Kansans help expand trombone repertoire with new recording

LAWRENCE — On his last recording, Michael Davidson was one of the three Drei Bones. On his new recording, “Skybreak” (Post Haus Acoustic), the University of Kansas School of Music professor is a trombone alone.

But he is pleased to have as a collaborator his fellow faculty member Ellen Sommer on piano. She’s one of several Kansas and KU connections in the making of the new recording, Davidson said.

Michael Davidson holding trombone
Michael Davidson

“My goal was to commission some new music for trombone and piano,” Davidson said. “There is a lot of trombone music written for major symphony orchestra players and soloists — virtuoso players, in other words. While this kind of music is excellent repertoire, it is also true that it is music that would be considered aspirational for many student trombonists, younger trombonists or gifted amateurs. My goal was to commission some works that could be played by a wider musical clientele.

“I consider the pieces I commissioned to be great music. But they’re not virtuosic in the sense of extreme range or technique, nor do they require extended techniques such as multiphonics. They’re at a medium, or medium-advanced, level of difficulty. That said, these commissions all present musical challenges and rewards.”

Ellen Sommer
Ellen Sommer

Take, for instance, the first piece on the record, P.J. Kelley’s “Victory Lap,” which Davidson commissioned using grants from KU and the McKinney/Morgan Stanley charitable trust.

P.J. Kelley is also the recording engineer,” Davidson said. “He is a very talented young professional, one of my former bass trombone students, and has a DMA degree from KU.”

Davidson said “Victory Lap” employs an A-B-A format.

“It starts off with really thunderous, declamatory playing in both parts, and perhaps some multiple-tonguing for the trombonist, depending on the tempo one takes,” Davidson said. “That is followed by a beautiful middle section – this section is really a ballad. And then the fierce intensity of the A section returns.”

Davidson called the title track, a commissioned piece by Texas A&M trombone professor David Wilborn, “second to none.”

“His music always has a commercial feel to it, at least to me,” Davidson said. “Sometimes there is a little swing, a little jazz. Sometimes there’s a little rock ’n’ roll ...  Toward the end of ‘Skybreak,’ Wilborn writes a section that is clearly an exuberant jazz waltz, which I think is awesome. ... It's a beautiful piece; at times cheerful, energetic and contemplative – all in four minutes.”

Another new composition on the LP commissioned from a KU alumnus is Tom Davoren’s “Grace,” which Davidson likened to a song from a Broadway musical score. Davoren directs the band at Benedictine College, but also has an international reputation as a composer for large ensembles; his catalog includes wind band and brass band compositions, as well as a concerto written for United States Marine Band “The President’s Own” euphoniumist Hiram Diaz.

Stuart O’Neil, band director at Baldwin City High School, wrote “Two Pieces for Trombone and Piano. Davidson said O’Neil’s piece “reminds me a little bit of the Gymnopédies by Erik Satie because of its peaceful beginning motive and overall piano scoring.”

It builds from there, Davidson said, noting that O’Neil “uses the trombone’s opening statement in both movements of the work.”

In addition to the new works by living composers, Davidson said, he also picked two pieces by 20th-century composers “that I believe are under-recorded — Vagn Holmboe’s Sonata for Trombone and Piano, op. 172, and Alexander Arutiunian’s Concerto pour Trombone et Orchestre.”

Davidson said it was nice to have pianist Sommer, who is associate professor of the practice, on stage in Swarthout Recital Hall during the recording.

“Ellen is a world-class collaborative pianist,” he said. “She has performed all over the world with many name artists. You can hear her musicianship on display in several long solos on the CD. Her performance on the Arutiunian and the Holmboe tracks is just outstanding, but my favorite is her interpretation of the piano interlude in ‘Skybreak.’ Her input, musicianship and collegiality were much appreciated during the recording process.”

Wed, 07/10/2024


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service