Debuting Harper Hall’s recital season on Saturday evening was Lawrence alum and current principal trombonist of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Michael Underwood. While on tour with pianist Naoki Hakutani of University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), Dr. Underwood made a trip to his old stomping ground to share a program celebrating twentieth century trombone music.
Wait. Twentieth century trombone music? Yes, such a thing does exist. Although audiences are accustomed to hearing the trombone rumbling in the back of the stage with a symphony orchestra or sliding greasily from note to note in a jazz band, Dr. Underwood exposed his audience to a different side of this brass instrument.
A student of Associate Professor of Music and Trombone, Nick Keelan, Dr. Underwood was a member of Professor Keelan’s first recruited trombone studio at Lawrence in 1986. After graduating from Lawrence in 1990, Dr. Underwood went on to receive two master’s degrees from Bowling Green State University and a DMA from the University of North Texas. He now teaches at UALR and is in his tenth season as principal trombonist in the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.
The recital opened with a piece entitled “Ballade” by Robert Boury, a composer at UALR. The trombone took on the character of a vocalist, filling the hall with warm, lyrical lines complimented by sparkling flourishes from the piano. Moving away from the smooth, flowing lines and into a faster tempo was the second piece, entitled “Sonata.” Written by Ann Giffels, this work held a special place in Dr. Underwood’s heart because he had performed it on the Harper Hall stage once before, for his senior recital.
Next on the program came “Five Pieces” by Ernst Krenek, an avant-garde piece that gained a number of chuckles from the audience when Dr. Underwood played without key parts of the instrument, tapped the inside of his bell with a ballpoint pen, growled and made animal-like noises with various parts of his trombone. In a clear exploration of the many ways one can use a trombone, Dr. Underwood educated listeners and viewers on a whole new side of the instrument.
Concluding the program, Dr. Underwood and Hakutani performed Henri Tomasi’s “Concerto,” a three-movement work in tribute to jazz influence on classical music. A French composer, Tomasi’s work radiates France’s love of American jazz music in the twentieth century and his “Concerto” contains idioms and effects heard in American jazz trombonist Tommy Dorsey’s sound.
In a recital filled with lyricism, unusual sounds, colors and traditional jazz inflections, Dr. Underwood’s performance radiated artistry and passion for all