Review: Thanks to Chick Corea, the Trombone Is a Philharmonic Star

There are not exactly a wealth of great concertos written for the trombone, that largely unheralded stalwart of the brass section. (Insert sad trombone sound here.) If anyone is going to change this state of affairs, it’s Joseph Alessi, the principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic. He’s an idol of legions of brass players for his rich tone, exemplary phrasing and virtuosic precision.

In 1992, Alessi premiered Christopher Rouse’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Trombone Concerto. Almost three decades later, Alessi asked the widely loved jazz keyboardist and composer Chick Corea, who was enmeshed with classical music throughout his life, to create a trombone concerto. That work received its U.S. premiere at the Philharmonic on Thursday evening, performed by Alessi under the baton of Marin Alsop, another artist who easily code switches between jazz and classical idioms.

The premiere was originally scheduled for the orchestra’s 2020-21 season. But with the onset of the pandemic, those plans were abandoned. Corea died of cancer in February 2021, and the concerto stands as his last finished work. (A recording, with Alessi as soloist, is scheduled for release this November on the Parma record label.)

The four-movement work features a huge battery of percussion instruments — including gongs, marimba, xylophone and African cowbells — that lend a new palette of shimmering colors to the orchestra. And it shows off the marvel of Alessi’s technique and musicianship: in the first movement’s bluesy slides, in the lyrical tenderness of a second-movement waltz, and in devilish 16th-note runs in “Hysteria,” the third movement, which Corea wrote as pandemic lockdowns were just beginning. A final tango draws together the soloist and orchestra, before allowing Alessi to finish triumphantly on a series of high F sharps, venturing into trumpet territory.

Corea had intended to play the prominent piano part in early performances. Instead, John Dickson, who orchestrated the concerto, is performing it with the Philharmonic. As an encore, Alessi introduced Dickson and they played a brief homage to Corea written by Dickson. It was a heartfelt adieu to their mutual friend and collaborator.

The program opened with Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1. Written when Barber was just 25, it’s a mature wonder of a work, woefully under-programmed. (The last time the Philharmonic played it was during the Clinton administration.) Among its pleasures are declarative brass, crisp percussion, richly colored string writing and an exquisitely lyrical third movement.

The New York Philharmonic musicians have finally relaxed into trusting the acoustics in David Geffen Hall. Gone is their urge to push hard to be heard — a necessity before the renovation. Instead, they now luxuriate in the chance to sculpt sound in space.

Alsop celebrated that ability in 12 selected movements from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” Suites Nos. 1, 2 and 3, beginning with the fiery opening blasts of “The Montagues and the Capulets” and ending with the tear-stained “Death of Juliet.” Alsop drew out all the sharp accents and quick turns in “The Death of Tybalt,” and made the most of the silvery charm of the “Aubade.”

Her vivid sense of color and rhythmic clarity framed Prokofiev’s ballet music as an exciting complement to the Barber Symphony, written the same year as some of the Prokofiev selections. This kind of creative juxtaposition, in which one piece illuminates another, is the essence of good concert programming.

New York Philharmonic

This program repeats through Saturday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan;

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