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For the love of the trumpet: Allen Vizzutti joins symphony for Valentine’s-themed concert

Montana native Allen Vizzutti said one of the difficulties in learning and performing Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto is the many mute changes in the music. (Courtesy)
Montana native Allen Vizzutti said one of the difficulties in learning and performing Henri Tomasi’s trumpet concerto is the many mute changes in the music. (Courtesy)

If you’ve been to the symphony before, you’ve likely heard your fair share of violin and piano soloists, perhaps a few cellos. But a trumpet? Joining the Spokane Symphony Orchestra this weekend, Allen Vizzutti, a proud Montanan and world-renown trumpet player, will perform the rarely heard and famously difficult Tomasi Concerto for Trumpet.

Henri Tomasi was a prolific composer in the 1900s. He wrote melodic music, but his style “wasn’t exactly captured by tradition or form,” Vizzutti said. The piece is melodic, memorable even, but, “the complexity of the development is greater in this piece than in a large part of traditional literature,” Vizzutti continued.

The piece Vizutti will perform with the symphony, called simply Concerto for Trumpet, is a virtuosic showpiece with a great deal of lyricism that explores the range of what the trumpet can do. Written in 1948, the piece would become Tomasi’s most popular composition. At the time, however, it was nearly written off as “unplayable” due to the level of technique, endurance and range required of the player.

“The technique had to evolve,” Vizzutti said. The piece opens with a four-bar fanfare that repeats throughout the first movement in different keys and permutations. In itself, that kind of progression is not uncommon, but learning that particular four-bar phrase “was just a bear,” Vizzutti said, remembering the first time he sat down with the piece in college at age 20.

One difficulty trumpet players often meet in perfecting this piece comes from the number of “trumpet mute” changes the composer created, bringing new colors out of the trumpet and other orchestral brass instruments. Straight mutes produce an almost tinny sound, whereas cup mutes produce a more recognizable big band sound.

Throughout this concerto, both straight mutes and cup mutes are used regularly, which, Vizzutti says, can be a bit of a juggling act, constantly pulling one out and putting the other in its place.

Because of the range of the piece, finding the right kind of cup mute or straight mute can take some trial and error. Vizzutti said he tried out at least 10 different cup mutes in search of the correct sound.

“I always try to play with a lot of beauty, and one of the most encouraging things I hear pretty frequently after concerts is ‘I didn’t know that a trumpet could sound like that.’ I always appreciate it because it means they’re getting it,” Vizzutti said. “The trumpet is an instrument, not just a blaster.”

On either side of the Tomasi concerto, the symphony will perform Claude Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and both suites of Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe.”

Music director James Lowe, who will conduct this weekend’s concerts, is delighted with the all-French program.

“I love this music,” he said. “I’m fascinated by how music can sound impressionistic and the crossover between what the French impressionistic painters were doing and how you can translate that into sound. I think both Debussy and Ravel do that incredibly well. They created this intensely atmospheric music, (the levels of which) I don’t think other composers really quite reached.”

The first suite of “Daphnis et Chloe” is largely choral and, due to the difficulty in assembling the necessary choir, is almost never performed. Luckily, the Spokane Symphony Chorale is more than up to the task.

“They don’t sing a single word, it’s all on ‘ah,’ (but they bring) this whole other wonderful texture, this new color to the orchestra.”

“Ravel is like the Swiss watchmaker of composers,” Lowe continued. “You look at his scores, and every little detail is just perfectly there. He is, I think, the best orchestrator ever. He builds this rich, beautiful sound, but it comes from such incredible precision without sounding academic in the slightest. He uses the orchestra so well that you don’t hear the effort that has gone into it.”

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