Bolero1952 and it was the first Orchestra other than Jr. high school that I had played in; it was called the Eagle Rock Civic Symphony. This was a small orchestra, typical of many such orchestras throughout the Los Angeles area. Some players were great, some not so.
I was 13 years old, highly impressionable and very naïve; to me everybody was either the greatest player in the world or not really very good. There were, in fact, a few extraordinary players in the orchestra and a lot of local eager amateurs. I was to learn that this was a wonderful thing, where else could these players, including eager 13 year olds, enjoy playing the great music of the world? At the time I didn’t realize how fortunate I was.
We played two pieces during the rehearsal that night, Brahms 2nd Symphony and Ravel’s Bolero. This was the first time I experienced the aspect of having to wait before I got to play; little did I know how much “waiting” I would have to experience in the future. And there was more to it than just having to wait; I was supposed to count and therefore know where to come in! However, I didn’t learn it that night! The first entrance in the Brahms was traumatic; hit and miss with emphases on miss. I tried to hear the violin que and the timpani roll that were printed in the tuba part and when I thought I heard it I came in. The conductor and my colleagues were very kind.
But not all the waiting was stressful; through the long wait in the Ravel Bolero before the tuba finally came in, I was able to hear all the solos and discriminate how they sounded, some of them were great; the flute sounded wonderful to me, the clarinet was to be my ideal of great playing for many years, I could hear the problems the horn and the trumpet were having and that the bassoon had intonation problems. I didn’t know it but I was about to experience one of the most significant learning experiences of my brass playing musical life. The trombonist was Dick Nash, who became one of the truly great commercial trombonists in the USA through the 2nd part of the 20th century; he had come to Los Angeles from the New England part of the US and was in the process of acquiring symphony experience and gaining exposure in the Los Angeles area. As the orchestra passed through all the solos in Bolero I could peripherally see Dick as he was getting ready for the trombone solo; when he came in it was extraordinary.
The conductor was Leo Arnoud; a man who I was to find was also an extraordinary musician on many levels; he was an accomplished composer, having written many film scores and the music for the Canadian Olympics of 1976. When Dick’s solo ended Mr. Arnoud stopped and began to tell us about his history with that solo. He explained that the trombone of that time was much smaller and sounded much different, that Ravel conceived the solo in the American jazz trombone style, especially regarding the glissandi he put into the solo and that he was thinking it should be played like Tommy Dorsey, who was the player that he had conceptualized the Bolero solo after. And Mr Arnoud told us that he himself was the first trombonist for the world premier of Bolero in Paris in 1928 with Ravel conducting!
Mr. Arnoud explained that the smaller trombone began to make a brighter sound at a much lower dynamic (more high overtones) than the modern symphony trombones, that it made a sound that was correct for Bolero and many other works of that period. Further he explained that by the time a modern large bore symphony trombone acquires the ratio of overtones that is correct for this kind of music, it is far too loud. (I was to learn later that the bore size of the French trombone used in that period was .001 of an inch smaller that a modern large bore symphony trumpet!). He also mentioned that the trombone solo should be legato like the other instruments in Bolero, that although there was no legato (slur marks) written over the trombone solo, Ravel wanted it to sound like the other instruments ‘as much as possible’.
Brass instruments and brass players have evolved a long way since many of
the symphonic masterworks were written! People wonder now if the bigger and
louder direction brass seems to be going should come to an end; certainly the
nuance and dynamic elasticity needed for much of the music we play would be
more accessible with more physiologically compatible equipment. We will never
return to the equipment that was used in France in 1928 but I’ve often
wondered what it might be like if symphony players would use appropriately
smaller instruments in certain repertoire. It will be interesting to observe
this brass evolution and try and anticipate its direction; whatever happens
my intuition tells me we will have many surprises.