Wind ensemble features trombone virtuosity

Amelia Perron

In the midst of Trivia weekend, the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble, under the baton of Professor Andy Mast pulled off a not-at-all trivial concert Saturday evening, entitled “Blue Shades,” featuring associate professor of music Nick Keelan as trombone soloist.Keelan gave a standout performance playing the “Bourgeois Trombone Concerto,” a challenging piece by all accounts. “It’s a piece few people know, because it’s not played a lot,” said Keelan.

He added modestly, “It takes a while to digest.” He cited the prevalence of sustained notes in a range of volumes and the fast technicality of the third movement as challenges that a potential performer faces.

The piece is not without challenges for the accompanying wind ensemble. Co-principal trombonist Dustin Zimmerman remarked, “It’s surprisingly challenging for the section. Usually we’d be silent in a concerto like this, but there are a lot of exposed passages.”

“One of the hardest things,” said Keelan, “is to play the fast passages at a volume to be heard.” This means, of course, that the ensemble has to play quietly enough to remain under the soloist.

Mast, while admitting that the ensemble had a “big mountain to climb” in preparing the work, also pointed out the relative “accessibility” of the learning process. “It’s difficult, but not in terms of ensemble,” Mast explained. “It’s not terribly difficult to get together.”

The final product was well executed, on the part of both ensemble and soloist. “My biggest concern was tempo,” Mast remarked. “Either too fast or too slow could have killed him.” But according to Keelan, “Dr. Mast is a machine. He nailed all the tempos.”

As for Keelan’s solo work, Zimmerman said, “I would kill to be able to play that concerto like that.”

Keelan, a seasoned soloist who strongly encourages his students to become proficient in both classical and jazz styles, will be performing more solo works later this year in Neenah and Kenosha.

Another highlight of the program was Dorothy Chang’s “Sunan Dances,” based on a Chinese melody. As the listener easily discovers, the piece quickly departs from the Chinese musical tradition, with the use of a modern, Western harmonic vocabulary.

Chang explained in her program notes, “While it is an unmistakable reference to the Far East, my intent in incorporating elements from traditional Chinese music was not to emulate but rather to reinterpret and react to the music that surrounded me [during her visit to China].”

Mast admitted that it is “not a melody you’re going to be singing all day,” but he appreciated the “rhythmic, driving qualities,” the “close, dense harmonies,” and the “bright, strident colors.”

The concert concluded with Ticheli’s “Blue Shades,” the title piece of the concert. “It’s not a jazz piece,” Mast explained, “but it has jazz and blues influences.” The listener can clearly hear the influences, in the sounds of the clarinets, trumpets, and trombones, and the offbeat rhythms, but no one would completely mistake the Wind Ensemble for a jazz ensemble. In any case, Mast said, “It’s a wonderfully fun piece.