Trombones Bring Down the House

This is Edward Elgar’s Nimrod theme arranged for trombone quartet by Ralph Sauer. This is a YouTube performance by Andrea Conti, Andrea Bandini, Michel Becquet and James Gourlay at a memorial for Steve Witser in 2009. The piece was originally written for orchestra, but I’m here to geek out over a video of tromboning, so skip that version if you’re with me.

This is a quick three minute insight into the mind of someone with twenty plus years of trombone experience and two music degrees.

0:02 – Awesomely unified ensemble breathing. If you’re watching/listening to a chamber music ensemble, this is one of the signs that said ensemble is playing well as a unit. (Even strings! Really!)

0:07 – Holy crap that tempo. So sloooooow. This is where brass players go to die.

0:25 – Listen to the melody in the first trombone just float on top of the ensemble. The blend and balance in this performance is awesome.

0:35 – Tiny, nearly imperceptible blemish by someone on the entrance. Who was it? Who cares! Does that make the performance bad? Of course not! This is a beautifully played version of this piece. Try to enjoy beautiful things.

1:14 – Are you kidding me with that high note? So clear! I’ve performed this piece, and if I remember correctly, that was a high E-flat. (E-flat 5 if you know scientific pitch notation) Many orchestration guides will tell you not to write about B-flat 4 for trombone. That’s half an octave below this E-flat. A good pro player doesn’t have any trouble exceeding that range, but playing that E-flat at full strength with good tuning is a task only suited to the strongest of players.

1:32 – We’ve reached the B section of the piece. This is a delicate passage that is difficult to tune. Listen to how the tuning remains impeccable even as the dynamics (that’s musician speak for volume) go up. Oooooh yeah.

1:52 – Gorgeous counter line brought out by the tuba player. You’ll hear it rise out of the texture for a just a few seconds.

2:05 – The homestretch! Even though it’s a relatively short piece, there is nowhere to rest. These guys should be feeling a little tired by this point, but you can’t tell. This is just straight power while still maintaining blend, balance, and tuning. This is just as difficult to pull off as a faster, more technical passage. In fact, for less experienced players it might even be more difficult because the skills involved are more subtle and require listening skills rather than physical skills.

2:21 – This is definitely a melody-dominant arrangement, but here’s a stretch where the inner voices are a bit easier to hear. As the dynamics come up, the second and third trombones have to come up enough that they can be heard through the easier to hear tuba (because it’s a different instrument) and first trombone (because it’s playing much higher). This also provides a feeling of security to the first player, who actually doesn’t have to work as hard when the inner voices are loud enough to balance, even though you might expect them to have to play louder to stay on top of the lower voices playing louder. Basically, the second and third parts have to play 5-10% louder than the first and fourth parts for the ensemble to balance perfectly.


2:46 – The way this is written just sounds cool to me. This part is tough to keep together. When I played this piece, we did not quite nail that part.

2:56 – OMG such a unified ensemble sound. Also, a great reminder that brass playing probably never sounds better than when it happens in a church.

3:01 – This is why dynamic contrast is effective! Five seconds ago was probably the loudest part of the piece. Moments later it’s soft and delicate. It almost makes me afraid to breathe because I might miss whatever happens next.

3:10 – Last chord. What does good balance sound like in a quartet? I bet you can pick out four unique voices here if you try.

This was a really amazing performance of a subtle, hard to perform piece.

Featured image via iStock.