News - 17 Aug 2023

Chance to play concerto ‘a big deal’

For 30 years, Ralph Miller has been playing the trumpet and this weekend he gets to celebrate the anniversary by playing the ultimate piece for the trumpet, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. He tells Rebecca Fox of the Otago Daily Times about the significance of the piece.

Walking on to the stage to play a solo with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra is not something Ralph Miller ever imagined he would be doing.

As the principal trumpet player for the DSO and the Dunedin City Jazz Orchestra he is no stranger to big concerts — he also plays Last Post at the Dunedin Anzac services most years.

But for Miller this concert with the DSO playing Joseph Haydn’s trumpet concerto is a "big deal".

"I never expected to be doing a solo with the orchestra. It took a while to sink in, but of course I jumped at the opportunity. It’s not just the opportunity to perform a solo, it’s that solo — it is the most important piece in the trumpet repertoire."

It is also a bit of a milestone for Miller, who first picked up a trumpet 30 years ago but has never had the chance to play the piece.

"In many ways the concerto is a rite of passage for trumpet players. Most professional players would have done it as part of their studies but because I never studied music it’s taken me 30 years to get to it. So it’s a nice milestone, that."

Miller started playing the trumpet after seeing it played when Saturday Morning Music Classes toured schools demonstrating different instruments. He has no idea why it stood out.

"It just spoke to me. I decided it was one for me."

He asked his father if he could learn to play the trumpet. He was very keen on the idea as his father was a brass player. A family friend, the late Bill Willers , who was involved in youth brass bands, took him under his wing. He loved the camaraderie and the competition of the bands.

"Right away I was thrown into brass bands. It was great as I had opportunities to perform straight away and a reason to stick with it."

While he played the cornet in brass bands, he played a bit more trumpet at school. As his love for jazz grew, he started to play jazz as well as performing with orchestras.

In 2001 he was asked to play for the DSO’s predecessor, the Southern Sinfonia. He started out playing casually but over the years has played more and more.

As much as he loves playing the trumpet, he never seriously considered making it a career, instead going into teaching. He now works in learning and development at the University of Otago.

"It’s nothing musical at all. I’ve kept it as a hobby. It’s not a basket I wanted to put all my eggs in."

As a hobby or "way of life" it keeps him busy evenings and weekends with practices and performances, whether it is playing the classical repertoire with the DSO or jazz with the jazz orchestra and various other jazz, blues or reggae bands. He has also been known to play trumpet for musical theatre pieces such as Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

"My philosophy has always been to say yes to everything, which I’m learning to change these days, so I never know where my next gig will come from — it’s been a valuable approach to always be available and always deliver."

Both classical and jazz have their challenges but he enjoys playing both. The trumpet takes the back seat in the classical repertoire with less to play compared with its role in jazz music.

"What’s great about trumpet is you play one style and never get bored of it. It doesn’t matter because you are playing something else next week."
In jazz he has been able to really get out of his comfort zone with different performances such as the recent Miles Davis concert, where he performed the jazz legend’s 1950s landmark album Birth of the Cool.

"It was a great programme, which twice sold out. Getting to dig really deep into that music and figuring out how to make that work, I really enjoyed that."

Whatever the concert, it requires a lot of preparation work, especially this weekend’s Haydn performance.

"I’ve been trying to approach the work with respect for what it represents musically and historically."

While the trumpet was important in the Baroque era, it had no valves so the only way to play a tune was to play very high and that style of playing went out of fashion by the time of Haydn and Mozart in the classical period so the trumpet took a back seat.

"That’s why there is not a lot of interesting stuff for trumpet in Beethoven, Mozart or Haydn."

But in 1796 a friend of Haydn’s, Austrian trumpet virtuoso Anton Weidinger, approached him with a new trumpet he had invented with keys.

"That meant the trumpet could finally play melodies at a more reasonable middle and lower register and reintroduce the trumpet as a solo instrument so Haydn had to write a piece for it.

However, the instrument did not catch on so the concerto lay forgotten until the mid-1930s.

"Other composers did not adopt it so it never really took off so there was only this brief window. Ironically the biggest piece for trumpet today came about as a detour, an experiment in the evolution of the instrument."

Imagining what it would have been like when it was premiered in the 1800s intrigues Miller.

"You have to frame it in that history when you perform it. It was ground-breaking, not just another classical piece. But it means you want to go easy on the embellishments and expression, keeping it genre appropriate."

The piece is 15 minutes long, which is not long for some classical solos for piano or violin.

"It is a long time to have a trumpet on your face though. Although it’s easy to memorise."

For the first time Miller has taken time off work to rehearse the piece, has been doing early morning and weekend practice sessions and has also said no to other gigs to concentrate on it.

"I want to do this properly. Every time I listen to it I find something new to highlight."

He has spent hours listening to performance recordings of the work to see how other musicians have interpreted it.

"There are dozens of versions and so much variation among the recordings. I’ve been pulling them apart to figure out what I like, how I want to present the piece, what works for me."
The significance of the work also means he wants to play it on the right instrument, so has bought a E flat trumpet.

"It is smaller and has a higher pitch than a regular trumpet, so I’ve been learning how to play that and how to approach the trumpet as it is much more delicate than a regular one.

"You need to get to know an instrument, find out how hard you can push it, what it wants to do. You don’t want to end up fighting the instrument — you have to let it do what it is designed to do and let it sing."

He has also had to search for the right mouthpiece to go with the new trumpet.

"I’ve gone through a bunch of mouthpieces to find the right match. Of course, I ended up on the one that came in box."

To be a successful trumpeter requires breath control and co-ordination of the air, tongue and fingers, he says.

"The trumpet also requires facial muscles most people don’t realise they have, so [it’s about] fine-tuning those and putting it all together while staying relaxed, as tension is the enemy — so the hardest part is to relax."

There are some "fiddly" passages in the concerto that will require all of his agility.

"The ultimate goal is for it to sound easy, light and delicate. Not very trumpety — that is the point of the piece."

He is used to standing on stages alone with big crowds focused on him, having played Anzac Day services for many years and also on live television prior to the rugby "once you get past the initial shock and reality of it all".

But he admits seeing the publicity posters for the DSO concert gave him pause as did a quick play in the venue and seeing his colleagues get their music to practise.

"It made it lot more real."

His role on Anzac Day and other military ceremonies is one he is most proud of. In 2016 the Dunedin Returned and Services’ Association gave him an honorary life membership in recognition of his service.

As soon as the DSO concert is over, Miller swings into jazz mode with a gig with the Dunedin City Jazz Orchestra the following weekend.

"It is often the case for me, alternating weekends."

Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, King’s and Queen’s Performing Arts Centre, Saturday, August 19, 5pm, and Sunday, August 20, 3pm.

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