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Training for a world premiere

Gresley is a new Concerto for Bass Trombone and Orchestra by British composer and Principal Conductor of the Slaithwaite Philharmonic Orchestra Benjamin Ellin.

Written for the Orchestra of Opera North’s bass trombonist Christian Jones, it receives its world premiere at Huddersfield Town Hall on 7 October as part of the Kirklees Concert Season. As they prepared for the first performance, Christian and Benjamin told us a bit more about the piece and its background.

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The instrument

“The trombone itself dates from the mid-15th Century”, says Christian. “Its beautifully simple design has barely changed since: in French, ’trombone’ also means paperclip! Early composers quickly appreciated the instrument’s similarity to the human voice and employed trombone sections like a chorus with parts for alto, tenor and bass trombones (soprano trombones are rarer, but do exist!) Its role has subsequently expanded to encompass all aspects of ensemble playing from glorious sweeping melodies in Wagner operas to percussive interjections in the music of John Adams.

“My instrument, the bass trombone, is pitched a little lower than the more common tenor trombone, which is why it’s slightly larger and features one or two valves, to enable the lowest notes to be played. We act as a sonic bridge between the tenor trombones and tuba, often reinforcing the musical lines of other low instruments in the orchestra, like the double bass and bassoon.”

The inspiration

The new Concerto is inspired by the life of Sir Nigel Gresley, who overcame tragedy and grief to become one of the greatest railway engineers of all time. “Gresley’s wife died of cancer in 1929”, explains Benjamin. “Apart from the obvious tragedy of this, what struck me was that he hadn’t by that point begun the work that would later make him so famous – he would go on to invent The Mallard and The Flying Scotsman. His ability to rise again from such a huge loss speaks an enormous amount about his inner spirit, his sheer determination and his brilliant positive creative energy.”

For Christian, this tribute to human resilience is timely: “Of course, everyone has found this period really difficult, and as musicians, being cooped up at home in front of a screen is the antithesis of what we do. The turmoil of the pandemic has made many people reassess what is important to them, and for me it confirmed my absolute love of performing and sharing music. It’s been so good to have a positive and life-affirming project like this to focus on over the past 18 months.”

A lifelong ambition

“Nearly all of the trombone’s solo repertoire dates from the latter half of the 20th century, so there isn’t much in the way of ‘classics’! As a student I performed the Václav Nelhýbel concerto, and I premiered and recorded Gareth Wood’s Concerto with the National Youth Brass Band of Wales in 2008. The number of bespoke concerti are growing steadily, but there was definitely space for my commission to Benjamin! I first performed his music almost 25 years ago when we were both members of the National Youth Orchestra brass section, and bringing this new concerto for my under-represented instrument to the concert platform marks the fulfilment of a lifelong ambition.

The challenge

The main issue with concerti for brass instruments is stamina, due to the way our lips and the surrounding muscles have to buzz to create the sound: even other non-wind playing musicians are surprised to learn that playing a 20-minute piece on a brass instrument is a really big deal! Practicing at home is very different to projecting ‘out’ into a large hall with a professional ensemble all around you: the same music requires much more strength and it is this that I’ve been working on, including sneaking onto the Huddersfield Town Hall stage last week before our opening concert of the Kirklees season! There are certainly some fruity low notes too!”

Light at the end of the tunnel

“I love the hall in Huddersfield and the warm welcome that we always receive from our audience, whether it’s our regulars, new visitors, or the many University students who come to enjoy live classical music. Simply being together in a concert hall again is a kind of communal act which celebrates our emergence from the pandemic.”

Opera North’s Principal Guest Conductor Antony Hermus leads the Orchestra of Opera North in the world premiere of Gresley on Thursday 7 October. Mendelssohn’s thrilling sound-painting of a stormy Fingal’s Cave, the Hebrides Overture, opens the concert, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 touches down on the calmer waters of Lake Wörth, southern Austria, where the composer spent happy summers holidaying and working. There’s also a bonus world premiere in the shape of Dawn Ride Home by Niall Docherty, one of our series of Minute Masterpieces commissioned from emerging composers.

Tickets for the concert are priced from £13.00 – £27.00, just £1 for anyone aged 16 and under, and £4 for ages 17 – 29 via our Under 30s scheme.

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