The Premiere of Grand Concerto 4 Tubas by John Stevens
In the summer of 2009, John Stevens told me that a new commission was in the works – a concerto for tuba quartet and orchestra requested by the Melton Tuba Quartett (Hartmut Müller, Ulrich Haas, Jörg Wachsmuth, and Heiko Triebener), the longest-lived professional tuba quartet in existence. The work was being commissioned by the Duisburg Philharmonic, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra (Bavarian State Philharmonic), and the Dresden Philharmonic and would be premiered in 2011.
As the project developed, a compact disc recording became part of the plan. Featuring the Melton Quartett with the Duisburg Philharmonic, the disc contains the new piece as well as other orchestral works and tuba/euphonium ensembles, all by John Stevens. While the CD was recorded in April of 2011, the music for Grand Concerto 4 Tubas came to life in public for the first time on November 9, 2011 in Duisburg with a follow-up performance the next evening in Duisburg and a performance in Coesfeld on November 11. The work also received a performance with the Dresden Philharmonic soon after and will be performed by the Bamberg Symphony on June 22, 2012. Readers from outside Europe might want to adjust their flight plans for the ITEC in Linz to be able to attend the Bamberg performance and to enjoy a glass or two of Bamberg’s famous Rauchbier! The program that will feature the Concerto will also include works by Haydn and Beethoven. Best of all, it’s FREE. The concert will be held outdoors as part of the Bamberg Flower and Garden Show. The quartet will also be doing a morning workshop at Thomann Music near Bamberg, which has a nice selection of low brass instruments to try. There will be follow-up concerts in Fuerth (near Nuernberg) and Schweinfurt. All of these places are approximately four hours from Linz by car or train. Details and links will be available at the Melton Tuba Quartett web site.
Melton Tuba Quartett (L-R Jörg Wachsmuth, Heiko Triebener, Ulrich Haas, and Hartmut Müller)
I had the opportunity to talk with both John Stevens and Heiko Treibener (as a representative of the Melton Quartett) about this new work and its significance.
John was first contacted about this project in the fall of 2008. Heiko simply asked John what he would think about composing a work for quartet and orchestra featuring the Melton Quartett. The quartet wanted a work that “would be fun to play and to hear.” They wanted something that would be enjoyable, serious, and entertaining. It should allow for easy alternation between euphonium, bass tuba, and contrabass tuba and should feature the German BB-flat contrabass tuba. At the same time, they wanted the music to be accessible for a standard euphonium/tuba quartet for ease of performance in any situation where a symphony orchestra might be available to present the piece. The Melton Quartet has performed most of John’s works for quartet over its twenty-five years together including pieces like Power, Dances, Music 4 Tubas, etc. and requested that John recall the spirit of the style of those works as he created the concerto. As most readers of the ITEA Journal know, John Stevens has composed for euphonium and tuba in virtually every possible combination ranging from tuba alone to concertos for tuba and euphonium to combinations of the two instruments in a variety of ensemble settings – but this assignment presented a very fresh and exciting challenge. John described it to me as “…a challenging, but exhilarating prospect!” He had a clear perspective on the kind of work they desired, and stated that this was “…the overriding thought on my mind during the entire time I was writing the piece.” He quickly accepted the commission, the necessary details were settled, and he began work. This new journey resulted in a very different work from his concerto, Journey, composed for The Chicago Symphony and Gene Pokorny. Grand Concerto 4 Tubas took approximately three years to complete.
Grand Concerto 4 Tubas is indeed a work of substantial length; a duration of at least twenty minutes was another requirement of the commission. John suggested four movements instead of a concerto’s traditional three in an effort to gain as much stylistic, mood, and color variety as possible. The four movements, Intrada, Scherzo, Ballade, and Tango/Tarantella turned out together to be 24 minutes in length. Michael Tegethoff describes the work in the liner notes of the CD as follows:
Carl St. Clair conducts the Duisburg Symphony Orchestra with the Melton Tuba Quartett in the premiere of the Grand Concerto
The first movement is entitled “Intrada.” As the weightiest part of the entire composition, it has a powerful and heroic character. In the “Scherzo” which follows, there is more of a feeling of facility and movement. Since a certain heaviness is often attributed to the tuba, the soloists here prove the opposite and show what kind of agility their instruments possess. After the Scherzo, the “Ballade” emphasizes the lyrical and melodic qualities of the tuba. With its cantabile expression and harmony, this warm-timbred movement is a cut above the usual orchestral repertoire, where usually the powerful foundation of the “heavy brass” is called for. The finale, “Tango/Tarantella,” has a dance-like character. Here, the tubas are initially unaccompanied, fascinating sound possibilities are on display, and the upper and lower limits of the range are called for. As the orchestra makes its entrance the tempo and mood change.
Heiko Treibener made this comment about the work: “Maybe it is daring to say this, but after the world premiere of the Vaughan Williams Concerto by Philip Catelinet and the London Symphony, Roger Bobo’s first ever solo recital in Carnegie Hall, and John Fletcher’s performance for the Queen of England, we though that a “concerto grosso” for tuba quartet and symphonic orchestra would be just the right thing to get the tuba into the big concert halls and subscriber’s concert series programs of the major symphonic orchestras and open another new chapter in tuba – and music – history.” According to the music critics in Duisburg and Dresden, this goal was met. Comments from the critics include:
…the most impressive part of the evening was the successful world premiere of the Grand Concerto 4 Tubas by American composer, John Stevens. ….what made it special was how light-footed this group of the lowest of all brass instruments … was as they showed their enormous diversity, even while competing with a most ingenious and elaborate orchestral score. (Ingo Hoddick, Rheinische Post)
…a concerto for this instrumentation with the ambitious title of Grand Concerto 4 Tubas is something new, even for these experienced brass players from Duisburg, Wuppertal, Bamberg, and Dresden. This also aroused the curiosity of the audience that completely filled the Mercator Hall at the third Philharmonic concert. The enthusiastic applause showed that it was worth the effort. Stevens uses the voluminous sound of the whole quartet just as artfully as the soloistic abilities of the tenor, bass, and contrabass tubas used on stage. You could tell from their interpretation with how much verve [the Quartett] embraced this rewarding challenge. Their enthusiasm inspired the Duisburg Philharmonic, who beautifully solved the rhythmically complex passages of the accompaniment. The American guest conductor, Carl St. Clair, was, of course, a great choice for this kind of adventure. (Pedro Obiera, Neue Ruhr Zeitung)
Duisburg won’t have such a special world premiere again in the near future. With the Grand Concerto 4 Tubas by John Stevens, the first ever work for this instrumentation has been launched. Despite the fact that four low tone instruments stood in the center, the music was gleaming in bright colors and surged forward cheerfully. The American conductor, Carl St. Clair, was an impressive force at the baton. The second movement, “Scherzo,” was striking in its unbridled spirit of playful joy and the choral-like “Ballade” and “Tango/Tarantella” finale impressed with their variety of melodic ideas. Stevens, who is a tuba player himself, knows not only how to write for the tuba, but also how to effectively use a symphony orchestra.” (Rudolf Hermes, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung)
Suddenly, there was nothing left from that tubbyness that seems to usually emanate from the tuba as the bass register of the orchestra. [The Quartett] showed an astonishingly wide spectrum of abilities of which their instrument is capable. Lyric/melodic flow led into a high register that you would not have believed possible and that created remarkable inner peace. Even more, you were in awe of how fast the single notes would respond and that the four musicians combined virtuosity with clean intonation, despite tremendous speeds and rhythmic challenges. And even in tightly setup chords in the low register, there was no bulkiness to notice. You could easily follow every single instrument tone by tone. Stevens’s orchestral score is too good to just be a supporting accompaniment. (Peter Zacher, Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten)
John Stevens offered these comments about the work and his experience working with the Quartett and his time in Duisburg:
My wife Meg and I were fortunate to be able to be in Duisburg for the week of the premieres, and it was an exciting and rewarding visit to be sure. In addition to the three terrific concerts, with great performances by both the quartet and the orchestra, it was a week filled with interviews, a radio broadcast, press conference, YouTube video shoots and a lot of general hoopla surrounding the premiere. As the week went by, I couldn’t help thinking that this was the sort of project and event that would be unlikely to happen in the USA. The great German orchestral traditions and knowledge, the respect for our instruments by the musicians and audiences alike, and the high esteem in which the Melton Quartet is clearly held by the German musical audiences all combined to make the event a very special one indeed. I happily joined the members of the quartet during the intermissions and after each concert as they stood in the lobby and signed hundreds of the new CDs for excited audience members who had just heard the piece. I was also very gratified that the new work received very positive reviews in the German press, in addition to being received with a great deal of passionate fervor by the audiences. Their applause resulted each night in several curtain calls for the quartet, followed by two or three encores in their usual entertaining fashion.
I come away from this whole experience feeling very honored to have been asked by the quartet to compose this work, and even more honored to have a lasting representation of the piece and my music through the release of the recording. I also feel that together with the quartet, the administrations of the orchestras, the aid and sponsorship of Gerhard Meinl and others, and the efforts of everyone who was involved in this project in big and small ways, that we have created an important addition to our repertoire that I hope will help to propel our instruments and the artists who make such beautiful music on them into a new realm in our field. I have dedicated much of my life as a musician to advancing our low brass instruments with my performances, teaching and additions to the repertoire through composing and arranging. I certainly count this as one of my most important and rewarding achievements.
The compact disc generated as part of this project is the third recording project to feature the works of John Stevens. The first was John’s LP project called Power, featuring solo and ensemble works for euphonium and tuba. The second project, Viva Voce!, was recorded by the Sotto Voce Quartet. The Grand Concerto 4 Tubas recording, while centering on works for euphonium and tuba, also features two works for orchestra. John’s Jubilare!, which he composed for the 2000 celebration of the 75th anniversary season of the Madison, Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra, receives an enthusiastic reading from Carl St. Clair and the Duisburg Philharmonic. Just as stunning in its own way as the Concerto is St. Clair’s interpretation of John’s arrangement for string orchestra of the beautiful Adagio he originally composed for euphonium and tuba ensemble in memory of his teacher, Rayburn Wright. As important as this compact disc should be in every music lover’s library for its central work, this breath-taking performance is also a treasure, to understate the case. I don’t think I am stretching the point to compare this work and this performance favorably to the finest readings of the very famous Adagio by Samuel Barber. The remainder of the disc is a showpiece for tubas and euphoniums. Included are performances of familiar Stevens compositions for euphonium/tuba ensembles that have appeared on previous discs, but the performances here round out an exhilarating overall program. The listener is treated to a moving second performance of the Adagio, but in its original format for euphoniums and tubas. The Melton Quartett was ably assisted in this reading of the work by Robert Bolz and Florian Rösner on euphonium, Severin Viola on F tuba, and Marc Lanket on BB-flat tuba, all students in Essen. The disc concludes with exciting readings of one of John’s earliest works for quartet, Power (which was also recording by the Melton Quartett on their earlier CD bearing that tune’s title) and Benediction, a beautiful work written for the Sotto Voce Quartet in 2003.
The engineering of the recording, produced by the Acousence label, represents no less than the best of what the world has come to expect of German audio production. Grand Concerto 4 Tubas is already available from Amazon.com, CD Universe, and ImportCDs.com, as well as from other outlets and as a download (visit www.meltontubaquartett.com). Stevens’s endorsement of the recording is enthusiastic. He told me that Carl St. Clair’s work was “stellar.” He went on to say, “I could not have asked for more rewarding interpretations of my music,” and “I am absolutely thrilled to have this fantastic recording of my music, and I’m honored that the Quartett and orchestra were willing to combine forces to make it happen.” To hear John talk about the recording, search YouTube for “Heiko Triebener in Talk with John Stevens.”
The Melton Tuba Quartett told me that their goal was to have a piece “…composed so that audiences used to regular classical symphonic concerts would walk out of the hall being moved, touched, and in awe as a result of what they had just heard.” While by all accounts this was the case, a similar effect is in store for listeners to the compact disc. I think that the term tour de force is overused these days, but in this instance is defined. The virtuosic display is nothing short of amazing, both relative to the writing and the performance delivered by the Quartett and Duisburg Philharmonic.
I anticipate that many virtuoso players around the world are going to be inspired to get together with like-minded and talented friends to perform the “Grand Concerto.” There will be a waiting period in that the Melton Tuba Quartett has exclusive performing rights to the work for three years. The music will be available at the end of the exclusivity period from Musikverlag Bruno Uetz.
Four individuals came together twenty-five years ago with the common goal of having some fun and making quality music together. They have met their goal many times over but this project will without doubt leave an indelible mark on the history of our instruments’ repertoire. On behalf of the Quartett, Heiko Treibener summed things up with this comment: “…we’re one hundred percent happy with the result of three years of work and life time, a lot of money, and all the energy that has gone into this project.” Congratulations to the Melton Tuba Quartett and John Stevens on the creation of an historical moment for music and for taking our low voices to a new high.
Stevens, center, with the Melton Tuba Quartett
About the author
Dr. Jerry A. Young is Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire where he continues to lead the euphonium and tuba studio and is the music director and conductor of BASSically BRASS.
The members of the Melton Tuba Quartett first met at the tuba audition for the vacant position at the Beethoven Hall Orchestra Bonn in January, 1987. They spontaneously decided to found an ensemble, which started as a daring experiment and evolved into a big portion of every Quartett member´s personal life and career. In Germany the ensemble is still the only professional tuba quartet, consisting of four tuba players partially doubling on euphonium. They are based mainly in their home symphonic orchestras. The Quartett offers everything from family concerts to formal concert presentations and is acclaimed for its entertaining concerts both in Germany and internationally. The Melton Quartett has released five compact disc recordings: Premiere, Power, Lazy Elephants, What a Wonderful World, and Grand Concerto 4 Tubas. Current members of the Quartett are: Ulrich Haas (Duisburg Philharmonic), Hartmut Müller (Wuppertal Symphony), Heiko Triebener (Bamberg Symphony), and Jörg Wachsmuth (Dresdner Philharmonie). For more information on the Melton Tuba Quartett, visit their web page at http://www.meltontubaquartett.com/?lang=en.