Adam Chamber Music Festival, Nelson

Trombones in the Cathedral

From Gabrieli and Bach to Sousa and Dave Dobbin

Bonanza: Trombone Quartet

Nelson Cathedral, Tuesday 27 January

I should have known what to expect from the evening concert from the trombone quartet Bonanza – the name a creaky sort of pun. Though they’ve been around for 12 years, I had never heard them. I’m humbled.

To call their performance an illustrated historical survey of the trombone, would give no hint of what the evening was actually like. The reason for choosing the cathedral as the venue was at once obvious, for as the lights dimmed on this wet night without the sun gleaming through the west-facing stained glass, a spine-tingling canzona in 17th century Venetian style sounded from behind and the players became visible moving slowly up the side aisles. It was a sonata by Johann Schein, one of the three great German late Renaissance composers born almost exactly a century before Bach (the others were Scheidt and Schütz)..:

The effect was sheer delight; the audience’s wide smiles were audible. When they gained the dais, the four players took turns to enlighten us about their instruments noting their origin as ‘the romantically entitled sackbut’, played an arrangement of a brass Canzona by the great Venetian composer of at St Mark’s, Giovanni Gabrieli, while accounting for the survival of trombonists through the great Venetian plague if 1630 on account of their robust health.

The players embellished each piece with amusing pseudo-musicology. They wore period costume complete with white wigs, masks and embroidered tunics, which got modified as the decades rolled by. There followed a splendid arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, infinitely more successful than the famous Stokowski orchestration in its sheer brilliance.

Various reinterpretations of musical history followed as they discussed Mozart and the trombone parts in the ‘Tuba Mirum’ of the Requiem and in The Magic Flute. The trombone’s emergence in symphonic music – in the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony – and the torments of trombonists who sit silent through its first three movements led to a revision of the scoring of the first movement for trombone quartet.

Activities prescribed during the decadent 19th century for underemployed trombonists during such periods of idleness were revealed: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping. The players pointed to the greater professionalism of modern trombonists who now pursue more intellectual activities: drinking, reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and sleeping.

Bruckner was the next candidate for biographical revision, with an account of his involvement in the re-interment of Beethoven’s and Schubert’s remains in the Central Cemetery in Vienna in 1888, leading to his lovely motet ‘Locus Iste’ – who needs singers? Surprisingly, their account neither of Royal Garden Blues, nor of the Washington Post March quite fulfilled one’s expectations of full-blooded New Orleans or arm-swinging Sousa.

But the subtle arrangement of ‘I Got Rhythm’ made the grade. And the concert ended with David Bremner’s arrangement of a New Zealand classic – Dave Dobbin’s ‘Slice of Heaven’, a certain dignity in the stylish, high-spirited performance. As encore they played a well-known piece by Meredith Willson, noting that they were 72 trombones short.

If you haven’t heard Bonanza, get a grip and seek them out even if it demands a serious detour ; they are brilliant entertainers as well as damn good musicians.

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