Wednesday, April 13, 2016

April Masterworks: A New Tuba Concerto Kicks Some Action and a Serenade You Can Unwind With

Eric Henry & Tuba
Who: The Harrisburg Symphony with Stuart Malina and guest soloist, HSO Principal Tuba, Eric Henry
What: Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, Schumann's 2nd Symphony and the world premiere of Brian Sadler's Tuba Concerto “Journey”
When: Saturday, April 16th at 8pm; Sunday, April 17th at 3pm with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance
Where: The Forum at 5th & Walnut Streets, Harrisburg
Why: For one thing, it's a world premiere (no one else has heard the whole piece before) and while Dvořák and Schumann may be well known names to concert-goers, these are two works you don't hear that often and they really should be heard more often, so here's your chance!

April Masterworks from Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra on Vimeo.

(This post is about the first two works on the program: read about Schumann's 2nd Symphony, here.)

Eric Henry joined the HSO in the spring of 1984 as the orchestra's principal tuba player (or tubist, to use the correct term). As a Chambersburg native and Carlisle resident, he has long been known in the region as a performer, teacher and advocate for the arts and education, a player of classical music – he is also the principal tubist in the York and Lancaster Symphonies – various brass quintets throughout the land and with Hot House (a Dixieland band with a core trio, others added “as needed”) beyond the land as Jazz Ambassadors for the U.S. State Department in 1999. He is also the founder of what's become a Carlisle tradition, “Octubafest” which is no doubt self-explanatory. Plus he's on the faculties of Dickinson College and Messiah College.

While we describe Eric as “a long-term member” of the symphony, I think we could say his association with the orchestra goes back a bit longer than the past 32 years. During the 1980s, when I was assistant conductor and personnel manager under the HSO's music director, Larry Newland, Eric told me how he'd been taken to hear a concert of the Harrisburg Symphony when he was a kid and how he was fascinated by the man playing the tuba – that would've been Earl Caton – and especially the instrument, deciding that that's what he wanted to do: play the tuba.

Here's Eric as a guest at one of the orchestra's “Musical Chairs” Meet the Musicians events – currently held during concert intermissions in the far-right-side of the Forum lobby – giving a young audience member a more hands-on introduction to what a tuba can be. Who knows if, twenty years from now, this will be another HSO tubist (or a music-lover and regular subscriber to the orchestra's concerts) because of an opportunity to experience music like this?

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Brian Sadler is a Maryland-born, Pennsylvania-raised, Florida-based composer whose career has been as a brass player in the Navy bands, currently located in Jacksonville FL as a trombonist with the Navy Band Southeast. He has performed with a variety of bands in a variety of locations (from Virginia to Washington State to Japan and now to Florida), writing and arranging some 75 pieces for band and chamber ensembles within the band. He's also composed numerous film scores

About the Concerto that Eric Henry is premiering this weekend, Sadler explains it began life as a single movement sonata called the “Kick-Ass” Sonata which he then arranged with wind-ensemble, renamed the “Action” Sonata. Eric played it with the Messiah College Wind Ensemble and liked it so much, he asked about adding a couple more movements to make it a full three-movement concerto – with orchestra.
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The composer writes, “Journey is a three-movement concerto for solo tuba with orchestral accompaniment. The piece resembles the styles of modern film music while featuring the versatility and skills of the tubist.

Brian Sadler
“The first movement, Sonata, was originally written for young tuba virtuoso Gabriel Sears while he and I were studying at Arizona State University. After performing some of my pieces for brass at a few composition recitals, Gabriel asked me to compose a piece for his sophomore recital. Wanting to do something different, I decided to compose a piece with an accompaniment using the orchestra sounds from my computer rather than the standard piano. The piece, called Kick-Ass Sonata for Tuba and Orchestra, was a hit and was later published by Brassworks 4 and played around the country. Pennsylvania tubist Eric Henry enjoyed it so much that he and Dr. Bradley Genevro, Director of Bands at Messiah College, asked me to arrange it for concert band. With the success of the concert band performance, it was only natural to arrange the work for full orchestra and add two more movements, officially making it a concerto.

“Sonata has many pop and modern film-scoring influences, such as the ostinato-like [i.e., repetitive] main theme and heavy brass hits. After a brief introduction, the soloist comes in aggressively, letting the listener know that this will not be an ordinary tuba part of oom-pah-pah bass lines and whole notes. After expressing dominance over the orchestra, the soloist retreats for a moment to catch his or her breath. A new theme is introduced with the support of pizzicato strings (much like straining to hold up a dump truck). The rest of the orchestra joins and just as it’s settling in, the feel changes again, with the main theme coming back into play and shifting gears while the soloist drives the orchestra home.”

Then, the two new movements:

“The second movement, Ballad, slows the tempo and darkens the mood with evil-sounding chord progressions and a haunting melody. The soloist in this movement is calling out from a distant grave, lost in darkness and fog, beckoning its next victim to come closer. The more the melody is played, the more embellished it becomes, revealing the terrifying, long-forgotten secret of the demise of the tuba.

Journey ends with a bang in the Finale. More ostinato rhythms dominate the strings while the soloist dances above in a fury of tonal fire. The theme goes through several variations featuring the trusty solo tuba in different adventures. The piece closes with a series of fast runs that allow the soloist to go out in a final blaze of glory before again playing the dull but necessary bass lines from the rear of the ensemble.”

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“Kick-Ass” may not be a term easily applied to Antonin Dvořák's Serenade for Strings, a work more in tune with lazy summer evenings and the conviviality of friends and family rather than with a cartoon action hero. You could, however, say it's a work written by a contented composer.
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Dvořák in the 1870s
Written in 1875 at a time when the composer – 34 years old and not yet on his way to being the famous composer he would become – was particularly happy: married in 1873, his first son had just been born. Barely making ends meet as a teacher and free-lance musician in Prague, he had submitted some scores to a competition in Vienna (Prague, the capital of Bohemia, had been part of the Austrian Empire for centuries) where one of the judges, Johannes Brahms (who incidentally was a year away from finishing his 1st Symphony), took notice of Dvořák's submission which included two early symphonies, some chamber music and a song cycle (15 pieces in all). The prize – to support “talented composers in need” – was given in February, 1875. Two years later, Dvořák would win the prize again and this time gain additional support from Judge Brahms who offered to submit some of his works to his own publisher. Essentially, that would be the start of Dvořák's career in the wider world.

As a result of this 1875 award, though, Dvořák felt happy enough not just with his personal life but with his professional future, to compose a string quintet, a piano trio, his 5th Symphony, and this String Serenade in quick succession. Based on the idea of an “evening's entertainment” as Mozart wrote Serenades (such as his famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik), this serenade was written between May 3rd and 14th!

It's in five movements – a gentle, lyrical opening followed by a waltz and a dance-like scherzo; a wistful slow movement (reflective and certainly romantic) precedes the lively finale, almost like a village dance (Dvořák's famous “Slavonic Dances” were also in the future). The nostalgic mood is heightened by the occasional quotation of themes heard earlier in the work, especially at the very end: could there be anything more of a “happy ending” than this?

The “New World” Symphony, Dvořák's best-loved work, was 19 years into the future, a whole world away from the circumstances surrounding the composer when he wrote this delightful serenade.

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Robert Schumann's 2nd Symphony may sound like a happy work but there's a different kind of story behind it. You can read about it, here – and hear a performance from the BBC Proms – in the next post.

Dick Strawser

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