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Glanert's Trumpet Concerto with Rolfs and the BSO

Thomas Rolfs stands against a black backdrop wearing an entirely black suit. He's bald and has blue eyes. He holds his trumpet and smiles at the camera.
Courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Trumpeter Thomas Rolfs

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, May 6

BSO Principal Trumpet Thomas Rolfs is the soloist in Detlev Glanert’s Trumpet Concerto, an eclectic, dramatic work commissioned for and premiered by Rolfs in 2019. The concert opens with a new work by one of the greatest living composers, Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Wrath of God, dedicated to Beethoven, and closes with Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4, commissioned by longtime BSO Music Director Serge Koussevitzky for the orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 1931.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Thomas Rolfs, trumpet

Sofia GUBAIDULINA The Wrath of God (American premiere)
Detlev GLANERT Trumpet Concerto
Sergei PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 4

In a preview of Detlev Glanert's Trumpet Concerto, the composer and the soloist, BSO Principal Trumpeter Thomas Rolfs, describe the very personal expressions of emotion, first inspired by Glanert's friend and mentor, composer Oliver Knussen, that are woven throughout the score and through Rolfs's performances. To hear the interview with CRB's Brian McCreath, use the player below, and read the transcript underneath.

BSO interview, April 27, 2024 - Detlev Glanert and Thomas Rolfs


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Thomas Rolfs, principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony, and Detlev Glanert, the composer of a new trumpet concerto, relatively new, new to us certainly here in Boston. Thank you both for a little of your time today. Tom, it has been a number of years now since the piece was written, but this is our first time in Boston, so I just want to go back to the beginning and hear what your thoughts were when you got word that there would be a concerto that would be written for you on commission from the Tanglewood Music Center and Boston Symphony.

Thomas Rolfs That was a big surprise to me. I'm still, to this day, not sure why they would want to do that. But it was Ellen Highstein and Tony Fogg, and then, of course, Andris [Nelsons] signed off on it, and they were really interested in Detlev from the very beginning. And I listened to his music. He wrote a piece for the Concertgebouw brass, which, by the way, Detlev, we're doing again this summer because it's such a great piece. I listened to many of his operas, so I basically just said, okay, I like this music. Then Detlev and I communicated. I sent him some examples of playing and I sent him a Jolivet Concertino, and I said, this fits my personality because it's a ton of notes within a short period of time, which is very convenient for my short attention span. [Glanert and McCreath laugh] The problem was that piece was ten minutes and Detlev wrote a 24-minute piece, and that's a little longer than my attention span. [laughs]

Brian McCreath You've got a challenge on your hands. [laughs] Detlev, from your end of things, when you got word that a trumpet concerto was on offer as a commission, was a trumpet concerto something that you had thought of before? And when you really began thinking about it, what were the possibilities that occurred to you might want to explore?

Detlev Glanert It is always the character of the solo instrument. And of course, I had no specific idea when the question came to write a trumpet concerto. But it happened that in this time [composer and conductor] Oliver Knussen died, and that was like bad news and a miracle for me, because he gave me the idea of the trumpet concerto. And that was very quick there, the idea and with the slow movement, with a blues element and to make, let's see, a spiritual portrayal of Olly Knussen in this concerto. And the trumpet is an instrument that fits him so well as a human being. So that was a solution for everything.

Brian McCreath Tell me more about Olly Knussen from your perspective. You knew him when you were a Tanglewood fellow, as I understand it. You were a fellow in 1986. He was your teacher or mentor at that time. And how, for those listeners who may not be familiar with Olly Knussen, who was so well-loved around here, how would you describe him? What was your experience of Olly, and especially, how did that end up being reflected in the concerto?

Detlev Glanert He has an overwhelming personality and we became very good friends. I met him first in 1986 when he took over the composition class in Tanglewood, and I still have friends. Yesterday I was invited to the Berklee College of Music for a for talk. My old friend Marti Epstein, I knew her from that summer was there, and she invited me. And so, everything Olly did was to connect people and to arrange performances. And that was so fruitful. A lot of friendships and connections came out of there. This friendship thing and the connection thing as a part of a concerto, maybe you don't hear it from the beginning, not from the beginning on, but every element is connected with every element in this concerto, from the first movement, second movement and last movement. And there's a very obvious dedication to Olly Knussen, it's his name [sings theme from the concerto to the name "Olly Knussen"].

Brian McCreath That's terrific. So, Tom, you mentioned that when this process got started, you and Detlev were in communication. You sent him samples of playing and the Jolivet especially. When you think about the range of trumpet concertos that you've played and that you're familiar with, what is it that you hope for in a trumpet concerto? What are you looking for that will make that concerto really meaningful to you as a player?

Thomas Rolfs What I hope for, and I think what Detlev delivered is, well, first of all, the piece is artfully put together. Clearly, as a technician, Detlev is really amazing. But there are many, many concertos that have artful composition, but not the emotional content. And Detlev's music provided me with emotional content. I find it very interesting that he wrote this after Olly passed away or during that time because this music connects with me in a really great way with my own son's death. So, I'm kind of blown away that Detlev said that because so many times, you have really great music and then you kind of get a message. And I wasn't going to mention it to Detlev because I thought, well, he probably thinks I'm an idiot, you know, for thinking that way. But now he's saying this is what he was thinking about when he wrote it. Well, that's how I hear it. And that's how that helps me as an individual.

Brian McCreath If you don't mind, may I ask you to sort of explain a little bit more about the process of grief? Was it around the same time?

Thomas Rolfs No, it was ten years ago. It feels like yesterday. So, he died in 2015. And Detlev wrote this in 2017. So it was around the same time, yeah. But there are a few pieces that that spoke to me in that way. There's Mahler[‘s Symphony No.] Six, you know, obviously, because that was written around the time that Mahler lost his daughter. There was a piece by Mark Anthony Turnage, which I hated at first, and then I started to realize there's some things here that helped me with my own process. And then Detlev's piece. But I have a narrative of my son in each and every one of Detlev's movements. And remember when I told you I wanted the first cadenza to be almost manic?

Detlev Glanert Yeah.

Thomas Rolfs Well, that is after your son is injured and you're realizing things are going to shit. And that's what we were like, we couldn't keep up with process everything. So your cadenza is like this manic period, that's how I hear that.

Detlev Glanert And I know these feelings exactly. And I can imagine it. I can invent it because there's something similar inside me.

Thomas Rolfs Yeah, yeah. And so playing the music, well, that helps me. It helps me process.

Brian McCreath It's a beautiful piece as well. There's a part that's Songs, right, this beautiful, beautiful section.

Thomas Rolfs Yeah. And is it melancholy? Is it sad? Is it is a contemplative? I mean, you could go any one of those directions with that beautiful slow, bluesy movement that Detlev referred to.

Brian McCreath If I might be so bold, what I sometimes hear in that movement, in fleeting moments, I can't help but picture Duke Ellington, that some of his works have this flavor. So, it is blues, but it's even more specific than that, almost.

Detlev Glanert Yes, I chose the form of the blues because of Olly's connection to America, and it was written for America. And in the same time it's a lamento. The blues is something sad. We are sad, we are weeping about that, and we put that into the form of a song. And so, I decided to make the slow movement in variations of these blues melodies, and it's bursting out at the end in these shouts and shouts of pain, of inner pain.

Thomas Rolfs I heard, mixed in with that, every once in a while, you put in a melody that was more soaring and...

Detlev Glanert Yes.

Thomas Rolfs ...more gentle and beautiful. And then you went back to the pain.

Detlev Glanert Exactly. And maybe you heard that, too, there's a little bit where it goes to Johann Sebastian Bach. And it's only for some seconds to greet him because he knew a lot about these feelings.

Thomas Rolfs Interesting.

Brian McCreath Tom, on a more practical level, where does this concerto push you as a play?

Thomas Rolfs Oh, it's too hard for me. [Glanert and McCreath laugh] It'll be a miracle if I could make it through the Saturday night all the way to the end.

Detlev Glanert You will do it bravely.

Thomas Rolfs Well, bravely. But maybe not effectively. [laughs]

Brian McCreath But one thing this concerto does not do, that maybe some other concertos do, is any kind of extended techniques. You're not taking out slides to do things or you're not humming through the instrument.

Thomas Rolfs I love that about this.

Brian McCreath This is all stuff that's straight out of etude books.

Thomas Rolfs It's just music. You know, people ask me what kind of piece it is. I don't know how to answer that. Is it tonal? Well, to me, it's tonal. I'm not good at those kinds of descriptions, but I don't have to do all the silly stuff that so many composers write for trumpet. Sorry, I hope I'm not offending anybody. [laughs]

Detlev Glanert I find these categories like "tonal, atonal," completely old fashioned and outdated. We are advanced, and I think in other terms. It's not to complicate, to make declarations about it. But what I need in music is feeling, is emotion.

Thomas Rolfs And that comes through.

Detlev Glanert And I really tried out advanced techniques when I was younger, and I gave it up for good reasons, and I decided that I don't need that in my life. What I need are other things and you will listen. It's in the music.

Thomas Rolfs And it's possible that Ellen and Tony lined us up together, because maybe they both knew that about both of us, that that's how we thrive, you know?

Brian McCreath It's the feeling behind the music. It's the emotion.

Thomas Rolfs It's all about the emotions of the music.

Brian McCreath Detlev, is there anything about this concerto, and again, it has been, what, five years since you wrote it, maybe it's been revised a little bit since then.

Detlev Glanert A little bit.

Brian McCreath But is there anything about the process of this concerto and what you expressed in it, what you found when you started dealing with the trumpet or any other aspect of it that maybe opened a door that you hadn't expected. Was there something that changed you, or changed your ideas, or possibilities that you had not expected before writing it?

Detlev Glanert When you write a concerto, you have always the shadow of this old concerto form behind you. What does that mean? Fast, slow, fast. And I always try to go out of that old fashioned form. For example, I hate interrupted movements. So I decided to connect them, but on the same time to place the cadenzas somewhere close to that border. So we have a through-going piece. We have a fast beginning with a slow intersection. We have this slow movement. We have the very fast dances and then decided to add a fourth movement, which has to do with the vision of benefication of Paradise, because I couldn't leave that person's, like Olly, like your son, in the grave. I want to put them to the sky. That is the end.

Brian McCreath That's very beautiful. Detlev Glanert and Thomas Rolfs, thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts. I really so much appreciate it. And it's a stunning concerto, Detlev. And your your playing is amazing as always, Tom. Thanks a lot.

Thomas Rolfs Thank you Brian.

Detlev Glanert Thank you.