Disguised as a second trombone

On Tuesday night to Angel Place to hear the SSO playing Nick’s Playlist.

The SSO “playlist” concerts are a series which plucks members of the orchestra from their (relative) obscurity as members of the ensemble and gives them a short, interval-less program with an Angel-Place-sized orchestra to present a program made up of items which have particular meaning for them.  I’ve listened to broadcasts of some before and mostly they are a bit predictable so far as violinists tend to choose good violin bits, etc etc.  They are also a bit too chatty and made up of bits and pieces for my taste, so I haven’t previously chosen to go to them.

Then I received an email offer of a $25 ticket.  The Nick of the title was Nick Byrne. I checked the program and resolved to go.  The reason?  It featured the ophicleide, an instrumental curiosity which has long held a peculiar fascination for me.

Nick Byrne’s association with the ophicleide is well-known.  In the course of the concert he told the story of how it came to be, and it is a good one.  You can find a version of it in the Daily Telegraph with a fetching photograph of Byrne and, possibly more importantly, his ophicleide.

In about 2001 Nick came off his motor-bike on the race track at Eastern Creek (yes, he is a brass player) and injured his right shoulder and arm.  That is a pretty critical injury for a trombonist (as Nick is) – even left-handed trombonists mostly operate the slide with their right arm. Faced with a good six weeks where he would be hors de combat, Nick rummaged around in the SSO instrument cupboard (it can’t have been quite as simple as that) and found an antique (c. 1830) and delapidated ophicleide.

I suppose an ophicleide could best be described as a cross between a euphonium and a baritone saxophone: most importantly for this story, it has keys (rather than a slide)  so could be played despite the state of his arm. The sound is produced with a brass embouchure.  It’s sometimes described as a precursor of the tuba, but the bore is much narrower.  It is otherwise sometimes described as a member of the keyed bugle family – though I see from Wikipedia that a valved variant was also made.

Nick told how he managed, over time, to produce a tolerable sound from it, and realised that here he might have found another niche, rather than just always being a second trombone.  I thought that a rather comical description of his plight.

Since then Byrne has established quite a profile for himself, recording a CD.  The American composer William P Perry heard that CD and then wrote a suite/concerto for Byrne who features on the recording of that by Naxos.   Nick encouraged us to seek that out and to buy the CD or download it (sign of the times).

But back to the program.  This was:

HANDEL arr. Archibald (for brass ensemble)   Arrival of the Queen of Sheba

BRUCKNER orch. (for string orchestra) Stadlmair  String Quintet in F: Adagio

FALCONIERI  Passecalle (played by 2 sackbuts, organ and percussion)

BERLIOZ    Rêverie et Caprice for violin (Andrew Haveron) and orchestra

MOZART   Masonic Funeral Music

PERRY     Ophicleide Concerto: Pastoral

KHACHATURIAN   Masquerade: Waltz

MENDELSSOHN    A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Overture

Nick explained that the Handel, played by the brass ensemble from the balcony back of the stage, was a piece he had first played as a teenager (in an ensemble of mostly tertiary students) at the Canberra School of Music.  It was a great concert-opener.  There were flugelhorns and Paul Goodchild on a smaller, higher trumpet.

It’s not quite so clear how the Falconieri got into the program.  It was not specifically written for any particular instruments, and could just as well (as Byrne remarked) be played by 2 viols.  I suppose more specifically sackbuttian music would either require more of them (such as Purcell’s funeral music) or other forces not convenient for the program.

The Perry was the a movement from the suite or almost concerto for ophicleide referred to already.  You can find Byrne’s recording on Youtube.  I’m still scratching my head to work out what the opening solo “lick” in that reminds me of – something niggles at me that it is a tune with words which end “loving you” but I cannot track it down.

In real life the ophicleide came across a bit less prominently than in that recording.  it revealed itself as an amiable instrument – a sort of Perry Como of brass, or given the mood of the piece, some pre-war crooner.  It was good to hear it so exposed, even if, overall, the strongest impression it gave was of being conspicuously inoffensive.

It was hardly surprising that, as a trombonist, Nick should have chosen Bruckner, Berlioz and Mozart.  Each of them has famous music for the trombones – Bruckner – the symphonies, and some church music; Berlioz, any of the brave trombone lines in many of his big orchestral works; and Mozart, church music again and of course, echoing that and echoing down the years since, the famous trombone moment in Don Giovanni.  The oddity of the program was that, probably owing to constraints of venue and available ensemble, none of the works chosen to represent these composers included a trombone.

I’ve never been a great fan of string orchestra stuff, so for me the Bruckner struggled to make an impression after the Handel.  The Berlioz, a violin concertante work based on some operatic offcuts, was new to me.  Its stop-start changes of mood proved a bit elusive and I wondered just a bit about what the rehearsal “budget” for this concert had been, though it remained a great treat to hear it and I shall now search it out.  The Mozart was just right, especially as the plainchant tune sounded forth from the clarinet and oboes – reminiscent, in a way, of the duet of the two armed men in Magic Flute.  And there were 3 basset horns and a bassoon making up the winds.  This was a concert of instrumental peculiars.

After the Perry, things revved up for the big finish.  First the Katchaturian, described by Byrne as a tribute to his Russian… – well, he struggled for a noun at that point as he did at a few other points.  This was rousing.

Finally, we came Mendelssohn’s overture to MSND.  As Byrne said, and truly it is so, this is the piece for which the ophicleide is most famous – certainly, I first learnt of the ophicleide when studying the score an AMEB theory or musicianship exam more than 40 years ago.  The ophicleide part is mostly played by a tuba these days, which Nick declared was “like a bull in a china shop.”

Of course that meant that I had to pay particular attention to the ophicleide part, which is probably a bit of an aesthetic distortion. On strength of Tuesday’s performance, Byrne has a point. How could I ever go back to the tuba? Of course there is more to the MSND overture than the ophicleide, including what I understand to be one of the most difficult woodwind chords in the repertoire to get in tune.  It was a great end to the night.

So an enjoyable concert and very good value.

Afterwards we were invited to join members of the orchestra for a drink in the foyer.  I hope they were given a bar tab for their pains.  I bought a drink (detracting from the bargain rather) but was too shy to approach anyone.  What could I have said?  I might have said to Emma Scholl how much I admired her last G# in the Mendelssohn, but I couldn’t spot her.

In the course of the concert, conductor Benjamin Northey made a little joke, on the topic of unlikely musical sentences.  Northey cited as a classic instance something like:

 “The clarinettist’s Lamborghini is parked at the front of the building.”

(Actually, not so unlikely except as a matter of degree: Mr Celata has pretty flash taste in cars as I recall.)

Northey offered:

“The ophicleidist will be selling his CDs in the foyer.”

Not that, as it happened, he did.

All of a sudden I realised why Nick’s remark about finding a niche had seemed so comical to me.  My own musical sentence in honour of the evening, albeit not entirely without precedent is:

“The ophicleidist was disguised as a second trombone.”

 

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