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The Low Brass Section of The Philadelphia Orchestra Shines In Jennifer Higdon's Concerto

Composer Jennifer Higdon

Four Philadelphia Orchestra brass players routinely sit together in the back of the orchestra. But for a 2018 work by Jennifer Higdon, they all moved to the front of the stage—as soloists and chamber musicians. WRTI’s Susan Lewis talked with the quartet and composer about the surprising sounds we don't often hear from the low brass.

On Sunday, May 16th at 1 pm on WRTI 90.1, and Monday, May 17th at 7 pm on WRTI HD-2, listen to a re-broadcast of the Philadelphia premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Low Brass performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra.

It's February, 2018.  Gathered in a room backstage at the Kimmel Center to talk about Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass, were Philadelphia Orchestra tenor trombones Nitzan Haroz and Matthew Vaughn, bass trombone Blair Bollinger, tuba player Carol Jantsch, and the composer Jennifer Higdon.

How did it come about? Three orchestras—The Chicago Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Baltimore Symphony—asked Higdon to write a concerto for low brass.  “I jumped on it because it was scary," she says. "Usually my rule for deciding on new projects is, if it terrifies me, I should go for it!"

Credit Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Orchestra
Left to right are Nitzan Haroz, Matthew Vaughn, Blair Bollinger, and Carol Jantsch

When writing concertos, Higdon typically considers not only the solo the instrument but also the player who will premiere it. In this case, she conferred with the members of the solo quartet in each orchestra.  “Amazingly, they all made the same requests!”

The piece opens with a brass chorale. Higdon says she wanted to focus on “things audiences don’t always get a chance to hear, which is the slow, lyrical quiet playing.”   

Nor do audiences often hear the unexpectedly nimble notes, such as “a bunch of fancy scales in the tuba part,” says Bollinger, looking pointedly at Jantsch, who shoots back,  “Yeah!  Three octaves, 16th note triplet scales in the tuba part!”  The group breaks up in laughter.

Whether in the back row or the front of the stage, these four brass players clearly enjoy one another;  this was yet another reason Higdon was drawn to the project.   

“Low brass players are always a lot of fun to write with!”

Working and playing well together enables them to juggle the sometimes conflicting demands of soloist and ensemble member.  “As a soloist,  you really think about yourself, and the accompaniment,” says Haroz, “and you want to shine…”  

“When you put it together, it changed a lot,” says Vaughn.  “We had to reformulate how we each approached it, and make compromises with each other.”

“In my mind,” says Bollinger, "this is more like playing a brass quintet or trombone quartet concert, except we have 90 of our friends accompanying us in the back!”

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.