American trombonist Joseph Alessi is looking forward to rediscovering Singapore through its music.
Known for his horn work at the New York Philharmonic, where he has been principal trombonist for 29 years, he plays solo in Singapore for the first time at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Feb 23.
Alessi, 55, appears with the Singapore Wind Symphony and premieres a 20-minute concerto titled Empire, written for him by Singaporean composer Terrence Wong Fei Yang.
"This will be the first time I'm not coming with the New York Philharmonic," he says in a telephone interview from Seoul, where the orchestra is on tour. It was last here in 2009.
"If you have not heard the trombone as a solo instrument, this is your chance in this lifetime to hear many notes played by the trombone," he says.
The brass instrument has very little place to shine in traditional orchestral repertoire, so new compositions for the trombone should be celebrated, he adds.
"Empire is the first significant addition to the trombone repertory from the region and it is incredibly exciting for me to explore the unique musical ideas in the piece with musicians and audiences in Singapore."
This is high praise from a musician who is considered one of the world's best players of the trombone, and who has trained many others of the same quality, as a faculty member of The Juilliard School since 1986.
A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadephia, he has been welded to his instrument since the age of four, learning from his trumpet-player father Joseph Alessi Senior and also his late mother, opera singer Maria Leone Alessi. His career includes a Grammy-winning version of George Crumb's Starchild (1999), and appearances with big-name ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra.
A concert with Alessi is an "incredible privilege", says the Singapore Wind Symphony's music director Adrian Tan, 37. "The fact that he generously agreed to present the music of a Singaporean composer is also a validation of the maturity of our composers and music scene. This opportunity gives us the chance not just to showcase our talents, but also to be inspired and to learn."
Wong was the obvious choice of composer, Tan says, citing his "impressive" rearrangement of the folk song Singapura, Oh Singapura for the group in 2012. Wong is studying for his bachelor's of music degree under the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts' partnership with London's Royal College of Music and will this week hear the Singapore Symphony Orchestra workshop another composition of his, a 10-minute piece titled Two Moods.
Empire is more South-east Asian in flavour, he says, as Tan had asked for the work to have some regional overtones. It brings together the composer's long interest in gamelan music as well as his research into the 18th-century Mangkunegara empire of Central Java.
"I'm just very honoured to have written for Joseph Alessi. It's the longest piece I've ever written and, at this point of my life, it's the best I've ever written."
Alessi says of the work: "It has a very strong beginning and he wrote a nice theme, I think, so it's my job to bring as much of the music out of the piece as possible.
He adds that he will have more to say after the first rehearsal later this month.
"My job is to take what the composer has written and sell it to the audience. My phrasing will hopefully define the piece as something everybody will want to play. It's something that I won't be able to feel that completely until that first rehearsal."
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