Nick Byrne (Second Trombonist of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra) writes about his recent tour to the United States with ophicleide in tow…
It’s not every day that you are asked to perform an ophicleide concerto, let alone a concerto that was recently written for you. It’s a long time between drinks for the ophicleide repertoire and the time is counted not in decades but centuries. Indeed the last genuine ophicleide concerto written for me is the one by Simon Proctor which, apart from individual movements performed in recital, has never seen a full orchestral realisation and was probably the first full and serious work for the instrument since deep into the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, American composer William Perry, composer of hundreds of works for the stage and screen, approached me after hearing my 2006 recording Back from Oblivion (Melba Recordings MR301111) and the project was born. Performing solos on an ophicleide is almost always a series of firsts; it’s a first for most of the audience to hear the instrument, so long the brunt of cruel humour, so being ‘musical’ and performing with similar dexterity and affectation as any other ‘mainstream’ brass instrument is often enlightening. It’s a first for me to perform for an audience which may have never heard the instrument so the weight of almost two centuries of misinformed opinions and reputation can be an extra burden to carry into a performance. You want to change the reputation of the instrument for the better and show it in its best light rather than reinforce 100 years of ignorance and stereotypes.
Fortunately both the Proctor and the newly-written Perry are fine works in their own right, whether they are written for ophicleide or not, which make the process of musical emancipation of the ophicleide all the more easier.
With the Halary/Sudre ophicleide soundly packed in its alloy travel-coffin the first stop on this trip was Brown University in Providence Rhode Island, just an hour south of Boston. Paul Phillips is the head of conducting at this 200 year old ‘Ivy-League’ university, a long-time supporter and exponent of William Perry’s music and leads a fine orchestra of 100+ musicians, many of whom do not study music as their first degree or major study. Indeed when sitting in with the brass section during rehearsals for the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique in the second-half of the program, I was struck by the feverish homework calculus, quantum theory and complex algebraic calculations that were being undertaken in the bars rest. I couldn’t help thinking that this was, by far, the highest IQ brass section I had ever sat in..perhaps by several fold. Then again, on reflection, that would not be too hard.
The two concerts were held in the distinguished surroundings and ophicleide-friendly environment of the 19th century Sayles Hall where a responsive and, hopefully, enlightened audience (including ex-Sydney-based trombonist Andrew Nissen who is now Boston-based and 50% of the talented Nissen brothers) received the new work enthusiastically.
The concerto is written autobiographically for the instrument with the four movements outlining the musical journey of the ophicleide through France, England and lower-Germany before culminating in a bossa-nova/jazz-inspired movement in the Americas, where the instrument survived into the 20th century in Cuban and Brazilian folk music. It’s a musically adventurous, inventive and light-hearted piece that has now been renamed ‘Suite for Ophicleide & Orchestra’ to better reflect the four movement nature and context of the work. I will record it next June with the RTE Orchestra-Ireland in Dublin for Naxos, on a disc that also includes Perry’s trumpet concerto (Robert Sullivan, Principal in Cincinnati) and flute concerto (Timothy Hutchins, Principal in Montreal), so hopefully this is another small step along the way to the instrument’s musical rebirth and acceptance.