Usually one will for the most part only find a single tuba in a symphonic orchestra. Notwithstanding, more than 20 years ago four tubists from renowned German orchestras formed the Melton Tuba Ensemble and since then have been performing internationally as soloists with this ensemble.
With the magnum opus of this recording, the "Grand Concerto 4 Tubas", they now present together with the Duisburg Philharmonics under Carl St. Clair the historically first work of its genre, a concert for tuba quartet and symphony orchestra. The American composer John Stevens wrote the piece as a joint commission by the Duisburg Philharmonics, the Bamberg Symphonics and the Dresden Philharmonic. John Stevens in the piece avoids using vanguard tendencies and builds on the American tonal language, coined by composers like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
The sound of the tubas as an ensemble is in the foreground, even though all of them are also called upon solistically. The first movement, "Intrada", as the most weighty part of the composition, has a forceful-heroic character. The ensuing "Scherzo" more is about facility and agility. While quite often there is a certain heaviness attributed to the tuba, it is precisely here where the soloists prove the contrary and show just how many possibilities their instrument possesses in terms of agility. The warm timbre of the "Ballade" emphasises the lyrical-melodic qualities of the tuba by means of singability and harmony. The finale, "Tango-Tarantella", has a dance-like character. Here the tuba at first can be experienced unaccompanied; fascinating sonic possibilities are displayed and even even the limit of the tonal range is touched.
The album is topped by additional works by the hand of John Stevens, representing many different facets of his oeuvre: The striking orchestral piece "Jubilare!", followed by the „Adagio" for just strings in the tradition of a great many of renowned Adagio works, as well as a number of pieces for tuba quartet and eight-part tuba-euphonium-ensemble, each with its completely unique character.
Tubas doubtless enjoy a lot of attention because of their size and their shiny look, being made of brass, but seldom do they have the opportunity to appear in a solo setting. The name is derived from the ancient Roman signal instrument. The modern tuba found its way to the orchestra after having been patented in 1835, used as a valved bass or contrabass saxhorn or flugelhorn, gradually replacing the ophicleide. The tuba is also used in military music, in wind ensembles and in jazz. Normally only one tuba appears in an ensemble, or two at the most, so the tuba quartet is an extraordinary and rare ensemble. The tubas in a quartet are not only
responsible for the timbral foundation and rhythmic accentuation, but also for melody and harmony. Numerous surprising effects are bound to happen, as the listener's expectations are outwitted again and again.
Because of the size of the instrument, the tuba is thought to possess a certain heaviness. However, tubists have to be a virtuoso of their instrument (or their instruments) in the orchestra. When the tuba is played masterfully, listeners are often astonished. Professional players use this impression to their advantage when they use their instrument to create unexpected sound possibilities. Composers familiar with tuba technique have created the appropriate repertoire.
One composer who especially knows about the tuba is the American composer John Stevens. Stevens, born in 1951, is Professor of Tuba and Euphonium at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is also School of Music Director. He plays in the Wisconsin Brass Quintet and has made a name for himself as a performer of orchestral, chamber music and jazz as well as a conductor, composer and arranger. John Stevens has produced more than fifty original compositions and almost as many arrangements for brass instruments. The works for tuba quartet should especially be noted. In 1997, he was commissioned to write a tuba concerto for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His works vary greatly in style. They make use of developments in classical music and show modern tendencies and influences from rock music and jazz.
The "Grand Concerto 4 Tubas" was composed in 2009 and 2010 on a commission from the Duisburger Philharmoniker, the Bamberger Symphoniker and the Dresdner Philharmonie. The premiere was on November 9, 2011 in Duisburg, with other performances following. This work is the first original composition for tuba quartet and symphony orchestra.
There are several features which distinguish the concerto for tuba quartet and symphony orchestra. John Stevens avoids avant-garde tendencies but builds on American music, influenced by such composers as Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. Also, he mostly does so without showcasing individual solo instruments, emphasizing the powerful ensemble sound. The soloists are repeatedly called on to change their instruments. A total of two tenor tubas, four bass tubas and a contra-bass tuba are played.
John Stevens "Grand Concerto 4 Tubas" is a four-movement work and, as such, allows for diversity of expression. The first movement is entitled "Intrada". As the weightiest part of the entire composition, it has a powerful and heroic character. In the "Scherzo" which follows, there is more of a feeling of facility and movement. Since a certain heaviness is often attributed to the tuba, the soloists here prove the opposite and show what kind of agility their instruments possess. After the Scherzo, the "Ballade" emphasizes the lyrical and melodic qualities of the tuba. With its cantablile expression and harmony, this warm-timbred movement is a cut above the usual orchestral repertoire, where usually the powerful foundation of the "heavy brass" is called for. The finale, "Tango Tarantella", has a dance-like character. Here, the tubas are initially unaccompanied, fascinating sound possibilities are on display and the upper and lower limits of the range are called for. As the orchestra makes its entrance, the tempo and mood change. "Each player is given a last opportunity to come to the fore. The audience goes home with a feeling of astonishment at the sounds and energy which can arise through the combination of a tuba quartet and symphony orchestra," Stevens says.
The "Grand Concerto 4 Tubas" is adorned by other works of John Stevens on this CD. These works encompass a time frame of
almost four decades. "Jubilare!" was composed for the festive opening of the 75th concert season of the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 2000. In this effective orchestral work, various groups play in turn. Brilliant wind fanfares appear as well as cantabile melodic passages. In addition to the original setting for symphony orchestra, the composition "Jubilare!" has also been arranged for wind ensemble.
The "Adagio" was commissioned by the International Tuba and Euphonium Association and is written in the tradition of a number of famous adagio compositions, whose goal is the expression of timbral beauty. The piece has a melodic, sometimes plaintive character wrapped in a pleasant, harmonic movement. John Stevens dedicated it to the memory of his teacher Rayburn Wright, who was Professor of Jazz at the Eastman School of Music. Originally a piece composed for low brass in 1991, it was arranged for strings in 2010, continuing the tradition of famous adagio compositions, although this may be the only one originally composed for tubas and euphoniums and then arranged for strings, instead of the other way around.
John Stevens wrote his short rock fanfare "Power" in 1974 around the time of his graduation from Yale University. Another part of his diverse output which excites audiences and challenges interpreters is featured here. The work "Benediction", which was recorded for CD for the first time in 2004, was composed placing more direct emphasis on melodic and harmonic beauty. Like the contrasting miniature "Power", it is especially popular.
Michael Tegethoff (translation: Daniel Costello)