WYNTON MARSALIS Tuba Concerto
MAHLER Symphony No. 1
II. Boogaloo Americana
IV. In Bird’s Basement
Wynton Marsalis has distinguished himself as a composer of works that are inventive hybrids of Western art music and jazz traditions. Notably, he adapts and fuses art music’s forms and mediums (e.g., orchestra, string quartet) with jazz and its many styles, along with other Black music idioms including work songs and spirituals. In this vein, his Tuba Concerto expands the notion of virtuosity for the soloist—as not only about technical prowess, but also about playing expressively, as well as being able to deftly perform a diverse range of Black and Latin American musical styles.
Co-commissioned by several orchestras including the NAC Orchestra, Marsalis composed his Tuba Concerto in 2021. Originally written for Carol Jantsch, principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, she premiered the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on December 9, 2021. It has since been performed by several other tubists and orchestras; tonight’s presentation featuring NACO Principal Tuba Chris Lee as soloist is the concerto’s Canadian premiere.
The energetic first movement Up! introduces various musical materials that then return throughout, arranged in different ways. Against forceful orchestral accompaniment, the tuba plays an angular, restless melody. In the movement’s three cadenzas, the soloist plays multiphonics, an extended technique that requires playing one pitch and singing another simultaneously. Later, handclaps in parts of the orchestra along with marked syncopations in the percussion propel the movement to the finish as the tuba dazzles with a series of licks.
“Funky tuba” was the inspiration for Boogaloo Americana, said Marsalis in a video conversation with Jantsch. He noted he wrote a boogaloo, a 1960s style of dance music that combines Latin American idioms such as clave rhythms with African American funk music, to give the tuba a chance to play some “quirky bass lines”. (Jantsch had explicitly requested that funk be incorporated somehow.) Other boogaloo sounds—handclaps (again) and agogo bells—are integrated into the orchestral palette. Along with the “different ratios” of Latin styles (which include danzon and mambo) and funk, there’s also an “Americana” section featuring open-fourth harmonies. According to Jantsch, Marsalis said the movement is about “taste and finesse.”
“The tuba is such a singing instrument,” Marsalis told Jantsch. For Lament, he wanted to write a part that “started introspectively…the kind of thing we equate with Bill Evans and Wayne Shorter.” From introspection, the movement shifts to 19th-century Romantic lyricism, with the tuba playing a “kind of an opera recitative” to which the orchestra responds. After another introspective moment, a march appears; based on a repeated bass line and featuring tambourines, Marsalis explained that it’s a reference to the minstrel show: “I wanted the tuba to deal with the whole pathos that comes with this type of parody…the bittersweet quality of having to make a parody of yourself.” The middle section has “burlesques” with “extreme dissonances…and when you sing your part, you slowly realize that no matter what you do…you’re a comic-tragic character. A sad clown.” To drive this point home in interpretation, Marsalis instructs the tuba at the movement’s climax to “shout as if wailing wasn’t enough.”
Solo tuba and orchestra take on bebop in the concerto’s lively finale In Bird’s Basement. (The movement’s title refers to jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was one of the pioneering figures of bebop.) Following Jantsch’s suggestion that Marsalis incorporate bebop in the work’s final movement, the composer noted he was inspired to “write for an orchestra and write bebop…to try to actually use the language of it and have them play breaks and riffs.” The resulting tuba part, with its incredibly fast passages and rapid-changing harmonies, is a brilliant showcase for the soloist’s technical as well as stylistic virtuosity
I. Langsam, schleppend (Slow, dragging) – Immer sehr gemächlich (Very leisurely throughout)
II. Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving energetically, but not too fast) – Trio: Recht gemächlich (Rather leisurely)
III. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen (Solemn and measured, but without dragging)
IV. Stürmisch bewegt (In a stormy tempo)
After its initial composition in 1888, it took Gustav Mahler a decade to arrive at the version of the score that we know today as his First Symphony. He first conceived of it in five movements and conducted this version’s premiere in Budapest in 1889 to mixed reviews. He revised it, giving it the title of “Titan: a tone poem in symphonic form”. Still in five movements, Mahler, notably, provided a programmatic description for the work, which was published in the concert notes for this version’s first performance in Hamburg in 1893. In 1896, Mahler conducted yet another revised version in Berlin for which he dropped the second movement (“Blumine”) as well as the “Titan” title and accompanying program (he had determined they confused audiences). The final four-movement version was published in 1899 as Symphony No. 1.
With its intense psychological narrative (evident, despite being made “secret”) conveyed through the medium of a large orchestra, Mahler’s First Symphony is powerful and cathartic, especially when experienced live. The first movement begins with an atmospheric introduction that Mahler described as portraying “the awakening of nature from a long winter’s sleep.” Against a shimmering backdrop of sustained high harmonics in the strings, the motifs of the awakening emerge: first, a phrase of descending fourths that Mahler labeled in the score “like a sound of nature; it alternates with fanfares in the clarinet, then trumpets “placed at a very great distance” (usually off-stage). Following cuckoo calls, the horns intone a warm melody. Finally, through a groggily crawling chromatic passage for cellos and basses, we arrive at the movement proper—on a merry theme from Mahler’s song “Gin heut’ Morgen übers Feld” (Went this morning through the fields) from his cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). Music of the song’s first and third verses are presented and culminate in a joyous closing passage.
The opening section is then repeated, after which the introduction material returns, this time with added mystery and suspense. The cellos sing sighing phrases, tinged with melancholy, that, following a horn fanfare, morph into an extended lyrical melody. It develops alongside phrases from the main song theme, cycling through various keys. Later, the music darkens, becoming more insistent and menacing, but in a gigantic climax, breaks through to triumphant brass fanfares. They lead back to the opening song, which now flows more freely, accelerating with near-delirious joy. Suddenly, the timpani crashes in boisterously, stunning the rest of the orchestra. The movement closes on this humorous moment, which Mahler once described as Beethoven “breaking out into loud laughter and running away.”
In the second movement, yodelling phrases introduce a Ländler melody of rustic character (including vigorous stamping), which the woodwinds and upper strings alternately present. Hints of the earlier threat later appear but the dance reasserts itself; beginning very softly, it builds to a grand orchestral climax, which then accelerates to the horns’ culminating shout. The mood drastically shifts in the contrasting Trio—a tender waltz of nostalgic quality, with falling, sighing phrases and the melody enriched by glissandi in the violins. A truncated version of the Ländler returns to bookend the movement.
The remarkable third movement is a sharply ironic Todtenmarsch (death march), conveyed through unusual tone colours. According to Mahler’s original program note, the tragic-comic nature of the movement was inspired by a “parodistic picture” (a woodcut by Moritz von Schwind) from a children’s book of fairy tales, depicting “the animals of the forest escorting the coffin of a deceased hunter to the gravesite.” Musically, he depicts the procession with the children’s song “Bruder Martin” (or “Frère Jacques”) but set in the minor mode to give it an “eerie and brooding effect.” It’s introduced by muted solo double bass in its high register, accompanied by timpani, after which other low instruments enter in turn with the tune in a canon—bassoon, muted cellos, tuba, bass clarinet. The oboe offers biting commentary as more instruments join the march. After the procession, a pair of oboes begin a lament; it’s soon interrupted by the intrusion of a noisy band—including Turkish cymbals, bass drum, and strings playing on the wood of their bows—with a tune of banal gaiety (Mahler instructs it to be played “with parody”).
The middle section provides ethereal contrast, with the violins singing a melody borrowed from the last stanza of the final song in Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen: “Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz” (The two blue eyes of my beloved). It has the effect of recalling a poignant memory, which then fades out—listen for touches of gong. The funeral procession returns with renewed intensity—in a different key and with thicker textures, including a new lament in the trumpets. After the banal band tune is reprised by the clarinets with cymbals and bass drum, the pace accelerates, and suddenly, the death march, the trumpets’ lament, and the band tune clash simultaneously. Eventually, they go their separate ways, with the procession waning last.
Proceeding without a break, the fourth movement begins with a shocking crash of cymbals and an anguished howl of a chord, which Mahler described as “the sudden erupting of a heart wounded to its depths.” Extant communications reveal that Mahler shaped the musical content of this movement to an explicit narrative; he once titled it “Dall’ Inferno al Paradiso”. In a conversation with his close friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner from November 1900, Mahler summarized it like this:
The last movement…begins with a horrible outcry. Our hero is completely abandoned, engaged in a most dreadful battle with all the sorrow of this world. Time and again he—and the victorious motif with him—is dealt a blow by fate whenever he rises above it and seems to get hold of it, and only in death, when he has become victorious over himself, does he gain victory. Then the wonderful allusion to his youth rings out once again with the theme of the first movement. (Glorious Victory Chorale!)
As you’ll hear, Mahler utilizes the maximum power of the orchestra’s forces to portray this psychological battle. The first section features the unleashing of the terrifying “inferno”, with a menacing series of march-like themes. It collapses, and the mood shifts to a melody of heartfelt nostalgia in the violins. At the song’s end, the crawling passage from the first movement’s introduction returns, leading into inferno’s return at the beginning of the second section. Here, we get glimpses of triumph with the introduction of the “victorious” motif; announced by a variation of the Grail Theme from Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, trumpets and trombones intone it very softly the first time. The inferno rises once more, and as it threatens to overwhelm, the “victorious” motif resounds again, much more assertively. This time, it’s extended to include a “chorale”—a statement, declared by no less than seven horns, of descending fourths that is itself a variation on the “nature” theme at the symphony’s opening. But the climax dissolves, into the reminiscences of the fanfares and motifs from the symphony’s introduction—the allusion to the hero’s youth. It melts into the nostalgic song at the start of the third and final section, gradually spinning out into an impassioned climax. The inferno then makes one last attempt to claim the hero’s soul, but a massive breakthrough occurs, like the one near the end of the first movement. With the declamation of the “victory chorale” (horns standing with bells up), triumph in paradise is at last attained at the symphony’s glorious finish.
Program notes by Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
◊Marianne Di Tomaso
◊Yu Kai Sun
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant solo)
*Andéa Armijo Fortin
Jethro Marks (principal / solo)
David Marks (associate principal / solo associé)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal / assistant solo)
◊Emily Rekrut Pressey
Rachel Mercer (principal)
Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
◊Tsung Yu Tsai
*Joel Quarrington (guest principal)
Hilda Cowie (acting assistant principal)
Joanna G'froerer (principal / solo)
Charles Hamann (principal)
Kimball Sykes (principal)
Christopher Millard (principal)
◊Chia Yu Hsu
Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
◊Corine Chartré Lefebvre
◊Shin Yu Wang
Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
◊Jose Juan Hernandez Torres
Donald Renshaw (principal)
◊Wing Kwong Tang
Chris Lee (principal)
Feza Zweifel (principal)
Non-titled members of the Orchestra are listed alphabetically
◊ Mentorship Program Participants