Musical Shares: The trumpet shall sound

Autumn colours from the Tekfen Philharmonic and the brilliant Omar Tomasoni

By John Shakespeare Dyson | October 30, 2018


The Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra has recently enlivened our late October evenings with a series of concerts in Ankara, Mersin and Istanbul entitled Autumn Classics. The one I attended on Friday took place in the Lütfi Kırdar Concert Hall, Istanbul. The first half was largely devoted to works showcasing the talents of the Italian trumpet-player Omar Tomasoni, one of the founders of the Italian Wonderbrass Quintet, while the second was devoted to Antonín Dvořàk’s Eighth Symphony. I hope I have got the composer’s name right, and the accents the right way up: being an ardent Czech nationalist, Dvořàk would get hot under the collar if anyone dared call him ‘Anton’, the German version of his name, and no doubt a misplaced accent would not have gone down too well, either.

From the point of view of the works performed, it was not Italy or the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which then encompassed the Czechs) that dominated the first half, but rather Armenia, the USSR and the United States. Our first taste of Mr Tomasoni’s outstanding virtuosity came with Harutyunyan’s Trumpet Concerto, written in 1950. This is one of the very few concertos written specifically for the instrument, the most famous being those of Haydn and Hummel; it was first performed in 1951, and is the composer’s most famous work. As Aleksandr Harutyunyan (1920–2012) received his training in the USSR, the piece is well orchestrated, and contains many references to Armenian folk music – which is, of course, largely in the minor key.

The name ‘Harutyunyan’ is familiar to me as I once saw it inscribed on a plaque at the Surp Pırgiç Armenian Hospital in Yedikule, and asked my companion, an Armenian dictionary-writer who now lives in the Old Folks’ Home there, what it meant. He answered that ‘Harutyun’ means ‘Ascension’, so I suppose ‘Harutyunyan’ must mean ‘Son of Ascension’.

Mr Tomasoni, who comes originally from Brescia and has been chief trumpeter at the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam since 2013, is clearly in complete control of his game. The appealing modesty of his demeanour belies the brilliance of his tone. In the following video, he is performing with a Concertgebouw brass ensemble in a tango arrangement; of the two trumpeters, he is the relatively clean-shaven one on the right:

 
The next video is of Harutyunyan’s Trumpet Concerto being performed by the distinguished Ukraine-born and Moscow-trained trumpeter Timofei Dokschitzer (1921–2005) together with the Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvenski. I mean no disrespect to Mr Tomasoni by presenting someone else’s recording of the work – I have no choice, as videos of him playing anything as soloist seem few and far between:
 
 
And now something for died-in-the-wool trumpet fans: here is Timofei Dokschitzer, often described as the finest trumpet virtuoso of all time, playing a selection of pieces originally written for other instruments:
 
 
But it is high time we gave Omar Tomasoni his due, to the limited extent permitted by YouTube. Here, he is playing in John Williams’s Olympic Fanfare and Theme, composed for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Of the two trumpeters, Tomasoni is the one on the right:
 


Lastly, here are three videos of the Italian Wonderbrass Quintet in action in the three movements of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor (one video per movement), transposed down to G minor. This just goes to show that whatever you do to Bach – play him under water with conch shells for instruments, even – he always sounds good. Unfortunately, the camera is so distant from the stage that I cannot tell who the trumpet-player is. What is certain is that the concert is taking place in Brescia, Tomasoni’s home town:

 

 

 

The second piece on the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra’s programme was Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town suite. The history of this work is as follows: Bernstein made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1943. Soon afterwards, choreographer Jerome Robbins approached him with an idea for a ballet – the amorous adventures of three sailors on 24-hour shore leave in New York City. The production was entitled Fancy Free, and its first performance in April 1944 was a triumph that launched Bernstein’s career as a composer. Oliver Smith, who had designed the sets for the ballet, suggested turning it into a full-length show, so Bernstein duly went to work the following June. The resulting musical, entitled On the Town, was an instant hit on Broadway later that year, and in 1949 MGM (who had purchased the film rights even before the show had hit the stage) released a movie version starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

One interesting feature of the musical is that it was the first to incorporate black and white characters performing alongside one another in equal roles – as pedestrians, sailors and typical New Yorkers – with no hint of racial stereotyping. In addition, Everett Lee, the show’s conductor, made history by becoming the first ever black conductor and musical director on Broadway.

In the following video, the three-movement suite is being performed by the European Philharmonic of Switzerland (EPOS):

 
At the concert on 26 October, conductor Aziz Shokhakimov took a running leap onto the podium before launching into the piece; this was a fitting gesture, I thought, in view of the fact that On the Town is a wacky affair – a love letter to the Big Apple that at times skirts the whirlpool of vulgarity, and at other times plunges gleefully into it head first.

Following this, we heard George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in an arrangement featuring solo trumpet that I believe to have been the work of Timofei Dokschitzer. Here, Omar Tomasoni took to the stage once again. I have to say that the opening two-and-a-half-octave upward glissando (played by a clarinet in the original version) did not have quite the smoothness and regularity that I heard in the playing of Italian jazz trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso at the concert I attended during the İKSV Istanbul Jazz Festival, described in my blog entitled Musical Shares: Jazz, genius and chimney pots. But then, classical trumpeters are not required to play glissandi as often as their brethren in the jazz world are.

The genesis of Rhapsody in Blue is a cautionary tale – with a happy ending – for composers. Legend has it that George Gershwin (1898–1937) completely forgot that bandleader Paul Whiteman had commissioned a work from him for a concert to be held on February 12, 1924. (According to some versions, Gershwin remembered having a conversation with Whiteman on the subject of a concerto, but had not realised that he was expected to produce one for this date.) On January 3 or 4, Gershwin’s brother Ira happened to read in a newspaper that Whiteman would soon be performing works by Victor Herbert (a key figure in the history of composer’s rights who was to pass away the following May), Irving Berlin and George Gershwin – this latter piece to be a jazz concerto. It was only then that the awful realisation struck brother George that he had a mere five and a half weeks to fulfil the commission.
 
Gershwin set to work immediately, and it was while on the train from New York to Boston (whither he was travelling for the opening of his newest musical) that he planned out Rhapsody in Blue. He later said the following:
It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang that is often so stimulating to a composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise) that I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody from beginning to end. ... I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had the definite plot of the piece.

He quickly sketched out a piano version, and then had the piece orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger. The band’s parts were ready in time, but the solo piano part had not yet been put on paper, so Gershwin played it from memory at the first performance on February 12 – which was a resounding success.

The Tekfen Orchestra has been the subject of a previous blog entitled Into Smaug’s Lair with a horsehair bow – Charlie Siem and the Tekfen Philharmonic. In that piece, I had occasion to remark how well they are performing these days. Their percussion department, in particular, is much improved. Indeed, the general standard is now equal to that of a good European outfit. Conductor Aziz Shokhakimov’s gestures with his left hand – whatever they may mean – certainly seem to communicate his intentions to the players, and I listened to the result with unalloyed pleasure. Omar Tomasoni’s playing, too, impressed with its superb clarity of tone, and his unassuming manner was likewise a hit with the audience. Of the virtue of Modesty, the I Ching or Book of Changes says in its commentary on Hexagram 15 that it is ‘a lovely quality; nothing can rise above it’.

And so to the second half of the programme, which consisted of the Symphony Number Eight in G major by Antonín Dvořàk (1841–1904). The composer, born on 8 September (the same day as Bernie Sanders, for what it’s worth), was thus a Virgo, and had a Gemini moon and a Scorpio Ascendant. I was surprised to learn of the Scorpio element: Dvořàk’s symphonies are not known for their profundity – unlike those of Brückner (also a Virgo, by the way). In Brückner’s Eighth, the constantly shifting modulations put me in mind of an elephant trying to get out of a pool of thick mud and up onto a neighbouring river bank, each change of key announcing a fresh effort by the creature to get its front legs on firm ground … before it slithers back down again as the tonality takes yet another turn, and closure is yet again denied. At least in Dvořàk’s Eighth, you know where you are going: you are being propelled with ease and grace towards another of the Big Tunes for which this composer is justly famous.

Having finished his four-movement Eighth Symphony at his rural retreat in Bohemia in the autumn of 1889, Dvořàk was miffed to be offered only a measly one thousand Deutschmarks by Fritz Simrock, his publisher, for the right to print it: for his Seventh Symphony, which had been an instant hit, he had been paid six thousand. Indeed, the composer was smartly rapped over the knuckles – and not for the first time, either – for writing things that were too long, thus making printing them a costly exercise. So Simrock’s offer was turned down, and the symphony was sold instead to the British firm of Novello, who considered it a privilege to buy the work. They were right. Its first performance, conducted by the composer himself, took place in Prague in February of the following year, and was a great success; two months later it was performed in London, and was greeted by the audience with wild applause. In fact, the view was expressed in the British press that Dvořàk was the only living composer who could be regarded as a worthy successor to Beethoven.

Here are links to two critiques: the first is by The Guardian, and the second from a Czech website.

I have to say that the claim of profundity in the first critique does not strike a chord with me; also, the fact that most of the themes in the Eighth Symphony are based on a rising arpeggio does not, in my view, represent much of an advance on the compositional technique Beethoven employs in his symphonies, with their thematically-linked movements. Beethoven is more subtle, making use of inversions of the theme as well as playing creatively with the intervals that make it up. This is not to decry Dvořàk’s work, which is tuneful, well orchestrated, successful as an artistic whole, and deservedly popular. I never fail to enjoy the swaying Slavonic waltz in the third movement – and who wouldn’t? The Eighth Symphony has immediate appeal, but is in no way cliché-ridden, and is refreshingly direct without being simplistic or banal.

Yet again I was impressed by the Tekfen Philharmonic Orchestra’s co-ordination, and by the skill of its conductor. As I left the concert hall, I was delighted to see Nihat Gökyiğit, the founder of Tekfen Holding, holding court just outside the door that led into the backstage area. Though now bent with age – he is 93 – and obliged to lean on a stick, he is as mentally alert as ever, and is to be heartily congratulated on having had the vision and the foresight to found an orchestra all those years ago. True, the Tekfen Philharmonic is no longer truly international (Nihat Bey originally saw it as a way of bringing together musicians from many different countries, not all of which are friendly towards one another), but none the less a highly competent one that now features a large number of Turkey’s talented new-generation instrumentalists.

I will conclude with links to a couple of performances of Dvořàk’s Eighth: the first is by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karajan, and the second by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of a Czech – Rafael Kubelik. Take your pick: I do not judge, but I do advise you to listen to the third movement (the Allegretto grazioso) with a partner so that if moved to do so, you can swing each other round the room in time to this heady, mesmerising waltz. A simple pleasure, perhaps, but a satisfying one.

 
 
 
Posted in Music and Performing Arts, Classical Music, Musical Shares
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