|Composer and performers take a bow after Concerto Parlando première
The arrival of a new work for trumpet is always an exciting one, especially considering the dearth of good works we have at our disposal. There is of course plenty being written by contemporary composers and much of it is well constructed. However, it is this author’s opinion that many of the pieces being offered are either so extreme in their technical demands that they are virtually inaccessible to all but the greatest of soloists, or they are simply too bland or unsophisticated to be taken seriously. However, this new work, Concerto Parlando by Rodion Shchedrin, is unusual, accessible and pleasant to listen to, and because it is from the pen of a prolific and well-established composer, I believe it could have a significant place in the repertoire for us.
Rodion Shchedrin was born in 1932 and his father was himself a composer and a teacher of theory. After graduating from the Moscow conservatoire in 1955, Rodion embarked on a career as a pianist and composer almost immediately, and has often appeared as the soloist in his many works for piano. For over a decade he headed the Union of Composers of the Russian Federation at the request of his friend and founder, Dimitri Shostakovitch. In 1992 Boris Yeltsin awarded him the Russian State prize and he is married to the legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya.
Concerto Parlando is a concerto for violin, trumpet and strings and was commissioned last year by its dedicatee Philippe Graffin for the St. Nazaire festival in France. Monsieur Graffin is a well-known chamber and concerto violin soloist who has been the founding director of the St. Nazaire festival for just over ten years. Every year the festival contains some sort of thematic thread to connect the weeklong series of concerts, and last year concentrated on the works of Rodion Shchedrin. The festival regularly commissions new works and Philippe decided to ask Shchedrin to write something along the lines of Shostakovitch’s concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. This is of course very apt when one considers the connection between Shchedrin and Shostakovitch.
As I had worked with Philippe before he asked me if I would consider playing an active part in this project and of course I was delighted to be offered this rare opportunity. I immediately set about finding out as much as I could about this remarkable composer, and discovered that he has written an excellent Trumpet Concerto, which I promptly ordered from the publishers, Schott and Co. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra commissioned this piece and gave the first performance with George Vosburgh as soloist under Lorin Maazel in 1994. My impression of this piece is highly favourable indeed, but naturally it is very demanding for the soloist both physically and technically. My primary concern regarding Concerto Parlando was that Rodion was going to write something at least as technically challenging, and with just a few months to go, time was running out! I need not have worried. The concerto is first and foremost a showcase for the violinist, and Shchedrin has adhered to the original brief. In my opinion, the trumpeter’s part in Concerto Parlando (although much busier) is comparable to the one in the Piano Concerto No.1 by Shostakovitch. This for me is a very important point. It means that orchestral trumpeters who enjoy playing the occasional stand up solo (like Quiet City) are given the chance to shine at the front of the stage but without the added stress of being the main soloist in a full-blown contemporary concerto. I think that this should suit most good students, and being scored for strings will ease performance logistics too.
M. Graffin arranged to have a reduced piano score sent to me from the composer himself and the piece duly arrived on my doormat some 3 months before the performance date. Living with a pianist as I do has many benefits, and by no means the least is that occasionally she will generously act as a rehearsal pianist for me. With many thanks to Elizabeth Burley, Philippe and I set about getting to grips with the piece in the knowledge that once out in France, there would be precious little time for rehearsing with the orchestra.
The orchestra chosen for last year’s festival at St. Nazaire was the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra, conducted by their founder, Mischa Rachlevsky. This is a young and very hard-working group of delightful musicians, and meeting them and sharing the joy of music making was a terrific experience for us. They provided the orchestral backbone for the entire week. Shchedrin was with us throughout all the rehearsals in France, accompanied by his charming wife, the legendary prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya. His comments and sharp wit were an inspiration to me and I shall always be so grateful to have met them both. His main concern in my view was to generate a dialogue between the trumpet and violin. He encouraged me to answer Phillipe as if we were in conversation, as the title suggests. (Parlando is an Italian word meaning talking.)
Shchedrin was also not afraid to use sharp images in his musical requests. He regarded the violin line in the first movement as essentially female and graceful. The trumpet in contrast was definitely male, with motifs that conjure up images of debauchery. As he put it, ‘This should be like a drunken soldier falling down the stairs’. At one memorable point I asked him what I should be thinking whilst playing a particular passage. He looked away for a moment to search for the word in English before replying enthusiastically if not alarmingly, ‘Martin, it is like you must vomit!’ I hasten to add that this comment was accompanied with a mischievous grin and this sense of fun I think is the essence behind this piece.
The first movement has a steady march-like demeanour, and though the trumpet line has to somewhat crassly contrast the violinist, on occasion the violin attempts to emulate the fanfare-like figures of his partner. There are distant military echoes as the movement winds quietly to a close
The second movement is basically melancholic, though not without contrast. The trumpeter features more prominently here, and occasionally makes bold sweeping statements and violent interjections, as if in protest.
A quasi atttacca leads us into the final movement, which is in 3/8. We return once again to the humorous side of the composer’s nature. There is a slight jazz feel to this music coupled with a trace of gypsy blood. The two soloists chase each other playfully around the score like in a game of ‘tag’, until they reach a dramatic conclusion in their respective high registers.
The first performance took place on 22nd September 2004 in the Galerie des Franciscans, and such was the reception that we felt obliged by way of an encore to play the last movement again. Rodion’s publisher from Schott and Co. was present and was greatly impressed by the piece, as were the performers, conductor and audience alike. The idea now is to record the work, hopefully in Moscow, and at the time of writing, negotiations are under way to see this project through.
About the author
Martin Hurrell is currently sub-principal trumpet with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (BBCSO) in London UK. He regularly gives classes for students of all ages and abilities, and is heavily involved with the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s education and outreach programme. He enjoys conducting and for a number of years was Musical Director of a male voice choir. He has now started to fulfil a lifelong ambition to direct brass bands, which is where he began his own musical journey. More information can be found about him and his colleagues in the BBCSO via an article previously published by the ITG. (Vol 20 no. 1 September 1995.)
International Maya Plisetskaya and Rodion Shchedrin Foundation
Shchedrin's page at Schott & Co
Wikipedia entry for Shchedrin
ITG article about BBCSO (Index page for vol. 20 no. 1)
Source: Martin Hurrell
Photo: Victor Ignatov