Meet the "Hunky Brutes" of the NY Phil Lower Brass

Classic Arts Features   Meet the "Hunky Brutes" of the NY Phil Lower Brass
"Hunky brutes!" That's what Leonard Bernstein once called the trombone and tuba players of the New York Philharmonic. Lucy Kraus introduces the men - and woman _ who constitute the Orchestra's lower brass.


Whether Bernstein was referring to the strength of sound or the heft of the men who then played what is known as the "lower brass," the latter reference would certainly seem less appropriate today. Now, for the first time in its history, the Orchestra has a distaff member in the trombone section. Amanda Stewart arrived in September 2009 as Associate Principal Trombone, joining Principal Trombone Joseph Alessi (who came in 1985 and was her teacher at The Juilliard School), David Finlayson (also 1985, who plays Second Trombone), Bass Trombone James Markey (1997, who also studied with Mr. Alessi), and Principal Tuba Alan Baer (2004, a one-man section that often serves as a fourth trombone).

"It's incredible to be here," says Ms. Stewart. "When I was in school, I thought this was the best brass section in the world. It's an honor to be the first female, and it's a dream come true to sit in the same section with Joe. But the only time I think about being the first woman is when I go into the brass dressing room to get a mute or something and someone's changing. I have to go in blindfolded!"

"I love the trombone's sound," adds the Maryland native. "You can express so many different emotions and thoughts. It's warm and rich and has many musical possibilities: it can sound soft and sweet and lyrical; it can also be majestic, foreboding, brooding, loud, and terrifying. It can imitate the human voice very well." And what human voice would that be? Mr. Alessi has a quick reply: "Walter Cronkite!"

As in all Orchestra sections, the players' roles are clearly defined. As Principal, Mr. Alessi plays the top part in three-part harmony; in addition, he makes assignments with Ms. Stewart, which involves schedules and extra rehearsals, if necessary. "In this orchestra we work pretty steadily and rigorously, and with all the touring we do it's great to have four people in the section," he says. "But I feel we all have some say in what goes on; we discuss things."

Ms. Stewart, as Associate Principal, not only fills in for Mr. Alessi on the tenor trombone : the standard at the Philharmonic : but is also required to play alto and bass trombone, as well as the euphonium and bass trumpet. "Amanda's job is almost like a utility baseball player," explains James Markey, who served as the Philharmonic's Associate Principal Trombone from 1997 to 2007. "She's got to play outfield, infield, and catcher."

While all the Orchestra's trombonists know how to play most of these instruments, David Finlayson, as Second Trombone, specializes in the tenor variety and is usually the middle voice within a three-part harmony passage. "I'm a bridge between the tenor and bass voices," he explains. "At times I play the role of the bass when the bass isn't playing, and at times the top part if the Principal isn't playing. As with most second players, you fill in the chords, the way tenor and alto singers do in a choir. You have to be a follower, someone who can complement the First and always make the First sound even better."

James Markey, the Bass Trombone, also plays contrabass trombone, and explains his role: "My sound has to have a certain amount of flexibility, and have qualities that complement the tenor trombone," he says. "There are times when I'm at the bottom of the trombone section so I have to provide a bigger sound, a solid foundation for the upper voices. Other times I function as a middle voice in the whole brass section. Or, I'm sort of the top voice of the lowest of the brass. It's not uncommon for the bass trombone and tuba to play things together : passages in octaves or in unison."

Principal Tuba Alan Baer, the foundation of the brass, sometimes plays along with the lowest trombone, such as in Bruckner symphonies, and sometimes on his own. "It's a kind of round-robin type of job," he explains. "You have to figure out your role, and whom you're playing with." Mr. Baer plays two tubas in the Orchestra: the C tuba : the main instrument (for composers such as Brahms, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev) : and the F tuba (for Mendelssohn and Berlioz, and in works that were originally written for other instruments, such as the cimbasso). "You blow differently in the C and the F tubas," he says, "and there are two sets of fingerings. It's a balancing act: I'm continually 'cross-training,' splitting the love. It's like having two kids."

The tuba : which has a four-and-a-half-octave range : was developed in the 19th century, having morphed from the 16th-century serpent and the early 19th-century ophicleide. Alan Baer designs and fixes his own tubas and is helping to resolve problems of standardization that have long remained issues. He cites Mahler, Bruckner, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, and Prokofiev as composers who wrote significant parts for the tuba, with Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5 a particular favorite. "Prokofiev explores the true use of the contrabass instrument," he says. "He uses the tuba as it naturally is, as a solo voice. It's nice to play different things from what the trombones do." His biggest challenge, he says, is "getting away from the stereo- typical idea that the tuba has to be loud."

For trombonists, ironically, the challenge derives from the part of the instrument for which it is best known : the slide. Joseph Alessi explains: "Playing the classical trombone usually means not making a glissando, which is kind of funny because that's what it does best. Glissandos can be used in jazz or in pieces like [Stravinsky's] The Firebird, where the composer knew exactly what he wanted. But if you do a simple scale in a smooth, legato style, it's a very difficult thing not to make a glissando."

The trombone was developed in the 15th century from the trumpet, and became popular in the 16th century for ceremonial use and in church music. In the 18th century it appeared in opera, and subsequently became widely used by Berlioz, Wagner, and Mahler. Favorite works mentioned by the trombonists range from Holst's The Planets, Brahms's Third Symphony, and Mozart's Requiem, to Mahler's Second and Fifth Symphonies. Listeners will get a good chance to hear other works that feature the lower brass during The Russian Stravinsky: A Philharmonic Festival, April 21 _ May 8, in pieces such as The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, L'Histoire du Soldat, Symphony of Psalms, and The Firebird.

As any of these musicians will tell you, playing in the lower brass routinely means carrying large instruments (the C tuba weighs about 26 pounds; with its flight case, close to 100) and, on occasion, counting many measures during a piece in which they silently wait for their entrance. But there are other challenges that come along less frequently, such as the time when Mr. Alessi and Mr. Finlayson were called upon to play the old-fashioned, squeezable car horns in Scenes and Interludes from Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (the Philharmonic is giving the complete opera's New York premiere next month). "The percussionists were really busy and asked us to help," recalls Mr. Finlayson. "It called for some really rapid notes and we couldn't squeeze the horns fast enough. We wound up bouncing them off our knees."

Despite this cherished foray into the world of percussion and their current co-ed composition, the New York Philharmonic lower brass are still "hunky brutes" : the folks whose strength and force of sound constitute the powerful underpinning of the Orchestra.


Lucy Kraus is the Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.

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