Matthew Vaughn is the co-principal trombone of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Visiting North Carolina as a guest artist, Vaughn presented a concert of Saint-Saëns, Brahms, Prokofiev, and Verhelst with collaborative pianist Allison Gagnon. Trombonist John Ilika also joined Vaughn in the last piece. These artists performed a musically sophisticated and technically impressive concert that was quite enjoyable to this audience member.
The first piece was Cavatine, Op. 144 (1915) by Camille Saint-Saëns. Vaughn played with a strong tone, and Gagnon matched him in this projection. Specifically, Gagnon seemed to give more in the bass, providing a powerful base for the trombone to build upon. In terms of their communication and body language, they were very in sync and seemed to have been playing together for a while. Surprisingly, I later learned that they only had one rehearsal before the concert. Vaughn’s cueing was relatively subtle and used a quick nod of his head. Gagnon, a clear professional, responded quickly and was noticeably listening. Another thing of note in Gagnon’s playing is how the colors and attack changed when she had solo, melodic parts of the piece. In general, the piece was an exciting start and the duo matched each other’s energy seamlessly.
Following this, the duo played Johannes’ Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge (Four Serious Songs) (1896). It was originally written for voice, yet the trombone transcription was hauntingly beautiful. Vaughn’s tone changed dramatically from the first piece, and he practically sounded like a vocalist. At times, he had to play very softly and Gagnon used the soft pedal to match the different dynamic levels. The songs were mostly about death, and Vaughn and Gagnon blended to create a melancholy and somber mood. Visually, it looked like Gagnon breathed when Vaughn did. It didn’t look like she was obviously watching him in this piece, but was responding to when he was taking extra rubato. They also frequently had melodies that they were passing back and forth like they were one instrument instead of two.
Amidst all of the impressive elements of this recital, there was one moment that came as a bit of a surprise. Vaughn went to turn a page and realized his pages were ordered wrong. There was a noticeable pause while he tried to get the pages in the correct order, and Gagnon eventually paused with him. Once in order, Vaughn just cued Gagnon back in and she miraculously knew where to start! After the piece ended, Vaughn commented that the students in the audience should take notes. As a collaborative pianist, Gagnon made an educated guess as to where Vaughn would come back in.
After a solo Brahms etude and a brief intermission, Vaughn and Gagnon came back onstage to perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite No. 1, Op. 64 (1935). In eight movements, this was my favorite piece on the program. Technically challenging for both players, it was a prime example of professionalism. Each movement’s mood changed, and the duo played off one another in their phrasing and colors. For Gagnon, the piano reduction of the orchestra part sounded insanely difficult, yet she was clearly still listening intensely to what Vaughn was doing.
The concert ended with a two trombone piece titled Devil’s Waltz (2010) by Steven Verhelst. Alongside John Ilika, the exciting ending was like a conversation between the two instruments. Swinging in its rhythm, the piece highlighted the instrument’s range and powerful bass notes. Overall, I had never been to an-all trombone recital, and because of the dynamic ensemble playing, I thoroughly enjoyed it!