Trombone meets harp – the intractable made enjoyable!

Peter Maunder (tenor / alto trombone)
Ingrid Bauer (harp / narrator)

Basta  (1982)              Folke Rabe (1935-)
La Source Op.44                Alphonse Hasselmans (1845-1912)
Ngarotopounamu (2009)           Peter Maunder (1960-)
Ancient Walls (1990)            Sergiu Natra (1924-)
Three Songs                  Cole Porter (1891-1964)
So in love,
In the Still of the Night,
Begin the Beguine
Henry Humbleton’s holiday        Guy Woolfenden (1937-)
Tarantula (Fourth Mvt. from “The Spiders’ Suite”)     Paul Patterson (1947-)
Intermezzo Op.118 No.2         Johannes Brahms (1823-1897)
Take Five              Paul Desmond (1924-1977)
At Last               Mack Gordon (1904-1959
                            &Harry Warren (1893-1981)

(all arrangements by Peter Maunder)

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Saturday, 14th November, 2015

I suppose there must be even more outlandish combinations of pairs of musical instruments than trombone and harp playing somewhere else in the world at this very moment, though none would, I think, bring together and reconcile such profound differences more successfully than did Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer with their respective instruments.

Each player performed a “solo” at the programme’s beginning, seeming to tease us further with the unlikelihood of the “Opposites Attract” title by emphasizing the specific character of each instrument – the trombone predominantly abrasive, forthright and assertive, and the harp liquid-sounding, limpid-textured and enchantingly atmospheric. How were these two very different personalities ever going to “get on”?

Peter Maunder began with Basta, a piece written in 1982 by Swedish composer Folke Rabe, himself a trombonist as well as a composer, one who writes a good deal for brass instruments. Rabe wrote this piece (the title “basta” means, of couse “Enough!” in Italian) to convey the idea of a messenger arriving to deliver a piece of news and then wanting to hurry away again, the person’s manner conveying a degree of stress and haste and volatility. But, not only did the player seem to want to convey a sense of urgency and impatience – one sensed there was a burning desire to tell listeners about things that gave rise to frustration and woe – so in contrast to the bluster and agitation, there were passages of remarkable introspectiveness,  sustained, chord-like notes producing harmonied effects most remarkably, having a “baring of the soul” effect upon the hearer in places.

No greater contrast with these candidly-expressed volatilities could have been presented than with Alphonse Hasselmans’ La Source, Ingrid Bauer making the most of the characteristics that we all associate with the harp – magic, wonderment, romance and liquid flow – by playing a piece that exploited these qualities in an almost definitive way, the work”s melody supported throughout by a rich tapestry of arpeggiated beauties.

Having thereby demonstrated to us these potential intractabilities, the musicians proceeded to make delightful nonsense of them with a series of musical partnerships that surprised and delighted the ear. For reasons outlined by Peter Maunder, in his excellent and entertaining spoken introductions to the pieces, most of the items in the concert were arrangements, made by Maunder himself. In nearly all instances I thought them highly effective as presentations, and of course their delivery, in the hands of these skilled players, was well-nigh everything one could wish for.

As one might have expected, Maunder cited the chief difficulty encountered by a trombone-and-harp partnership as lack of repertoire.. Included in the programme were at least two original works for trombone and harp, one written by Maunder himself – I did a quick internet search which turned up only one further work, though, interestingly enough, I found several other examples of, on the face of things, unlikely partnerships with a trombone, one of them involving a marimba..

So, the first two pieces played by the duo in the concert were written specifically for trombone and harp – Maunder’s own piece was Ngarotopounamu, whose English translation locates the name as belonging to the Emerald Lakes which intrepid trampers encounter when making the famous Tongariro Crossing among the Central North Island volcanoes. Such an evocation called for both epic grandeur and shimmering beauty – and in general the trombone evoked the vastness of the terrain and the outlines of the contours, while the harp filled these spaces with ambiences which suggested both beauty and loneliness in tandem.

The second original trombone-and-harp piece was by the Roumanian-born Jewish composer Sergiu Natra, whose early life was spent in Europe before emigrating with his family to Israel in 1961. His work Ancient Walls was written in 1990, a work reflecting the composer’s great fondness for the harp, and manifesting itself in a number of other compositions for the instrument. A prominent Jewish harpist, Adina Hraoz, wrote of her involvement with Natra’s music, comparing the experience with “watching a wonderful plastic arts creation”. In this particular work, the trombone seemed to me like a voice of antiquity, perhaps even Jahweh-like in places (shades of Walton’s “Belshazzar’s Feast”, perhaps?), interacting with the harp’s figurations in, by turns, volatile and concordant ways, and achieving a kind of synthesis of feeling at the piece’s end.

Worlds apart were three transcriptions of songs by Cole Porter, lovely things which indicated Maunder’s fondness for American popular songs of the 1930s and 40s. In general the melody line was carried by the trombone through these arrangements, with the harp preluding and post-scripting as well as occasionally punctuating the episodes with counter-melody or cadential decoration. After the opening “So in love”, Maunder’s use of a mute with his instrument for the second song “In the Still of the Night” took us to just such a scenario, the harp giving us Ravel-like delicacies creating both time and place in which the trombone could lazily and smokily etch out the contours of the melody amid the fume-filled gloom.

FInally, “Begin the Beguine” featured a change of mute (something Maunder called a “harmon mute”), which produced a “wah-wah” sound, and worked deliciously well with the song’s Latin-American rhythm – I particularly liked the harp’s “taking over” of the melody line in places, here, and wondered if that could have been exploited a bit more by the arrangements in places – the varying of textures created added interest to the melody line, the harp here playing the song’s “high” reprise, with enchanting results.

After this we were further entertained by a bit of music-theatre, a work by British composer Guy Woolfenden, entitled Henry Humbleton’s Holiday, a presentation which the performers here had (I presume) cleverly adapted to suit a New Zealand scenario. So, Ingrid Bauer left her harp to become the narrator, and  Maunder and his trombone were the “dramatis personae” of the story, a charming tale of a bank clerk who, after sleeping late, succumbed to the temptation afforded by a beautiful Monday, to naughtily “escape” from his work to the beach, accompanied by his faithful trombone!  By way of enhancing the theatrical atmosphere of it all, we as the audience even got a turn to join in the fun at a couple of points, all of which was very jolly and invigorating.

After all that trombonic self-indulgence on Henry Humbleton’s part, it was appropriate that Ingrid Bauer gave her harp a turn, which she did performing the fourth and final movement of a suite Spiders, a work for solo harp by British composer Paul Patterson called “Tarantula”. Naturally enough, the piece has a fantastically obsessive rhythmic quality, denoting the tarantella dance made by the victim of a bite from this particular creature – for the player it’s obviously a real tour de force technically, and it was despatched here with great brilliance.

At this point in the program Maunder switched trombones, from tenor to alto, to perform what I thought was perhaps the most ambitious of his arrangements, a well-known Intermezzo (the second piece) from the Op.118 set  of Brahms’ Piano Pieces. Maunder set himself a couple of challenges, here, not the least of which was the extremely difficult high entry on the first note of the melody’s inversion, when everything “turns” for home most affectingly – he actually managed it, a bit shakily the first time but nicely the second time! I liked the harp’s “interlude” in the piece’s central section, and thought the piece might be even more effective with more frequent exchanges between the instruments – for example on that exposed note, trombone and harp could have alternated, or even played it together (Brahms harmonizes the melody, so the notes are actually there to use). But I really didn’t like the piece’s final note transposed up an octave – the melody didn’t, for me, find its true, easeful destination at the end. It was the one thing which for me didn’t quite altogether work as an arrangement as it stood, lovely though some moments were.

But Take 5 was a delight from beginning to end, with plenty of interchange between the instruments and some lovely improvisatory “explorations”. After this the Gordon/Warren number At Last  (which kept on reminding me of the Marcus/Seller/Wood number “Till then”) was beautifully done, introduced by a great harp solo, then generating a deliciously indolent gait, though building up to an impressive level of intensity at the melody’s reprise, with a properly declamatory and valedictory pay-off at the end.

Peter Maunder and Ingrid Bauer are to be congratulated upon an inventive and absorbing evocation of worlds within worlds, keeping their audience entertained, intrigued, satisfied and re-educated! They’re repeating the concert in the Wairarapa this weekend, in Greytown on Saturday afternoon. For anybody in the vicinity, it’s well worth giving the enterprising pair – yes, these opposites DO attract, the trombone and harp! – a try!