You Can Play THAT With An Orchestra?

Posted By Derek Nance on Mar 10, 2015 | 9 comments


During Distinctly Bronze West I had lots of time to hang with my friends Brian and Greg.  Being music nerds, we shared all the interesting pieces of music we had found since the last time we had been together.  Greg showed me a piece that made me re-question all my previous notions about the symphony orchestra.  Just watch this lady’s incredible talents without any introduction.

This incredible performer is Lucero Tena.  After a career as a Flamenco dancer in her earlier years, she blended her castanet skills with pure musician ship to become arguably the first ever “castanet concertist”.  She has performed with professional orchestras on 5 continents and had a laundry list of composers write music specifically for her unique skills.  The video above is with the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris, France.

After watching this video, I got to thinking about what other odd or unique instrument have performed in a formal orchestra setting.  A quick internet search lead me to this amazing piece, a concerto for DJ turntables and orchestra written by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei Prokofiev.  The piece, which lasts over 20 minutes is stunning.  DJ Switch alternates between remixing the live orchestra performance as it is happening and performing along slide the live musicians using samples.  If you have the time it is well worth pulling out the good headphones and enjoying.  Without watching the video it is hard to tell where the acoustic music ends and the electronic music begins.

Further searching lead me to a saxophone rhapsody written by Debussy.  According to it’s listing on AllMusic.com, the piece was commissioned in 1903 by the President of the Boston Orchestra Club Elisa Hall, a well-to-do lady who had recently taken up playing the saxophone.  Due to the lack of music for saxophone in the pre-jazz era, she used he wealth to commission many pieces for the instrument.  Debussy was dismissive of the instrument and finally submitted an incomplete score in 1911.  The piece would not be premiered until 1919.  Also noted in the posting is this humorous anecdote about Debussy.

“In 1905, Hall performed one of her other commissions in Paris, and Debussy, who was present, later wrote that he thought it ridiculous to see a woman in a pink frock playing on such an ungainly instrument, adding that it was not his desire to perpetuate the spectacle.”

I think we can all agree that the result is fantastic.  Nearly a century later saxophones are still no more than a novelty in orchestras, despite the beautiful sound the Debussy piece demonstrates.

Probably one of the most famous examples of this is a series of concerts Metallica did with the San Francisco Sympnoy in 1999.  Conductor of the orchestra Michael Kamen wrote orchestrations for many of Metallica’s most popular pieces, which the band then performed with the symphony in front of a live audience.  The album of the concert hit #2 on the US Billboard 200 chart.

All this then got me thinking about handbells and orchestras.  For several years now my home group Tintabulations has performed with the Reno Philharmonic on their holiday concert.  Despite playing for many of their shows, we are always asked to perform the same piece, “Glories Ring” by Steven Amundson.  The orchestra and our group like Amundson’s piece because it gives advanced bell groups a challenging and showy part backed by a full orchestration written to be performed by a skilled orchestra.  Most of the other pieces we have found for handbells and orchestra either have super simple orchestrations or a bell part written for a glockenspiel.  Plus, we have yet to find any pieces for bells and orchestra that are not for the holiday season.  Sometimes I get the feeling orchestras view bell ringers like the character Triangle Sally on Saturday Night Live.

Actually, I do know of one non-secular piece written for bells and orchestra.  The “Concerto for Cymbells” written by Michael Glasgow and commissioned by Malmark Bellcraftsmen shortly after releasing their Cymbells product.  Michael has played me midi-generated clips of the piece and it sounds fantastic; three movements that last over a half hour, written for full orchestra and cymbells virtuoso.  However, as of this writing of this post the piece has never been performed.  We also posted about an Arnold Sherman piece for bells and orchestra a couple years ago, but I am not sure if that has ever been performed outside his own group.

Does anyone know of any works for bells and orchestra I am not aware of?  If you could play any piece with orchestra, what would you want to perform?  What’s the strangest instrument you’ve seen perform with an orchestra?  Let us know in the comments below.

Cover Photo: “Kings Chamber Orchestra” taken by Aaron Shearer.  Used under the Creative Common’s License.