Perspectives from Composer & Performer
by Allen Feinstein and Adam Frey
Concerto for Euphonium and OrchestraÑÔSwimming the Mountain’
by Allen Feinstein
As a composer, I have always written music with a particular performer or ensemble in mind. Although composing is a solitary act, writing a commission for a particular player brings another personality into the creative process. From the most practical dimensions to the most ethereal, the advice and inspiration provided by a soloist can shape a work to a great degree.
Preparation and Inspiration
I had the pleasure of writing a euphonium concerto for Adam Frey. The resulting concerto, Swimming the Mountain, took shape after conversations with Adam about practical issues, sessions where I heard him play in rehearsal and performance, and consultations on technical and musical issues once the music was composed. In the end there is no question that Adam was a great force in the creation of this work, and while the notes of the concerto are mine, I feel there were myriad collaborative aspects to the creative process, and that had it been written for another player, the work would have been very different.
Our preliminary conversations helped set the framework for the piece. The goal was to compose a work for euphonium and symphonic orchestra, adding to a small but growing repertoire of works that showcase this versatile instrument. From the beginning Adam’s desire was to “stay out of the composer’s way,” but I encouraged him to share his thoughts. Among his recommendations were to create a work that was “a little different and unique,” “accessible but showy,” using the standard three-movement structure. He also recommended that the work be 17 minutes or less (to allow it to be more easily programmed), and that it be possible to perform part of the piece in a five- to seven-minute form.
Around the time of our conversations, I observed Adam at rehearsals and concerts and made note of the versatility of the euphonium and the special characteristics of his playing I wanted to feature. Adam’s tone is full and rich; he can be powerful or delicate in all ranges, and his sound has a wonderful expressiveness and sweetness. His technique is astounding as well.
Of all the impressive aspects of his playing, the richness of his tone, the power of his forte sound, and the vivid expressiveness of his playing made the greatest impressions on me. Early on I had the thought of having Adam’s euphonium represent a powerful force, but I didn’t know what direction that would take me. When inspiration hit in the form of an impromptu chant by my young son, I felt prepared to tell a musical story using Adam’s distinctive voice.
In fact, for several months I had been frustrated in my attempts to find just the right context to feature the euphonium as played by Adam. I tend to write works guided by a story, and no tale jumped to mind that was exactly right for what I wanted to express. Then, on a lovely spring day in 2004, my three-year-old son provided the inspiration for the work, although I didn’t realize it right away. He bounced and swayed happily on a hammock outside the house of friends in Maine, and began chanting “Swimming in the mountain, swimming in the mountain, swimming in the mountainÉ.” This was odd because we were not in the mountains, and we were not swimming, nor were there plans to visit mountains or to swim. It was an odd phrase, especially with the singular “mountain,” as if he were describing swimming inside or through a mountain. I told my son that it was an odd idea, and that I would think about how I might use the phrase for the concerto.
I repeated the phrase to the friends we were visiting. The couple, Robin Orttung and Jud Hermann, are Classics scholars, and said that “swimming in the mountain” is an idea from an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus. The poem was written as a response to a total eclipse of the sun. Here is the poem in a new translation by Robin Orttung:
We’ll hope for everything, refuse no thing;
We dare you to astonish us, now Zeus
has hid the daytime brilliance of the sun,
has made night out of noon: a dreadful awe
has come to us. Impossibility
turns possible, and credible, and true.
Don’t wonder now, if any of you sees
the beasts on land adopt the watery ways
of dolphins, and the thundering sea become
more dear to them than drier pastures were.
The dolphins, then, will seek the mountain glen.
I was told by my friends it was an early and influential poem, introducing an important theme to be often repeated in the poetry of the ancient GreeksÑthat of possibility and impossibility. If Zeus can darken the skies, anything is possible. The rams will live in the seas and the dolphins will swim in the mountains.
As soon as I saw the poem I knew that it would provide the kind of structure and inspiration I was looking for. The concerto took form quickly; the first movement was entitled Zeus, the second Eclipse, and the final movement Realm of Possibility.
In Zeus the euphonium represents Zeus commanding and enjoying his realm. It was a perfect match for dimensions of Adam’s playing that I wanted to highlightÑhis power and dynamic musical personality. The movement begins with a tranquil statement of themes, first a fragment of the first theme in clarinet, then a more complete statement by French horn:
The introduction of the movement takes the form of a chaconne with intervening episodes, depicting the grandeur of the world Zeus commands. After several passes at the chaconne theme, which range in approach from gentle and pastoral to grand and intense, we hear the entrance of Zeus with a fanfare figure that is a central theme of the first movement:
The response from woodwinds and strings uses the rhythm and melody of my son’s chant of Ôswimming in the mountain’:
The euphonium picks up this rhythmic motive, which is transformed melodically:
This idea is developed and extended in the melody in euphonium and in the accompaniment. The style is generally lyrical in this section, expressing Zeus’ pleasure at the beauty of his domain. Near the end of this section, the texture in the accompaniment gets more complex and builds, leading to a variation on the fanfare theme:
The idea is further developed, building in intensity until we get to the cadenza. The first draft of the cadenza ended with a triumphant restatement of the fanfare theme in the highest range of the instrument. I thought it would be dramatic and exciting, but Adam pointed out that the placement of the figure was far from ideal:
While I was familiar enough with the euphonium from years as a conductor and from some experience playing the instrument at an amateur level, I had never developed an ability to play in the highest range, nor had I had an opportunity to work with players comfortable playing in this range. Adam pointed out that if I could transpose the end the cadenza a half step higher, the tone would be improved dramatically. As you might imagine, the half-step transposition required reworking the entire cadenza. Adam and I liked the second attempt much more, as the new cadenza made better use of motivic material from the rest of the movement. This was one of many improvements in the work initiated by Adam.
After the cadenza the material that provided transitions between chaconne statements is developed as a texture in strings. Over that the chaconne theme becomes a chime figure as the texture gets thicker and more complicated, building to a triumphant restatement of the chaconne theme, with the euphonium playing a technically challenging countermelody. In my mind this section represents Zeus commanding his realm in an energetic and somewhat chaotic celebration. Again, Adam’s guidance was central to developing the counter-melody as my first attempt was so busy it prevented clarity in performance. The material I settled on is still technically challenging and exciting, performed at a quarter note equals approximately 120:
The celebration soon halts abruptly, followed by tremulous question and answer statements from strings and woodwinds, anticipating Zeus’ final gestureÑa fanfare from the euphonium, which propels the movement into an energetic coda. A rhythmic pedal serves as the underpinning for a rapid passage from the euphonium, representing Zeus spinning a spell:
The woodwinds take up this chaotic theme in a canon with statements separated by two beats. On top of this the brass play echoing fragments of the initial theme. Over all this, the euphonium as Zeus offers a final statementÑthree commanding fanfares in an independent majestic tempoÑas he orders, arbitrarily, the darkening of the skies with an eclipse. The last of the fanfares signals the chaos to stop, and a final echo in clarinets leads us without a break to the second movement, Eclipse.
The music is immediately atmospheric and mysterious, a depiction of the surreal, surprising darkness of a total eclipse. The euphonium, no longer directly representing Zeus but rather evoking the mysteriousness of the eclipse, enters expressively in mute, with a new theme at a slow tempo:
Adam and I went back and forth on options regarding muting. Initially I was looking for a stopped sound to create maximum contrast with the rich lyrical tone and loud dynamics employed in the first movement. In rehearsal the stopped soft sound was overpowered by the spare orchestration. While I wound up rescoring and re-conceiving much of this part of the second movement, we abandoned the idea of a stopped sound.
Adam also experimented with articulations in mute to help realize a particular effect: I was interested in a soft accented sound representing the emergence of stars in the eclipse. We settled on a standard metal mute, with accents at a pianissimo dynamic for the emergence of the stars:
After a lyrical countermelody is introduced in the euphonium, an intense transition follows, thickly scored, building in dynamic. The euphonium plays the star theme as the tension is released, leading to the return of the sun: the full orchestra, led by the euphonium, states another short theme, re-harmonized in a major key, with fanfares in brass and runs in woodwinds to add to the exhilaration of the moment.
After this climax the movement winds down with the euphonium lyrically playing a second theme from the movement, again transformed from its previous use as a dissonant underpinning:
A final restatement of the first two measures of the melody from the movement leads without a break to the final movement, Realm of Possibility:
Realm of Possibility
The final movement is a playful exploration of the idea of possibility and impossibility. As I worked with Adam I was struck with the versatility of the instrument and his accomplishment as a player. What was possible and what was impossible for the euphonium? The movement is a set of challenges from other featured solo instruments in the orchestra, alternating with an optimistic and triumphant rondo melody. Can the euphonium play as fast as a piccolo? As powerfully as timpani? Can it do everything a violin can do?
After the initial statement of the rondo theme of the final movement, the piccolo is the first to challenge the euphonium:
This figure is echoed in euphonium, down a few octaves:
A playful melody follows, and the euphonium matches the piccolo in all its rapid, acrobatic passages.
If the rapid passages of a piccolo are possible for euphonium, what about the percussive power and low notes of the timpani? In m. 133 the timpani solo establishes the challenge, which is answered immediately in euphonium:
Even the characteristic bending of timpani notes through the use of the pedal is matched by the euphonium:
Adam and I discussed how to get this bent note affect, and experimented to choose the best range. Earlier drafts had a wider range which made the imitation of the timpani part harder to perceive.
After the bent note passage, the three featured instruments revive the lyrical theme from the second movement, with the timpani providing the bass line and the piccolo as the countermelody. There is another statement of the rondo theme, and the concertmaster joins the fray. After trading treatments of melody in higher and lower registers with the euphonium, the violin settles on a challenge sure to stump the euphoniumÑdouble stops. Not to be deterred, once again the impossible becomes possible: Adam had mentioned he could perform multi-phonics, so I asked him to sing the top notes while he played the bottom notes, thus creating euphonium Ôdouble stops’:
In concert, this is not only impressive to witness, but funny tooÑI like it when there are moments of humor in my pieces, as long as they are intended! (Note: ossia parts are written in for those who would like to attempt the concerto but haven’t mastered singing and playing at the same time!)
The violin joins the trio of euphonium, timpani, and piccolo when the lyrical theme is restated. The rondo theme returns, and tempo picks up a bit, and the euphonium has one final technical passage, a return of themes from earlier in the movement, climaxing with a restatement of Zeus’ fanfare from the first movement, with a surprising final note as the orchestra plays a shimmering figure above:
The concerto ends soon after with a soaring scale leading to the final high C.
Swimming the Mountain explores a poem that has been an inspiration for centuries: a powerful deity manifests himself, wields his power with a supernatural display. Then, just as the poet explored possibility and impossibility, so does the concerto, albeit in a playful manner. The final musical statements bring us back to the inspiring gestures of the deity. What is possible and what is impossible? Since this is a euphonium concerto, the conclusion is anything is possible when the instrument is in the hands of a master.
Many are drawn to music because of the social dimension of music making. We find joy in creating something beautiful, intriguing, and stimulating with others. This holds true to the collaborative aspects of composing a commissioned work. Far from a solitary experience, the writing (and rewriting) of Swimming the Mountain involved input and inspiration from the soloist. The collaborative aspects of this experience were invaluable to me. Much of the character of the piece and myriad details came from working closely with Adam. It was a process that was personally and creatively very satisfying.
Feinstein’s Concerto for Euphonium: Swimming the Mountain will be recorded by the New Zealand Symphony in 2006 with Adam Frey, euphonium. The concerto is published by Euphonium.com. Allen Feinstein is Assistant Professor of Music at Northeastern University in Boston.
Perspectives from Composer and Performer
by Allen Feinstein and Adam Frey
The performer’s perspective on commissioning:
Concerto for Euphonium and OrchestraÑÔSwimming the Mountain’
by Adam Frey, Euphonium Soloist, Yamaha Performing Artist, Georgia State University and Emory University
Commissioning a new work for your instrument can be both an exciting and frightening experience for the performer. So many questions can surface before, during, and after the commissioning process: How long will I have to learn the piece? How long will the ensemble or pianist have to learn their part? Will it be a good work? Will it make sense to the audience? Am I spending too much money? What style will the composer write? Is the solo part going to be too difficult? Too easy? I am sure there are many more!! These questions may deter many, but one should commission as much new music as possible. One must realize that as euphonium and tuba players, that we have a disadvantage in our repertoire because our instruments are so young. Thus, we must strive to create more pieces. One must also understand a couple of things before the commissioning process starts so that realistic expectations for the end result can be established. Firstly, not every new piece will become a standard or masterwork in the repertoire. Secondly, there is certainly (and almost more so than masterworks) a place for student level music originally composed for the euphonium. Thirdly, every composer has good works and less than good works. How often do orchestras around the world program the lesser known of Mozart’s symphonies? Hardly ever. They generally stick to about 8 to 10 of the 40 odd symphonies. Not that these less performed works are lacking, but they are just overshadowed by the better works.
In relation to commissioning, the first step involves finding a composer that has the desire and willingness to create a work for euphonium. They do not have to know the euphonium well or be a brass composer (sometimes these people simply with less experience with brass can create a more boundary less work). The composer just needs to be someone whose music you enjoy listening to or playing and who has an interest in the instrument. I find that inviting them to a performance generally helps to motivate them. Once they have heard the instrument, comes the tough partÉconvincing them to write something. This can involve favors, arm-twisting, dinner, ice cream, beers, etc. But most importantly, composers are looking for a performance and that can be the hook. Commissioning a work for a junior, senior, or graduate recital can be great exposure performance for the composer. With Allen Feinstein, I was lucky enough to present a master class and recital at Northeastern in the spring of 2004. When Allen heard me play, he was very enthused and interested (definitely read his perspective article in this Journal as well), so I listened to many of his pieces. I got a feel for his style and eclectic compositions (some use narrator, others light hearted themes, some have singing in them). I thought “let’s do something interesting” and he asked me what was an area that needed more euphonium compositions. I immediately said euphonium and orchestra. He thought euphonium and wind band might be more popular, but I said we need more pieces originally conceived for euphonium and orchestra versus arrangements from other performance mediums.
So as we thought about details, I gave him some loose parameters for the piece. One should always have an idea about these guidelines before commissioning a composer. Try to match the end result with the composition. For example, do not ask a composer that writes great short pieces to create a massive concerto. Or similarly a composer who is a very avant-garde writer that likes to explore techniques to create something other than the area of his or her forte. The piece may be beyond the composer’s concept. With Allen, I suggested that we create a concerto that was about 15-18 minutes. I did not want it too long because this can inhibit programming, but I also asked that the movements be able to stand alone so that they could be utilized individually. I know with the number of concerto competitions in the colleges and universities along with recital and jury requirements that require a nice 6-8 minute movement (like the first movement of this work) that would suite the needs perfectly.
Next, we had numerous discussions about any limitations on the ensemble and also on my solo part. Questions in regards to ensemble can be to make it for full orchestra or just strings, or just strings and woodwinds. The choices abound and one area that is important involves the lack of chamber music especially for the euphonium since it does not have the standard brass quintet format (although there are other formats available). In regards to the solo part (me being a silly, brave person), I told Allen to write what he wants and to create as he likes. I did not want to give him any boundaries or limits. Yet for any major composition, I always like to send some sample sheet music (solo parts only) and some recordings. I have a great set of pieces that both stretch the abilities of the instrument and make use of its strong points. For those of you that are interested, I often send parts of the Ellerby Euphonium Concerto, Cosma Euphonium Concerto, Golland Euphonium Concerto No. 1, and the Macmillan Gaelic Sonata. These pieces really push the envelope to me and provide some guidelines for writing. These pieces give the composer an idea about the current trends if you are looking for something to really expand and raise the limits. Obviously if one wants something less insane, provide some different examples or provide stricter guidelines on range and technique.
After receiving the first movement from Allen (he was totally enthralled by the abilities and range potential of the euphonium) with all the high range and lack of rests (gulp), I asked him to perhaps not make the other movements as difficult as the first. This actually makes the pacing of piece during performances more viable because the first movement is draining, but the soloist can still take care of the challenges in the other movements. This also provides a graded “ramp” for players. Work on movements 2 and 3 first and then you will be ready for the first. The Horovitz Euphonium Concerto works like this with the first two movements being very accessible, but that final movement certainly holds some tricky hurdles. One thing to realize when working with a composer whom writes to the limits of the instrument involves making sure that any comments that you make regarding what is and is not possible are true. Many figures that may seem impossible now will not be so difficult later. I remember many people speaking of the incredible difficulties of the concerti by Ellerby, Cosma, Wilby, and Linkola and that only 3 to 5 players will ever be able to perform them. Well, I can certainly tell you there are many, many people working on them and I am sure performing them well. When these pieces first appeared in the repertoire, they seemed impossible. Now the overall level of playing has grown tremendously and undergraduates occasionally perform these works. So when asking a composer to make something less difficult, remember that each new work should challenge the appropriate level accordingly (obviously student level works would challenge that level of player).
Working with Allen, we exchanged emails with Finale attachments, then I would record some parts or I would visit his office while I was in Boston teaching or playing. We sculpted the work and adjusted articulations and phrases regularly. One thing to note involves my commissioning experience with composers with less brass experience (Allen plays French horn so this was not a problem) relates to them not always notating the articulation the way it sometimes works well on the instrument and projects well. Obviously the composer may also want a certain feel to a work, so the articulation has a specific purpose. One should not be afraid to bring out a point that a certain area might be better slurred or accented. I often find slur two, tongue two as a very smooth and accessible fast articulation that gives a grace that straight tonguing does not provide for running notes. This is often a good change to suggest and providing a recording or playing a part in a variety of styles will give the composer a better understanding. With Allen, we experimented with some different articulations and also with the selection of mutes for the second movement. I have a metal Denis Wick, a Denis Wick practice mute, a Yamaha Silent Brass, and a metal mute with wood top. Overall on mute selection, we liked the projection and color of the Denis Wick metal, but wanted to use the Denis Wick practice mute but balance and projection was too much of an issue unfortunately. Another area that we worked through was the techniques in the final movements depicting the abilities of the piccolo/flute, timpani and the double stops of the violin. These of course were fun things to determine: can I play as fast and clean as the flute and piccolo, how to do the glissandi that resemble the pitch bends of the timpani, and what notes to sing in the double stop to get them to project. I think one of the great opportunities was to have a look at what Allen wrote and decide, is it impossible now, or do I just need to work on it for a while?
I thought I might also add some final words of advice about commissioning new works. Firstly, one should offer to pay the composer for certain. Many times they might be a friend or colleague, but they do this for a living. I remember a funny story of a composer friend writing a work for string trio and orchestra. Afterwards, the trio wanted him to arrange a version for chamber orchestra for free. He said that would be fine if the trio wanted to come perform concerts in his living room for a weekÉfor free. This puts it into perspective and while one does not always have to pay a bountiful sum, even something small will make it more worthwhile. Secondly, no matter how good the composer and their scheduling, my experience (and many others that I have spoken with about this) usually, but not always, involves getting the parts to the music very late (by my standards of liking to have a new work at least a month before its premiere). Many composers need to be “inspired” or have a very serious deadline to write. This is very humorous to me. I have had commissions arrive on the day of a concert where they were supposed to be premiered. Others arrive months in advance and I have to wait to perform them because they are for a specific concert (this has happened for the IEI the past two years). In relation to the Feinstein work, the orchestra and I received our parts to the 1st movement in plenty of time, but we got the 2nd and 3rd movements less than a week before the premiere. I actually did not get the 3rd movement solo part until 2 days before the first concert!! That made for some excitement and some challenges, but I also made sure I knew the rest of the piece completely so that I could totally concentrate on the final movement for those two days. I devoted about 8 hours of practice to that movement in 2 days. It turned out fine and I really felt the desire to excel because of the great music in the work. While this is sometimes typical, a word of advice to avoid this in the future: create a performance before the one that will really have the premiere performance, preferably about 3 weeks prior to the main concert. Use this as the deadline and trust me, it needs to be a performance that needs the new work, not just a dated deadline. Creativity can not be confined by dates, but WILL be controlled by performances. Of course if the new piece is delivered handily, then premiere it early.
I hope this article has been insightful about the commissioning process and also my experience with Allen Feinstein. He is a very agreeable to writing more works for the euphonium and tuba and would certainly welcome inquiries. I also encourage university and college students to ask peers and professors in school to write pieces for the euphonium and tuba. They will develop an understanding of the euphonium now and will hopefully continue to write for the instrument in the future. And this refers to not only to solo pieces, but perhaps when they compose for orchestra they might be enthused to create a euphonium part or a big tuba solo because they know what the instrument is truly capable. Lastly, I had a mission for the IEI 2005 and we had 18 world premieres during the week!! That is a great testament to the interest of the composers and performers that brought these works to the festival. Look for many of these new works to be featured on Euphonium.com. As a goal, I plan to publish many new works that are of high quality. There are sound files and PDF examples of many new works on the website. Also, please feel free to email myself or Allen if you have any questions on commissioning or are looking for the music.