Journey, Concerto for Contrabass Tuba, by John Stevens by David Spies
A poster in the lobby of the Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue in Chicago reads:
“How do you write a concerto for Daniel Barenboim? Listen carefully.”
By substituting Barenboim’s name with Gene Pokorny, principal tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one could as easily describe the setting for a momentous occasion in the tuba world. During the weekend of June 8-10, 2000, Gene Pokorny and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the world premiere of a concerto for contrabass tuba by John David Stevens. Resident Conductor William Eddins programmed Journey alongside two masterworks of 20th century American music: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, famous for the Fanfare for the Common Man. This is a review of the Thursday evening premiere.
Prior to the performance, the Chicago Symphony presented a pre-concert discussion, featuring composer John Stevens. Stevens, Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has composed over 50 works for tuba, as well as chamber works for winds and strings. John began by mentioning that he had first found out about this commission when Gene left a message on his (John’s) answering machine. Upon listening to this message John started to breathe very heavily, and then, “in keeping with the tradition of tuba players, proceeded to the refrigerator to get a beer.” Although rather modest about the commission, he displayed a sense of humor in response to a comment that this was to be his first full-length orchestral piece: “It’s a great way to start your orchestral career. I’d highly recommend it.”
In preparation for composing this piece, John mentioned that he initially listened to and studied the scores for many great concertos and other great orchestral works. Some of the works that he listened to were Brahms’ VioJin Concerto, Shostakovitch’s 5th and 9th Symphonies, The Rite of Spring and Also Sprach Zarathustra, as well as the Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Williams tuba concerti. John then put everything aside and worked from scratch in order to come up with something original.
John stated that his primary aim was to compose a work of substantial length that would contrast the singing lyricism of the tuba with very exciting technical passages which would display the compass of its expressive capabilities, including the instrument’s tone, power, beauty, range, and agility. Observing that the tuba traditionally had “so little exciting and challenging music” in comparison to the literature of other instruments, he wished to positively contribute to the literature of the tuba and attempt to elevate the instrument via the scope of the work.
In response to a question regarding the collaboration between the performer and the composer, John replied that Gene and he worked together from the beginning. John, a tubist versed in the idiosyncracies of the instrument, mentioned that he often was able to resolve the challenging passages of the work idiomatically. Gene’s primary requests were that the concerto be composed with the large contrabass tuba in mind, particularly the instrument he uses all the time in the orchestra – the York CC tuba that used to belong to Arnold Jacobs – and that the main tessitura of the work utilize the “cash” register of the instrument, yet feature the lower compass of the tuba, especially the extreme lowest register.
John’s primary inspiration for the work originated from Gene’s love of American steam locomotive engines, specifically the Union Pacific #844 which is featured on the cover of Gene’s recording Tuba Tracks. Thus, much of the thematic material attempts to evoke images of raw power and energy, characteristics similar in scope to a contrabass tuba and a steam engine, both types of “gleaming metal” in their own right.
Journey, as is true of many of John’s pieces, is primarily tonal with many extended tertian sonorities and equidistant harmonic devices, such as pentatonicism, whole-tone scales, and diminished and augmented chords designed to obscure the overriding tonal structure. Rhythmically, the piece features strata of syncopation and equidistant rhythmic activity (quintuplets, septuplets, triplets), creating a great deal of activity throughout a variety of exciting orchestral settings. TTie tessitura of the solo part ranges from G above the bass clef staff to well below the end of the piano keyboard. The overall length of the work is approximately 28 minutes. The scoring of the work calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and two flugelhoms, two trombones, euphonium, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, hi-hat, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, harp, and strings.
Comprised of three movements interconnected by two solo cadenzas, the piece progresses attacca from the “Journey’s” beginning to its conclusion. Entitled “Morning in the Yard,” the first movement opens with a lengthy orchestral introduction beginning in the string basses in the lowest of register in the softest of dynamic, creating a sense of calm and tranquility, punctuated by muted bass drum. An ascending figure unfolds and continues to ascend through the section to the cellos and then the violas, ultimately working its way through the upper tessituras of the string and wind sections. The texture is very sparse, evoking the feeling of an early morning in the rail yard. The tuba begins with a solo passage in the low register, which eventually ascends into the upper reaches of the bass clef staff. The piece then begins to take on steam as the harmonic texture and levels of rhythmic activity grow increasingly rich and bold. By the time the solo cadenza is introduced the train has reached cruising speed.
The first cadenza provides a transition into a serene, dreamlike second movement, “Midnight in the Mountains.” Following a mystical orchestral interlude the tuba enters much like a train rushing through town in the middle of the night, not at all timid. The train then proceeds off into the next town, with the audience remaining behind as the train grows fainter and more distant. The perspective then shifts to the sole passenger on the train, the tubist. The second solo cadenza eventually throws down the throttle and, with no holds barred, careens into the third movement, “Highballing Through Town.” This third movement, the most pyrotechnic of all, is full of fast technical passages, very demanding with complex polyrhythmic activity incorporated into the orchestra. Gene was perhaps the most amazing during this movement, although by the final minute of the concerto it appeared he almost hit a wall of exhaustion not unlike that experienced by marathon runners required to sprint to the finish line.
An Olympic effort, the piece was executed extremely well by the orchestra which prepared it in a standard three rehearsal-three concert schedule. Resident Conductor William Eddins did a magnificent job of pacing and directing the orchestra. Although the very complex accompaniment was rhythmically precise, the level of energy and excitement of the orchestra in relation to Gene remained a bit subdued. For the most part the balance between Gene and the orchestra was very good with only occasional moments where the orchestral scoring overbalanced the soloist. Gene was in top form this evening; he sounded stellar. From this author’s vantage point in the last row of the upper balcony. Gene’s bell drew a bead on my seat and never let go. The sheer power and raw sound which he produced on demand was truly extraordinary. However, he slipped just as easily into tender sotto voce passages with the most warm, vibrant tone and lyricism. Gene’s consummate musicianship was every bit as compelling as any world-class concert artist.
It is worthy to note that there were three independent reviews of this series. Most performances of a tuba concerto rarely warrant a single review, even if there are multiple press outlets in the city Fall 2000 of the performance. The Chicago Tribune review written by John von Rhein was perhaps the most scathing, and the one most glaring in its bias against the instrument:
“…The concerto finally impressed as a user-friendly, well-crafted piece of no particular musical depth. The principal problem is that the contrabass tuba is a monochrome instrument, even in the hands of so accomplished a soloist. Stevens has not solved the inherent problem of how to make it soar over an orchestra. I’m not sure any composer could.” (Chicago Tribune, Saturday, June 10, 2000, section 1, page 13, column 2, paragraph 1.)
Andrew Patner’s review for the Chicago Sun-Times was considerably more upbeat and conciliatory, as was the Critics’ Choice piece in the Chicago Reader. See Chicago Tribune (6/10/00), Chicago Sun-Times (6/9/00), Chicago Reader (6/9- 6/15/00). Although online reviews were available at the time of the performance, the websites which included them have removed the content. Consult each newspaper or your local library for complete reviews.
Is public perception of solo tuba performances perhaps a matter of early ear-training? Should our music education programs focus on the lower tessitura of the grand staff as much as the regions above middle C in order for people to enjoy a greater variety of musical experiences? Perhaps at this time the tuba might not be as widely accepted as a solo instrument by the general public as we would like. However, during the final half of the 20th century many dedicated men and women have devoted their lives towards promoting the tuba as a viable performance medium in a wealth of artistic genres. It is this author’s contention that all tubists need to continue at every opportunity to educate and enhance public opinion and support for the instrument and its literature, as has been the case throughout the tuba’s entire history. Otherwise, critics’ reviews might be the only contact some people may have with the tuba.
Gene Pokorny’s premiere performance of John Stevens’ Journey with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be broadcast on WFMT Network during the week of November 7-13. Check with the WFMT Network affiliate in your area to find out the date and time of broadcast, for your region or go to www.wtriir.com and listen to the broadcast over the Internet. The broadcast for the Chicago area will be on November 12.