Thomas Stevens

Musical Expression II

  • General Quotes

"Sometimes no expression is expression."-Esa-Pekka Salonen (1995)

We all have descended into self-indulgent over-phrasing from time to time; it goes with the territory.(This is why there are conductors, directors, producers, and why we tape record ourselves for self-study, just to name a few aspects of our work specifically designed to make us feel uncomfortable. Of course, as conductor Zubin Mehta once remarked, "we are not in the comfort business.") For this page, I am making an exception to the self-imposed stricture to keep direct personal experiences out of the Quotables pages.

The Place: The Hollywood Bowl.

The Piece: George Gershwin’s Concerto in F.

The Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas.

There is a solo trumpet obligato that occurs three times in the second movement of the Concerto, a solo part that is particularly challenging for symphonic trumpeters since it has its genesis in the jazz of the 1920s-not exactly standard orchestral fare. (Incidental Intelligence: Several knowledgeable sources have asserted the solo was originally written for the jazz legend, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, who, as a member of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, participated in the world-premier performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.)
After having over-played the three solo episodes during the rehearsal by being a little too cute and artsy-fartsy in trying to inject the appropriate jazz-period “feel,” MTT sauntered back to Mount Trumpet during a break in the action and told me (verbatim account) that it "sounded clichéd and predictable* should do something about it." He was absolutely correct, and I should have known better. Indeed, for years I had admonished many of my students not to commit such "trying too hard" errors, frequently reinforcing the point with a Woody Herman story** I had heard many times during my youth.
I eventually resolved to play the three solo passages in incremental stages. The first entrance would be played with almost no period-jazz nuance, followed by adding just a touch of extra “stuff” the second time around, and then, in the third entrance, adding even a bit more of the nuanced period-jazz feel, but not doing as much with the tune as I had done during the rehearsal. I would like to think this solution worked, but since there was no recording made of the performance, I will never know for certain (which is fine with me since listening to recordings of one's work has never been one of my favorite activities-they just somehow never meet expectations).

* This is sometimes referred to as "predictable expressivity." (routine, standard brand, you know-what's-coming-before-you-hear-it, stuff. In a word: Boring)

** During the 1947 recording session with his Second Herd, the band that produced the original version of Jimmy Giuffre’s Four Brothers, a jazz classic featuring a saxophone section that included then rising jazz stars, Zoot Sims and Stan Getz, Woody Herman, according to legend, became impatient with the hyperactive over-playing of his young charges, each one trying to outplay his colleagues during the course of a 16 measure jazz solo. Woody, the bandleader, reportedly told them, in words to effect, that they weren’t going to win any wars in 16 bars, so to just settle down and play the music.