Audun Breen, principal trombonist of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra (OFO) performed the concerto “Fonos” by Arne Nordheim with his orchestra this week. The OFO has a proud history as a top class ensemble, and got their international breakthrough with the recordings with Mariss Jansons in the 80s. The orchestra is also currently seeing great international success after the appointment of Klaus Mäkelä as their chief conductor, one of the brightest stars of the classical music world.
Breen has been the principal trombonist of the OFO since 2017, and previously held positions in the Gothenburg and Kristiansand Symphony Orchestras. He got his bachelor degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music under Aline Nistad and Prof. Ingemar Roos. After receiving a major scholarship from the Doubling foundation, he continued his studies at the Guildhall School of Music in London with Prof. Eric Crees, Prof. Simon Wills, Chris Houlding, John Kenny & Peter Gane. Breen has previously performed the Gunnar de Frumerie trombone concerto with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.
Memories and the primal scream
“Fonos, 3 memorables for trombone and orchestra” is the full name of this concerto. “Memorables” refers to his use of material from previous works, notably “The Hunting of the Snark”, a popular piece for solo trombone, written to Per Brevig. He wants to evoke the feeling we might have heard the music before, without knowing when. Other composers, like Richard Strauss in “Ein Heldenleben”, also looked back at their own music at late stages of their career. Nordheim also talks about the “primal scream” in his music, using its power to get in touch with the deepest feelings of existential loneliness and desperation.
“The piece has room for nastiness. There is a lot of nastiness in there. And poetry. (Arne Nordheim)
About playing the concerto, Audun Breen says: “in Fonos, everything isn’t necessarily beautiful. I feel that is not the point either. At times, it is blasting, aggressively, but musically. (…) Sometimes, it feels like I have to go in with my life on the line to succeed. It has been a long time since I played something as technically demanding as “Fonos”. At the most challenging parts, I feel I just have to dive into it. It would not work playing it safe. I feel this supports the music, the humanness, which I think he wants to achieve with the scream.”
An inspiring back story
“Fonos” came to be mostly by the efforts of trombonist Marius Hesby, who premiered the concerto in 2005. Hesby is a trombonist in the Norwegian Marine Band, and was also very active as a soloist, specializing in performing demanding contemporary works. Arne Nordheim had already written a tri0logy of pieces featuring solo trombone, but Hesby had a dream of a trombone concerto by Nordheim as well. Nordheim was arguably the most prominent contemporary composer, and a household name, who had the honour of living in “Grotten“, a state sponsored artist’s home. Hesby encouraged to Christian Lindberg to place such a commission, but despite some enthusiasm, it was not to be. Then, Hesby’s teacher, Ingemar Roos, suggested to rather talk to Nordheim about writing for himself! Hesby did so, but the opportunity did not present itself right away.
That changed when the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra commissioned a major orchestra work by the ageing Nordheim. Hesby got rewarded for his efforts: the composer wanted to use this opportunity to write a trombone concerto! The composer had actually attempted to write a trombone concerto for Vinko Globokar decades earlier, but his progress halted. Some of the sketches were used in his accordion concerto “Spur”. This time, though, at the twilight of his career, Nordheim was determined to succeed.
A concerto pushing the limits
Hesby and Nordheim collaborated extensively, and some passages of the solo part are actually written by Hesby! The concerto is also tailored to Hesby’s strengths as a player; most notably, it features unusual use of the low pedal register. It descends all the way down to the Bb below pedal Bb! (Hesby’s trick is to lip it down from 2nd position, without trigger). The final note of the piece is a F#4, and the dynamic range and technical boundaries of the instrument are pushed to the extremes.
Hesby got to perform the concerto 3 times, and he recorded it with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Sarastre.
Already at the premiere of the piece, Nordheim’s health was deteriorating. “Fonos” turned out to be his last major work. This is a concerto we are very lucky to have!
Unfortunately, Hesby now struggles with focal dystonia, and has not performed for several years. At least the concerto is now passed on to the next generation of players through Audun Breen!
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