Review


Bruce Adolphe
Thuenpa Puen Zhi (The Four Harmonius Friends): A Buddhist Tale
Shinobue (sub. western flute), violoncello, bass trombone, piano, percussion, and narrator

St. Louis, MO, United States
Publisher: Keiser Southern Music
Date of Publication: 2017

Score and parts.

Genre: CHAMBER MUSIC

Composer, educator, performer, lecturer and author, Bruce Adolphe is known to countless classical music fans as the Piano Puzzler on American Public Media’s Performance Today. He is also the resident lecturer and director of family concerts for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; composer-in-residence at the Brain and Creativity Institute; founding creative director of The Learning Maestros; artistic director of Off the Hook Arts Festival and the author of several books on music. As a composer his works have been performed worldwide by renowned artists, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Fabio Luisi, Joshua Bell, the Washington National Opera, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Zürich Philharmonia, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Beaux Arts Trio, the Brentano String Quartet, the Miami Quartet, members of the Silk Road Ensemble, and more than 60 symphony orchestras.

Dr. Steve Wilson, bass trombonist and chair of the Music Department at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), commissioned Adolphe to write a chamber piece for bass trombone and select members of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project. After discussions about what the work would be, Bruce and Steve agreed on a Bhutanese folktale, Thuenpa Puen Zhi (Four Harmonious Friends), for which Bruce Adolphe provided an English text. It is a dramatic composition for a chamber ensemble, scored for an unusual combination - bass trombone, cello, percussion, shinobue flute (western flute can be substituted), narrator and piano. The drama involves four characters of an ancient Buddhist myth - an elephant, monkey, rabbit, bird and a wise old tree. The animals are vividly portrayed by the instruments of the ensemble and are initially seen as constantly arguing. They eventually become friends, and through working together to solve a problem, they end up living together in peace and harmony. This is a tale of communal harmony and fostering of individual talents that still resonates in our own turbulent times. It was premiered at Off the Hook Arts in Colorado with the East Coast premiere presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. There is a wonderful video (A Musical Tale: The Making of Thuenpa Puen Zhi (Four Harmonious Friends) on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/229717901. It describes the work, includes rehearsal footage, offers further insight into the tale and gives some interesting thoughts by the composer on the composition process. The last portion of the video includes an excellent performance featuring the commissioning ensemble, including bass trombonist Steve Wilson and Bruce Adolphe doubling as pianist and the expressive, imaginative narrator. There are extensive solo passages for all the instruments, as well as various combinations of duos, trios and quartets. The harmonic and melodic material is traditional with numerous oriental inflections. Its rhythms are interesting, featuring an assortment of mixed meters. The bass trombone part is idiomatic for the instrument and is not playable on tenor. Through the composer’s adroit scoring, the combination of seemingly disparate instruments, works quite  well.

This is wonderfully evocative chamber music, programmatic in content, requiring advanced performers on all parts. It is suitable for recital programs and also for children’s concerts. As a unique addition to the bass trombone literature, it is deserving of widespread performances. Kudos to Dr. Steve Wilson for the idea behind the project, raising the funds for the commission and serving as the expert bass trombonist in its initial performances.

Reviewer: Karl Hinterbichler
Review Published November 9, 2019