Concertos have been composed for just about every instrument in the orchestra, but the numbers vary considerably. The violin has been favored with hundreds of such works, and dozens have been written for the cello.
But other instruments have not been so lucky, at least not until the late 20th century when contemporary composers began significantly expanding their outputs for other solo instruments. A big turning point for the tuba, for example, came in 1973 with the establishment of the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (later the International Tuba Euphonium Association). One of the principal facets of its mission was generating new compositions for the tuba and euphonium, and it has succeeded in measure.
Much the same has been true for the oboe, for which few concertos were written after the Baroque Era until Richard Strauss penned his Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra in 1945. “We’re honored and so grateful to have it, because we [oboists] don’t have many concertos by great composers,” said Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was one of four works, including the revered Four Last Songs (1948), written during Strauss’ last years. World War II was a difficult time for composer, who remained in Nazi Germany and worked to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and his grandchildren. “Then he comes through, with these beautiful pieces after the war that reflect back on his earlier days, obviously,” Henoch said. “And there is a sense of melancholy and sentiment in them.”
Sounds and Stories asked five Chicago Symphony members to name their favorite concertos for their instruments. Some of the responses were expected stalwarts of the repertoire, such as Wolfgang Mozart’s revered Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622. But there were some surprises as well, such as David Baker’s Cello Concerto (1975). CSO trumpet Tage Larsen took the question in a slightly different direction, choosing to highlight a memorable set of concerto performances for his instrument. Here are the five musicians’ takes:
Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboist
Favorite concerto: Johann Sebastian Bach, Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor, BWV 1060R (date unknown).
Runner-up: Richard Strauss, Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra (1945)
“It’s hard to choose between great pieces,” Henoch said. “The Bach is just a tremendous piece of music, especially the slow movement. I believe it was originally written for solo oboe and violin, but the only version that exists in Bach’s manuscripts was for two harpsichords, actually. A lot of his harpsichord concertos were for other instruments, and he transcribed them for harpsichord. As with so much of Bach, what we think is the original for oboe and violin [later reconstructed in several versions] sounds just as beautiful as what we know in Bach’s hand, the Double Harpsichord Concerto. He can transcribe his own music and it still sounds great. It doesn’t sound like an arrangement.
“The slow movement, an intertwining of the two voices, is very beautiful and very gratifying to play. The outer movements are wonderful as well, but that slow movement is just the highlight of the piece for me. The Strauss is very interesting because it was written at the very end of this life, after the end of World War II. The Oboe Concerto in some ways represents his earlier work in which he was influenced a great deal by Mozart. This is a carefree piece, but it still has a lot of depth. It’s a challenge for any oboist to get up and play it.”
Katinka Kleijn, cello
Favorite concerto: David Baker, Cello Concerto (1975)
Kleijn had never heard of David Baker’s Cello Concerto until the Chicago Sinfonietta asked her to serve as soloist for performances of the work as well as a 2002 recording for Cedille Records’ African Heritage Symphonic Series. Though the process of learning and playing the 20-minute concerto was “totally nerve-racking, in my career, saying ‘yes’ has always been a good thing,” she said.
Such an undertaking was not new to Kleijn who is also a member of the well-regarded International Contemporary Ensemble, which is based in New York and Chicago. Baker first made a name for himself as a jazz trombonist, but a car accident forced him to turn his attention to teaching and composition. In 1966, the Indianapolis native joined the music faculty at Indiana University and established its jazz studies program. He went on to lead the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra from 1991 through 2012 and win the prestigious American Jazz Masters Award. At IU, Baker undertook cellos studies with fellow faculty member Janos Starker, a renowned soloist, and the composer wrote this work for him in 1975. “I think it is a really great piece,” Kleijn said.
Not surprisingly, given the composer’s background, the concerto’s fast third movement is jazz-inspired. “The first theme,” he wrote in accompanying notes, “uses the harmonic progression from ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ and is introduced over a series of rhythmic interjections. The second theme is a clever and charming 12-tone row conceived by Starker and incorporated into this movement over a rhythmic bass line.” The piece came along at a propitious time for Kleijn, who was becoming increasingly interested in improvisation and is now a regular performer on the free-jazz scene. “I think that the line between improvisation and composition is sometimes much thinner than people think,” she said. “In fact, it’s a really interesting space, and they overlap.”
Tage Larsen, trumpet
Favorite concerto performances: 2011, Christopher Martin in André Jolivet’s Concertino for Trumpet, String Orchestra and Piano, and Henri Tomasi’s Trumpet Concerto (both 1948)
“Picking a favorite is like picking your favorite kid. So it’s hard to pick one. But I did think of a favorite concerto performance, one that really stuck with me.” It came in May 2011, when French guest conductor Ludovic Morlot led a series of Chicago Symphony concerts that included two works for solo trumpet by Gallic composers: André Jolivet and Henri Tomasi. Featured as soloist was Christopher Martin, who was then the orchestra’s principal trumpet.
There was a buzz in anticipation of Martin taking on both concertos. ‘I said, ‘What? No way.’ To perform one is daunting enough, right? To do then both on the same program? Wow. That’s incredible. And I have to say it was one of the most jaw-dropping acts of trumpet prowess that I have ever witnessed,” Larsen said. “It was really mind-blowing. I’ll never forget that.”
Gene Pokorny, principal tuba
Favorite concerto: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Concerto in F Minor for Bass Tuba and Orchestra (1954)
Runners-up: John Williams, Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra (1984-85); John Stevens, Journey for Contrabass Tuba and Orchestra (1998), and Lalo Schifrin, Concerto for Tuba (2017).
“Probably still on the top of the heap is one of the oldest ones — that would be the tuba concerto that was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams. While one of Vaughan Williams’ biographers stated it was an example of a composer ‘having an off day,’ the second movement of that concerto is one of the most beautiful pieces written for the instrument,” Pokorny said. “My tuba teacher in Hollywood [Tommy Johnson] always told me that it was a piece that ‘sent him’ emotionally.
“There have been some notable [contemporary] composers who have written tuba concerti. John Williams, the film composer, wrote a very good one, and the CSO commissioned a piece from John Stevens, which was premiered 20 years ago this past June. Lalo Schifrin, who was responsible for the theme to ‘Mission: Impossible,’ wrote a tuba concerto that is scheduled to be performed next season [Jan. 14-16, 2021]. It’s in a neo-Baroque style but has some magical, Technicolor orchestration. If you listened to the piece and ate a bowl of potato salad simultaneously, you would not get indigestion. Schifrin knows panoramic, beautiful sounds, given that one of his teachers in his native Argentina was [former CSO music director] Daniel Barenboim’s father! Schifrin is 88 now, and he still composes every morning. He is a very motivated, prolific and captivating composer.”
Stephen Williamson, principal clarinet
Favorite concerto: Wolfgang Mozart, Clarinet Concerto in A Major, K. 622 (1791)
Runner-up: John Corigliano, Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1977)
“I think I’d be crazy not to say that the Mozart Clarinet Concerto is considered the greatest concerto for the clarinet,” Williamson said. “Most clarinetists would agree with that. Sometimes you have concertos where you go, ‘I really love that second movement’ or ‘Gosh, I just can’t wait for the third movement.’ Every single measure of this concerto is a masterpiece — a work of art. They say the greatest concerto that Mozart ever wrote was the Clarinet Concerto. That’s subjective, but most people I know say this, even pianists: ‘You know, I love this piano concerto or I love that piano concerto that Mozart wrote, but the greatest piece he ever wrote was the Clarinet Concerto.’ It’s pretty tough to top it.
“A polar opposite is John Corigliano’s concerto, and I’ve always wanted to perform it. For me, Stanley Drucker’s performance of that piece — it was written for him — was so inspiring, and it’s still today for me the greatest recording of that piece. I still keep trying to come close. I want to do what he did and add my own stamp on it. He is amazing, and his recording of it is unbelievable.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.