Bill Zehfuss, beloved principal trombonist of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, died in the summer of 2014.
After his death, the symphony wrote on its Facebook page: "Bill was a pillar of the CSO brass section for nearly three decades, leading his colleagues in many fine performances over the years. His presence, both on and off stage, will be terribly missed."
He was indeed terribly missed, so much so that in August 2015 a Kickstarter project was launched to commission a low brass concerto in his honor. Composer, conductor and trumpeter James Stephenson was selected to write it. This weekend, thanks to the advocacy of principal trombonist Doug Wright and music director Osmo Vänskä, the Minnesota Orchestra will premiere it. Fittingly, the concerto is called Pillars.
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That title has many meanings, both specific and symbolic. For one, Zehfuss and Wright, the two trombonists most closely linked to the work, are strikingly tall.
"The visual element struck me," Stephenson says; they themselves look like pillars. But the word also represents how the low-brass instruments are the "foundation of support for the entire brass section, and then for the entire orchestra."
Speaking even more broadly, the title refers to all those who loved Zehfuss and who organized the commission.
As Stephenson says, "When I think of each and every person personally giving financial support to this project, all in the service of honoring one colleague/friend, I think of these people as pillars of our community, and the type of people I would like to be involved with. So it is my hope to honor all involved with this piece."
Stephenson was Zehfuss' friend and colleague, and he clearly cherishes his memories of their connection.
"I was a substitute trumpeter with the Charleston Symphony back in the early 90s, doing a run-out concert out to Kiawah Island," he recalls. "Being young and dumb, I'd failed to recognize that I needed a white dinner jacket for the concert. And the trumpets had a spot where they were to stand and be featured. Bill lent me his jacket so that I wouldn't be embarrassed. It was huge on me, and we always joked about that, how the sleeves were hanging 6 inches past my wrists, and the bottom practically to my knees, as I stood up to play."
The deeply, urgently personal nature of the commission made it unique: "I wanted to honor Bill as best I could, pulling in all of my experiences with him, and then trying to process those and put them forth musically."
Pillars begins with a chorale (a special request by Wright).
"Low-brass chorales are heavenly, and he felt it was something his section really loved doing, so he asked for that specifically," Stephenson says. The second movement "is all about Bill," he adds. "There are literal tears scored for the orchestra, and solos for the members of the low-brass section to display their expressive qualities." The concerto ends on a vivacious note, a tribute to the all-Latin final concert Stephenson conducted with Zehfuss as one of the soloists.
One consequence of the concerto's unusual instrumentation is that audiences will get to see players who are usually seated in the back of the orchestra. (For this weekend's premiere, the four soloists will be trombonist Kari Sundström, bass trombonist Andrew Chappell, tubist Steven Campbell, and, of course, trombonist Wright.)
"I used to sit in the back of an orchestra," Stephenson says. "I know how much goes on back there in the trenches, a lot of which an audience may not be aware of. Some of it quite fun, admittedly. But I wanted to make sure that their lyrical, soft playing was on display, that their power was out front, full-on center, and also to include some technical passages that might surprise an audience member or two as even being possible on trombones and tuba."
The tragic loss of Zehfuss was a blow to the music world. But it's comforting to know that thanks to his friends and colleagues, his memory — and his love of music — will echo on.
"I just always will remember his good nature," Stephenson says.
Now, through this music, listeners can, too.
Osmo Vänskä, conductor
Carolyn Sampson, soprano
R. Douglas Wright, trombone
Kari Sundström, trombone
Andrew Chappell, bass trombone
Steven Campbell, tuba
STEPHENSON: Pillars, a Concerto for Low Brass (world premiere)
MAHLER: Symphony No. 4
8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis