The Trombone, more than just a slush pump

Joe Alessi is one of my favourite trombonists, and this week he gave the world premiere performance of a new Trombone Concerto by Melinda Wagner with his own orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. (See the New York Times review here). I would have loved to have been there, but I will get a chance to hear a recording – the concert will be available in streaming audio on the NY Phil’s website, for two weeks beginning on March 8. An article by Susan Stewart, For whom the trombone tolls, appeared in The Journal News on the day of the premiere, and provided a brief introduction to Joe Alessi, the man and the musician, as well as a glimpse into Alessi’s preparation for the performance. What the article did not do was give audience members any hint of what they could expect from the piece, or Alessi’s interpretation of it. In fact, about the only thing the audience would be anticipating, based on this article, would be how and when the trombonist might go about emptying the spit from his instrument during the 24 minute work.

In any interview, whether for print or audio/visual medium, the writer will collect a surplus of material, from which a limited amount will end up being included in an article. How disappointing then, that of all the meaningful things Stewart could have written about, she instead chose to descend into a discourse on spit valves. Sure, she mentioned that composer Melinda Wagner is only the third woman to have ever won a Pulitzer Prize for composition – but what about the significance of her being commissioned by the New York Philharmonic? And how about elaborating more on why the trombone is more than “Tommy Dorsey, big bands and spit valves”, more on what Joe Alessi has done in his stellar career to improve the image of the trombone and help raise its reputation to a place alongside the more traditional solo instruments.

But no, she decides to write about spit valves.

Granted, it’s still a pretty new thing for a trombonist to be seen front and center, but the fact is, in the past decade most orchestras in North America have featured a trombonist in the solo role. (This is an even more common occurrence in Europe, thanks in large part to the incredible efforts of Christian Lindberg, the world’s only full-time trombone soloist.) While all of this has greatly raised the profile of my favourite instrument, I have no illusion that the trombone will ever appear with the same frequency as the violin or piano, but I do believe we have reached the point where it is no longer necessary for the obligatory oratory on spit valves, or the trombone’s oft-mentioned stereotypical circus trick, the glissando. Artists like Alessi and Lindberg (along with many, many others) have proved with their performances and recordings that the trombone is so much more. Can we please move on?

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