George Curran Checks “Seven Positions” tm Off His List…

Switch from euphonium to bass trombone as a senior in college-(check). Win New York Philharmonic position-(check). Start a trombone festival and pick up up Atlanta Symphony chair-(check, check), concertos, quartets & CDs (check, check, & check). “Seven Positions” tm catches up with Gotham’s newest bass trombone ace to see what is next on his list!

New York Philharmonic1. Describe your first concerto experience to your most recent one. What did you experience, and how did your approach change? How special was the Gillingham?
I remember my first concerto experience vividly. I had recently switched to bass trombone from euphonium and entered the concerto competition at Central Michigan University. Somehow, I was one of the winners, and performed the Ritter George Concerto from memory. That was really difficult, since I had basically no arm muscle memory to draw upon. It was a deer-in-headlights performance, but it went well and the experience accelerated my growth.

At CCM I performed the Ewazen Concerto with their Concert Orchestra, and though I don’t prefer being a soloist, as an orchestral trombonist I believe that it is so important pedagogically to do additional playing. It makes the job so much easier to do. My next big solo performance was a few years later playing the Bourgeois Concerto at ETW with the Army Band. Playing in front of all of those great players – with Charlie Vernon and Eric Ewazen in the front row – was really special. By this point I did a lot more score study and tried to bring my own voice to a piece in a mature way.

Most recently, I premiered the Gillingham concerto at my alma mater, which for me was one of the most special experiences I have had professionally. It is truly one of the best pieces in our repertoire, and with its global warming subject I feel like I am helping to communicate in a different way than I usually do from the back row.

2. What is your concept of an ideal bass trombone sound?

This is such an important question. Most young players aren’t able to articulate in words the kind of characteristics in a great sound. For most of us, words like warm, dark, and rich come to mind. To me, that is too vague to be of much help, even though those words all point in the right direction.

My approach changes with the music. Though I want consistent tone production, I may look for a sound that is haunting and mysterious, or sweet and innocent, or strong and masculine. Each phrase has meaning, and it is our job to project or communicate that to the audience, even if the audience is just a practice room.

3. You approached the slide first as an adult by switching from euphonium to bass trombone in your senior year of college. How did the gross motion of the slide (in contrast to the fine muscle movement of the valves), impact your air, articulation, and technical facility?

And, I’m left handed!

You hit it on the head with the with the word “gross”. I had to turn off my tuner for a year, because I couldn’t do things like go from first to fourth position consistently enough to make it worth using. One of the things that helped me was that I didn’t have too many bad habits, so I could approach my technique freshly. I did a lot of scales while glissing, which helped me to separate my arm and air. I try to get my slide articulation to match a perfect lip or valve slur.

Too many of us have legato tongues that are so soft that the notes don’t match natural and valve slurs. None of the other brass instruments use a glissy legato and they generally think trombonists sound sloppy when using it. Consistency of articulation is so important, especially when you have only a five-minute audition to demonstrate your skills to a committee consisting primarily of non-trombonists.

4. Describe what the ASO and the Atlanta musical scene meant to you.
When I called my wife after winning the ASO audition, I told her that I had done more with my career in that day than I thought I would do in my whole career. Winning a job in a big league orchestra was never an expectation of mine. I was a euphonium player until I switched to bass when I was 22 years old. I had always liked the presence and power of a great trombone section, and decided to see if I could get into grad school on trombone.

Later, when I got to Atlanta, Colin Williams, Bill Thomas (and eventually Nathan Zgonc) and I worked together with Brad Palmer to build the Southeast Trombone Symposium and release a CD together. The STS is still going strong and fills me with pride. It is a magnet for young students of course, but I was surprised at how much the STS was embraced by and has benefited the professional trombone community in the southeast. It is a great opportunity for professors, orchestral players, and freelancers to network and build relationships.

5. Name your inspirations, musical and non.GeorgeCurran
I grew up loving the NY Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony sections, and there are so many soloists to choose. Just a few include Joe Alessi, Jim Markey, Yo-Yo Ma, Jesse Norman, Pavarotti. But I also grew up listening to the visceral sound of heavy metal music, so I have to include Metallica, Tool, and Pantera.

Other inspirations include my family and scientists like Neal deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan. They are the philosophers of today, and they have found ways to make their abstract ideas understandable to laymen without dumbing them down-that is something that our orchestras could use as inspiration.

6. Do you use essentially one embouchure or pivot?
Most people that I have spoken with have some kind of a shift into the low pedal range and I also have one. It’s around pedal G or F#, depending on how loud I am playing. I consciously go over that shift each time I pass that line.

7. What is the best bass trombone playing you have ever heard?
Ever done?

For a long time I have been a huge fan of Charlie Vernon, Randy Hawes, and Jim Markey. All of those guys have really ‘soloistic’ approaches to the instrument, and you can hear that in their orchestral playing as well.

As for myself, I can clearly remember performances of Bruckner 8 with the ASO, Fountains and Pines my first week with the NYP, and parts of my recent Gillingham premiere as well.

8. Is there a current New York symphonic trombone sound or style? If so, how would you describe it?

Though I could say that the NY Philharmonic trombone section has its own sound, it is more important for us in the section to think of the brass section sound as a while.

One of the first things that David Finlayson said to me about the brass section here was that they have a very heroic sound, which is a great way to describe it. These guys swing for the fences on every note. We have a very thick and sustained approach to playing compared to many orchestras. This is partly a response to the immense size of Avery Fisher Hall and what the brass section has had to do to properly fill it.

9. What is the difference in playing in an excellent orchestra like ASO, and a top tier orchestra like the Phil. How do you hear differently from your chair?
I learned so much in Atlanta and remember many special concerts. The demands in both orchestras are very high, as you might imagine.

I suppose the two biggest differences are work load and consistency. The Philharmonic has at least one more service per week with as many as five subscription concerts on some weeks, and the season chugs along into August with only about five or six weeks off before hitting it hard again.

Regarding consistency, I suppose the orchestra is a bit more consistent from note to note, but we have the advantage of every concert feeling artistically important. In Atlanta, we had many pops concerts, children’s concerts, run outs, parks concerts, and a full month of holiday shows. The orchestra tended to lose its edge during those stretches, and I can’t blame them. Almost every Philharmonic concert is a serious event with a big conductor or soloist, a premiere, a tour, a recording for radio broadcast, or a hall filled with 2,500+ patrons. The consistency of having to have your best day every day is a real grind, but it makes us better players who are fully invested in our careers.

c. 2015 David William Brubeck All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of The New York Phil. and Greg Black Mouthpieces

Charlie Vernon
James Markey
Chris Brubeck
Doug Yeo
Jeremy Morrow
Tom Everett
Gerry Pagano
Ben van Dijk
Randall Hawes
Denson Paul Pollard
Thomas Matta
Fred Sturm
Bill Reichenbach
Massimo Pirone
Erik Van Lier
Jennifer Wharton
Matyas Veer
Stefan Schulz

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