Trumpet Concerto (1996)
The Trumpet Concerto is one of Williams's most mature and fully realized concert works. There is a focus here in direction that makes it perhaps the most traditionally and straightforwardly structured of his concerti. At the same time, it furthers Williams's personal compositional goal of a kind of modern romanticism, blended here with a unique rhythmic sense and some echoes of Americana.
The concerto is in three movements.
The first, Maestoso, opens with a rousing interval based theme for the soloist, with the orchestra backing and helping build anticipation that leads to a resolute theme for the brass followed by the soloist going through rhythmic and quasi-lyrical motions, culminating in a more clearly lyrical if not quite melodic passage. This emphasis on shifting motion and direction characterizes the rest of the movement, as the motives and colors set forth in the introduction are explored thoroughly, yet efficiently. After a stirring orchestral high point, the soloist returns and, with the orchestra, sets a new pace, returns to the opening fanfare motive to introduce a cadenza with continued reference and development of the central motifs. Originally, the typical quiet JW first movement ending rounded out the movement, dissolving into the second, but the 2018 revision saw Williams change this in favor of the orchestra returning for a definite and forceful conclusion.
The second movement, marked Slowly, is full of lyrical mystery and contemplation. The opening is mysterious, with trumpet weaving through a unique orchestral and percussive backdrop. The principal theme is then introduced by the trumpet on a bed of strings, which proceeds to weave around the strings and woodwinds. A secondary thematic thread consists of a figure for the winds and a new lyrical theme for the trumpet, which leads to a return of the strings, first in pizzicato, then outright for a poignant passage where they restate the principal theme, which has a few shades of Rozsa to my ears in the melodic contour, with the overall treatment being unmistakably Williams. A faster section for trumpet and flute follows and leads to another restatement of the main theme and a coda with a quasi-cadenza element.
The third movement, Allegro-deciso, is the most freely formed of the three. Thematic motifs are brief musical bursts and orchestral interjections. Broadly, there are alternating fast and jagged clusters and longer lined interludes for structure. The rhythmic vitality, even in those interludes, is strong. Yet, there is seemingly an increasing hurried formality as the movement goes on, as if the music is realizing it has to be going and is politely making its exit, closing the door rather suddenly still.
The piece was written for Cleveland Orchestra principle trumpet Michael Sachs, although Sachs has not recorded the work despite having performed it on a number of occasions.
The first recording was with Ron Feldman conducting Arturo Sandoval and the London Symphony. This was the first version I heard and for many years I disliked the concerto because of it. I found Sandoval's tone too harsh and unchanging and Feldman's direction too jagged. The second movement interested me, (Sandoval does show adroitness here) but I felt it lacked something. Nevertheless, this interpretation is not afraid to let a certain raw power in the concerto run free.
The interpretation that made me realize the beauty and integrity of the concerto was that of Jouko Harjanne and the Finnish Radio Orchestra. Harjanne does not sacrifice too much of the concerto's power and unique elements, but he better brings out its neoromantic, heroic and even American nature amidst the interpretation's general cosmopolitan feel. There is a classical touch to the string approach, and an almost playful creativity for some of the passages for solo trumpet. I do not think this version was too much revised from the original released version, but it certainly feels like a fresh piece. I still revisit Harjanne's take regularly.
Finally, for what in my estimation the definitive version and recording of the work. Williams conducting LA Phil principle Thomas Hooten and the Recording Arts Orchestra of LA. Williams revised the piece, adding color and cohesion in the orchestration and some structural changes, like the aforementioned resolved ending of the first movement which was first written for and heard in a performance of the movement with Hooten and the Marine Band.
The story of how this recording came to be is well documented here on JWFan, including by Hooten himself.
I can't remember exactly, but I think I contributed a little to the Kickstarter for the project, as many of us in this community did, so it feels good to have been a small part of doing this wonderful piece of American classical music justice.
Here is the recording:
And here is an academic piece that goes into far more detail about the piece than I could ever dream of doing: