Charles Vernon gave composer James Stephenson a tall order: Make this the greatest piece ever been written for the trombone. Vernon, the soloist in the world-premiere performances June 13-15 of Stephenson’s Bass Trombone Concerto, a CSO commission, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Riccardo Muti, thinks the composer has succeeded.

How were you introduced to the music of James Stephenson?

Jim, a trumpet player himself, is a prolific composer of pieces for brass. I’ve played his piece for bass trombone and trombone choir, The Road Not Taken, on recitals many times. He has a good knowledge of the instrument. I’ve played and heard his music for orchestra and band, and it’s really exciting to listen to and to play. His orchestrations are fantastic, and in this new concerto, it makes it go over the top!

Describe the experience of working with the composer and bringing this piece to life.

Jim lives in Lake Forest, Ill., so we had regular contact. He was very responsive to my feedback. I shared my idea of what the bass trombone should be like, sound-wise — range, tessitura, how long you play in a certain register, where rests were needed, etc. I also told him that I want something that sounds great, that’s beautiful to listen to; it’s all about the quality of sound, legato, legatissimo, singing and playing smoothly. I just wanted this to be the greatest piece that has ever been written for the trombone, or especially the bass trombone — one that will stand the test of time over the years and be a piece that every bass-trombone player should play. So you can see, I had some big demands, but I think he’s done it, and I’m really happy about it.

What should the audience listen for in this concerto?

There are some unbelievably exciting moments and beautiful, soft, sensual music in the concerto. The orchestration that he has provided for the orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, will just blow this apart. And with Riccardo Muti, it just doesn’t get any better than that. It’s the luckiest thing that’s ever really happened to me — actually being able to put out there the best that I can play, with the greatest orchestra in the world, with the greatest conductor ever. This is an outstanding opportunity, and I’m just … I’m excited! It’s going to be a tremendous thing.

Hometown: Asheville, N.C.
Year joined the CSO: 1986
Education: Brevard College and Georgia State University

©Todd Rosenberg Photography