PILLARS – Concerto for Low Brass



Concerto for Low Brass and Orchestra, or piano reduction


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By James M. Stephenson

duration:  25′

Premiered on June 14, 2018 by the low brass section of the Minnesota Orchestra; Osmo Vänskä, conductor

Program Notes (by the composer):

The story:

A couple of years before composing “pillars”, I was contacted by some good friends of Bill Zehfuss, the former principal trombonist of the Charleston Symphony, who had died the just the previous summer. They truly wanted to have a piece composed in his memory, and wanted to explore possibilities as to how to make that happen. I knew Bill from my performing days many years ago, as well as having worked with him when conducting the Charleston Symphony.  As a matter of fact, the last time I had seen Bill was when conducting the brass quintet as soloists in front of the orchestra. Bill was the trombonist, and I recall having some great laughs with him late into the evening after our final performance. Wilson Ochoa successfully led a campaign, along with Michael Grose and Dan Satterwhite, to crowd-fund the creation of the piece. Once that was accomplished, we were honored to have the Minnesota Orchestra and conductor Osmo Vänskä (with whom I had worked previously) sign on to presenting the premiere, with their low brass section as soloists.

The music:

Basically – I tried to show off what trombones are good at. I knew I wanted to include some big/full section playing – and also some soft melodic chorale writing, urged by the principal trombonist and good friend, Doug Wright. Knowing some of the players personally, I also knew that I wanted spots where each soloist would get to show off. Sure – a few glisses here and there, and some technical stuff, but nothing too “crazy” hard (I don’t think). The piece as a whole has a very “orchestral” sound. After the opening chorale, Interestingly enough, the first movement employs the four soloists in unison. I wanted to do exactly what an audience would NOT expect with four people out front, while revealing how beautiful that sound could be. Plus, I recalled from my trumpet playing days how fun/rewarding it is to be part of a group of multiple people playing, but to sound like one. The 2nd movement is where I remembered Bill. It is a (quasi) Passacaglia, with some aching lines, some literal orchestral “tears”, and some grit, as I was remembering how sad/angry I was when I heard the news that Bill had died. The 3rd movement is more uplifting, and has a bit of a Latin feel, because the aforementioned last time I worked with Bill, when I was conducting, we did an all Latin concert.
My last memory of Bill is hanging out at that Mexican restaurant after the concert, and having a beer, celebrating and laughing with him. I wanted to reflect that in the music. There is also a “bluesy” section, which also employs some sleigh bells – a nod to Mahler’s 4th symphony (one of my favorites) – which doesn’t use the low brass, and would round out this concert featuring the “pillars” world premiere.

The title:

Bill was a very tall man. Probably 6’8″ or so. Doug – principal trombonist of the Minnesota Orchestra – is also tall. Maybe about 6’4″. So, with these two individuals being the crux of the creation of this piece, the image of pillars came into my mind. But, also, one might think of the low brass providing the strength to an orchestra, and therefore resembling the support such as pillars might provide. However, the most important reason for the title is due to the love and support showed by Bill’s many friends. One definition of pillar is: “a person or thing regarded as reliably providing essential support for something.” And that is exactly what all of these people did for Bill. So, in my mind, they are pillars of our world community, and I wanted to honor them, along with Bill, the soloists,  and the orchestra, with my title.

2 flutes, 1 (doubling) alto/piccolo, 2 oboes, english horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet,
2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 french horns, 3 trumpets in C, timpani, 4 percussion:
instruments needed (some shared):
Perc 1  (mallets): 4.5 octave (minimum) marimba, vibes, glockenspiel, xylophone, crotales

Perc 2:  cabasa, 20” suspended cymbal, glock, snare drum, shakers, vibes, crotales, china cymb, wood block, triangle, B.D. (if possible), Sleigh bells, tamtam

Perc 3:  3 suspended cymbals (14″, 16”, 18”), triangle, sand blocks, tambourine + mounted, snare drum, ratchet, chimes, temple blocks, slap-sticks, shakers

Perc 4:  bass drum, slap sticks, wood block, cabasa, Drum set Snare drum, Drum set kick drum, Bongo (2) /conga (1) set, triangle + suspended trgl., drum set – H.H. and splash cymb., Sus. Cymb., cajon with snares.
harp, strings, solo low brass: 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba

Commissioned by the many friends (listed below) of Bill Zehfuss, in his memory. 

The following friends and family of Bill Zehfuss contributed $100 or more 

to the Kickstarter campaign to make this concerto a reality:

Joseph Alessi, Joseph Awad,  Ashley Barclay, Brooks W. Barnes, Dave Begnoche,
Neal Berntsen, Blair Bollinger, Bruce Bonnicksen, Laurie Lokken Brown, Mike Brubaker, Thomas Burge, Steve Campbell, Andrew Chappell, Gordon Cherry, Rebecca Ciabattari, Gregory Cleary, George Curran, Robert Dorer, Christopher Dudley, Perre Edwards,   Eugene Symphony Low Brass, Jay Evans, Catherine & Gerald* Fischer, Greg Flint,
Tom France, Matthew Good, Peter Graves, Herb & Louise Grose, Michael Grose,
Sarah Hawbecker, Richie Hawley, Matt Herbers, William & Catherine Hudgins,
Mark Hughes, Indiana University Low Brass Faculty, Mark Inouye, Pamela Jackson,
Eric Johnson, Lynn Johnson,Thomas Joyce, Karl Kistler, Adam Kuenzel, Ed Kuhn,
Steve Lange, Amos Lawrence, Lee & Melissa Livengood, Lynn University,
Lori Mackie-Hewelt, Pablo Mahave-Veglia, James Markey, David Russell Martin,
Rusty McKinney, Susan Sievert Messersmith, Andrew Miller, Jeremy Moeller,
Cathy & John Moss, Mary Catherine Mousourakis, Steve Norell, James Nova,
D. Wilson Ochoa, Ellen Ochoa, Ava Ordman, Gerry Pagano, Carl Polk, Dr. Risa Poniros, Stephen Proser, David Ridge, Mike Roylance, Bob Rydel, Dan Satterwhite,
Greg Schoonover, Charles Schuchat, David W. Schwarz, Cale Self, Garth Simmons,
Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, Julie Spencer, James Stephenson, Jr., Robert Sullivan,
Shelly Suminski, Craig Sutherland, Dave Tall, Mark Tillinger, William Timmons,
Amy Handelman Trotz, Valor Brass, Harold Van Schaik, Charles Villarrubia, Peggy Watts,   Susan Welty, Marc Williams, Kathleen Wilson, Tom Witte, Marc & Janet Wolters,
Kathy Wood, Douglas Wright, Ethan Zawisza, and Michael Zion.


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