Vivian Fung’s Trumpet Concerto is not just a world premiere, it’s very likely the first concerto written by a North American female composer for a female trumpet soloist.
In journalism, burying the lede — not placing the most newsworthy part of an article at the top — is an unforgivable sin (and yes, guilty as charged, gentle reader).
The folks at the Erie Philharmonic aren’t journalists, but they are savvy marketers so, notwithstanding the brand names involved, titling Saturday’s concert “Verdi and Dvorak” is burying a very compelling lede: namely that the concert will include a world premiere by a major composer.
Vivian Fung’s Trumpet Concerto is not just a world premiere, it’s very likely the first concerto written by a North American female composer for a female trumpet soloist, Mary Elizabeth Bowden. You can stop reading now if you got the message that this is a very big deal, but the story gets better.
It’s a story about the long-overdue ascension of women to prominence in the composition, performance and administration of classical music, a trend that is transforming the tradition-bound classical music world. It’s also a story of how connections, vision and a willingness to take risks can embolden a regional orchestra — our regional orchestra — to punch above its weight.
It begins at the studios of WQLN, where Bowden, a guest of on-air host Brian Hannah, asked him if the Erie Philharmonic, of which he was a member, might be interested in engaging her as a soloist. Hannah, a fellow trumpeter, told her to write to Erie Phil executive director Steve Weiser with her idea.
“I’ve known Steve since I was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music and he was at Temple (University),” Bowden, 38, said by phone from Naples, Florida. She didn’t immediately contact him, but when she did, she mentioned that she was interested in having a concerto written for her.
“She really wanted it to be written by a female composer, and we said yes instantly,” Weiser said, adding that music director Daniel Meyer is eager to have the philharmonic co-commission works, as it did for Michael Torke’s violin concerto, “Sky,” in January. Unlike that work, the trumpet concerto presented the opportunity for the Phil to be the first among equals, as Weiser assembled a group of seven co-commissioning orchestras from California to Virginia.
It helped to have a distinguished composer on board. Vivian Fung, 44, composed her first piece as a 7-year-old piano student in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. She has barely slowed down since, amassing an impressive and varied catalog of works for orchestra, chamber ensembles and solo instrumentalists. Her Violin Concerto, a work full of ravishing orchestral colors and dizzying solo writing, earned Fung a JUNO Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy, in 2013.
“In any project I do, I try to get a sense of the people I’m writing for, their musical strengths and their environment,” Fung said by phone from her home in California where she is on the faculty at Santa Clara University. “Mary came to my house … and showed me her trumpets, and I got a sense of her playing, her personality and her strengths. So, it’s very much composed with her in mind.”
It might be more accurate to call the work a Triple Concerto, since Bowden will play not just the standard E-flat trumpet, but also the mellow flugelhorn and brilliant piccolo trumpet.
“That’s something that I do a lot,” Bowden said. “In solo recitals I often have six trumpets onstage with me. I wanted that in the concerto because flugelhorn and piccolo have such a differentiation in colors.”
Color is an aspect of music that Fung is acutely sensitive to, but her music is highly rhythmic, as well. I mentioned that I heard in her Violin Concerto the hyper-caffeinated pace of urban life, the sound of New York, a city she called home for 30 years.
“That energy is something that I really run with,” she said. “I don’t think it’s unique to New York, but it’s very palpable in New York. I have that driving, relentless rhythmic feeling — especially lately — and you’ll hear that in the (Trumpet) Concerto. It’s one fell swoop. That’s why it’s in one movement instead of the usual three.”
Perhaps as a warmup, Bowden, who has made appearances in Erie with her chamber group Seraph Brass, will play transcriptions of three pieces by Claude Debussy. This will follow the ballet music from Verdi’s opera, “Macbeth.” The program will conclude with Dvorak’s hummable, danceable Symphony No. 8.
The final movement of that work begins with a trumpet fanfare, a strong musical lede and a fine example of how composers have traditionally used the instrument to herald something portentous. On Saturday night, in the hands of Bowden, what the trumpet will announce is nothing less than history in the making.
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