and proved thrilling at those tempos. Trumpeter Phil Smith nailed the Charleston solo snazzily, and he let the bluesy solo smear salaciously.
After Lost Highway on Friday night, I headed down to the Village Vanguard to hear the second set of the Brian Blade Fellowship. The drummer's infectious energy and high spirits take over a room; I don't know anyone who both has such a good time performing and let's you know it at the same time. With two saxophones (Myron Waldon on alto [and bass clarinet] and the professorial Melvin Butler on tenor), and guitarist Peter Bernstein, it's an eclectic lineup. Waldron and Butler, with Waldron's earthy solemnity contrasting with Butler's learned leaning, spar like a fun-loving Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali (had those two ever fought).
They closed with an encore last night which Blade said was a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, who continue suffering, and he trailed off before he could get to the specific people it was dedicated to. They settled into a mournful 3/4, and you realized that words can get in the way, that clearer means of communication do exist.