Thursday, November 25, 2010

I've got the Philharmonic blues

It is a major milestone for any orchestral musician when he/she gets the opportunity to stand in front of an orchestra and perform. For those of us that have a passion for solo playing, there is nothing more exciting (and sometimes terrifying) than the idea of leaving the comfort of your ‘back row perspective’ and stepping into the spotlight. It is a chance to express yourself musically, test your mettle under pressure, and hopefully make enjoyable music.

I always assumed that I would get my first chance in front of a lesser-known orchestra, and that it would come in the form of a trombone concerto. For instance, in February I’ll be performing a concerto at my alma mater with the University of Tennessee Symphony Orchestra. (more on that later)

But as it turned out, my first moment in the spotlight came in front of my own orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, and it came in the form of... that’s right, you guessed it... the blues.

Let me explain.

I received a call from the director of our VPO children’s program entitled “passwort:klassik” in August asking me if I would like to participate in two children’s concerts during the Dudamel block in September. The idea was to use Bernstein’s Divertimento to teach the children about different styles of music from all over the world. Bernstein wrote the piece as a sort of love letter to the city of Boston, his childhood home, in commemoration of the Boston Symphony’s 100th anniversary. It’s a very lighthearted work, and it contains several short movements in various styles of music Berstein heard while growing up, including a waltz, a mazurka, a Sousa-style march, a turkey trot, a samba, and a blues.

The concept of the concert involved using Google Earth satellite animations to ‘fly’ from one location to another, each time exploring the music and culture of the new location. The kids were told to ‘fasten seat belts’ as we started in Vienna, playing a Viennese waltz, then the Bernstein waltz. We flew to Dudamel’s home country of Venezuela, where a small ensemble played a samba, then the full orchestra played the Bernstein samba. And then we flew to McMinnville, Tennessee, where it was my time to shine!

When the children’s director Hanne called me about doing the concert, I quickly agreed because from the way she described it, I would stand up, play a blues, and sit down. Easy, right? But then a couple days before the concert she called me to arrange a ‘script meeting’. Huh? Script? Turns out she wanted to play up the whole Tennessee connection with the blues and do an interview and horse-and-pony show up in FRONT of the orchestra... in GERMAN! I didn’t mention to her that Memphis, the city famous for the blues, is 4 hours west of my hometown. :) I reluctantly agreed to the full ‘shebang’, and spent the next 48 hours running through my German-language script in front of Kristi, who didn’t understand a word I was saying! I became incredibly nervous, not about the playing, but about speaking a foreign language in front of 2,500 school children! I imagined the giggles and smiles as I tried in vain to clearly enunciate my lines.

So anyway, back to the concert. As Google Earth slowly flew over the southeastern US and zoomed in on McMinnville, I did as Hanne instructed me and walked briskly towards center stage, all the while enthusiastically describing in English what I was seeing on the screen:

“There’s my school, and the pool where I learned to swim, and the street where I rode my bike, and my parent’s house. That’s where I practiced trombone, Hanne! Look everyone, it’s my hometown! This is crazy!”

You get the idea.

She ‘calmed me down’ and convinced me to speak to the children in German. We talked about the go-cart track visible out behind my house, about my practice habits growing up, and about my favorite types of music to play. I told the children about the various types of music that are prevalent in Tennessee: the Appalachian folk music and bluegrass of the East, the country/western music of Nashville, and of course Memphis’ claim to fame, the blues. I described what makes the blues special, namely the ‘blue notes’, and played “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as an example. I first played it straight and then with blues notes so they could hear the difference. They went crazy for it, and Hanne told me later the kids thought that was my whole spiel.

But we kept on going, discussing the improvisatory and unwritten nature of the blues. “Yes, Hanne, I love to play the blues. Yes, I would love to play a real blues for you right now. But I’ll need some help from my colleagues.” At this point, Christoph played a bass line on the tuba, and was joined by a drum set for some rhythm. And I played five choruses of b-flat blues!

I was so relieved and happy to be finished with the German-speaking portion that I think I released some of my tension in the blues. I started really simply and sparsely and tried to build throughout. By the end, I was playing high and loud, growling and glissing and generally just letting go. The kids in Luzern were really quiet throughout, but in Vienna they began to cheer as I played, and around about the third chorus, they began to clap along on 2 and 4. What a blast!! We finished with the traditional “A Train” ending, and the kids went nuts! Fellow trombonist Mark Gaal said there would definitely be an influx of beginning trombone students next year!

The orchestra was very appreciative of my performance as well. Many of them didn’t know I could speak more than a few words, in German OR in English, and I think they were impressed and surprised that I was able to hold together a whole 10-minute script without messing anything up! Most of them had never heard me play jazz before, and for the day I felt like the hero of the orchestra. It was a great feeling to have had success in a somewhat pressure situation. I mean, it was ‘just’ a kiddie concert, and it was ‘just’ a blues... but I nevertheless feel very proud that I was able to stand in front of the group, perform competently and successfully, and have fun doing so.

The whole experience was a real confidence booster, but in a way very surreal. I still can’t believe we zoomed in on McMinnville at the Vienna Konzerthaus. Another unexpected benefit was that so many colleagues who I hadn’t really gotten to know (and in some cases had never talked to) came up to me and struck up conversations, some about jazz, some about Tennessee, and some just about my performance. I hope I get the opportunity again soon... who knows? Maybe next will be “Rocky Top” with the Berlin Philharmonic!


  1. I am so proud of you and the man you have become, in so many ways. As a Father, Son, Husband, and a child of God.

  2. That's so cool! Congrats on a unique and memorable first front solo.

  3. Nancy D StubblefieldNovember 30, 2010 at 6:01 AM

    Well done, Jeremy! I'm sure the children were delighted. Neat way to build their interest in a musical form unfamiliar to many of them!

  4. Fasten Seat Belts for - BOLERO!