Albany Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence George Tsontakis and the orchestra’s principal trumpeter, Eric Berlin, have a couple of things in common. One is a trumpet concerto: Berlin will give the world premiere of Tsontakis’ concerto, “True Colors,” on Saturday and Sunday.
The other is that both were called, almost like a divine inspiration, to do what they’re doing.
“I was a teenager playing violin in an orchestra and didn’t know much about classical music,” Tsontakis said. “Then, in the same week I heard Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ and a movement from a Beethoven string quartet and I decided to become a composer. I said ‘I want to do that.’ ”
Berlin’s experience was even more fantastic.
“I was in third grade and I so wanted to play an instrument. My hand shot up when they asked if anyone wanted to play. I had no idea what to choose so I chose violin,” he said.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
March 17: 7:30 p.m. Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
March 18: 3 p.m. Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
HOW MUCH: $54–$19 (Troy); $47–$19 (Zankel)
MORE INFO: 465-4755, www.albanysymphony.com, 273-0038
A little time later, he and his parents, who collected antiques, were visiting an antiques show and another instrument captured his attention.
“There was a crappy old trumpet in an old case in a corner. It had a beam of light over it,” he said. “But someone else bought it. I was so disappointed.”
His father saw how dejected he was, so he gave Berlin $40 to see if he could get the guy to sell it to him. He did and Berlin has never wanted to play anything else.
“My connection to the trumpet and how I found it is profound,” he said. “By the time I was in junior high school, I decided I would be a professional. I knew it was what I was supposed to do.”
Both men have had considerable success. Tsontakis has received some of the most prestigious awards for composers, including the Charles Ives Living from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2006), the Grawemeyer Award (2005) for his second violin concerto, and a 1998 Grammy Award nomination for Best Composition for his “Ghost Sonata” for piano. His many compositions are performed internationally and have been recorded on at least six different labels.
Berlin has been the ASO’s principal trumpet since 1998 and as a freelancer he has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops as well as with various chamber music groups in Boston and Denver.
He has been the featured soloist at numerous International Trumpet Guild Conferences, including those in Thailand and Australia, and with orchestras from Finland to Brooklyn. Most of all, he has been dedicated to new music and given several world premieres.
“I have a responsibility to foster the next generation of composers, especially considering my connection with the ASO,” he said.
Over the years, he had done several commissions for trumpet and band, or trumpet and piano or organ. Four years ago, he started to think more adventurously.
“I was so moved by Tsontakis’ percussion concerto with Colin Currie [that the ASO premiered]. It was so powerful,” he said.
Berlin wanted Tsontakis to write a trumpet concerto, but the cost to commission him was too high for him to shoulder alone, he said. Then, music director David Alan Miller got interested. Two years ago, Berlin and the orchestra had given the world premiere of Evan Hause’s trumpet concerto. Since Tsontakis was the orchestra’s composer-in-residence (this season is his final year of a five-year stint), funds were obtained and Berlin and Tsontakis began talking about what he’d write.
“George knew my playing over the years and he was very in touch with what I’m good at,” Berlin said. “I love the baroque but I feel I’m tied to the romantic era and the present day.”
For Tsontakis, the concerto represented several challenges.
“I’d never written a trumpet concerto before,” he said. “I’m not a real brass composer. It’s not my speciality. But it’s a relief to write for trumpet. You don’t need to worry about balance. You’ll hear Eric no matter what.”
He loved Berlin’s playing, his sound and his concept of line.
“He plays trumpet like a violin. It’s not percussive. It’s elastic . . . he has beautiful line,” Tsontakis said.
Knowing Berlin’s capabilities was one thing, but it was still necessary to figure out how to write idiomatically for the instrument and to determine how to orchestrate a piece so that it would have the right flavor and would make the trumpet shine, he said. He listened to a couple of trumpet and orchestra discs.
“Once I got it, I decided I’d do something better,” Tsontakis said. “You need to find what is special about the instrument to capitalize on it: its clear tone, its call, its noble, majestic parts and how it leads.”
He didn’t hesitate to write a difficult part.
“I’m writing for a fine expressive trumpet player. Eric is the first on the list,” he said. “Writing a trumpet concerto is also not like a violin concerto. There aren’t a lot of trumpet concertos out there . . . the trumpet world will get down on their knees [to thank him].”
Berlin said his part uses the trumpet’s entire range, has large leaps, long lines and several sections that are an endurance test. It also requires him to use a lot of different mutes to get different effects and the music is jazz-inspired.
Tsontakis named it “True Colors” as a triple entendre: the work uses the primary harmonic material of perfect fifths and fourths that meet and mesh; it uses the pure sound of the trumpet; and it reflects Berlin’s “call” to play trumpet, which was like a moment of epiphany, and is a tribute to him.
Other pieces on program
The trumpet concerto is not the only piece scheduled. In fact, Miller wanted the evening to be a kind of tribute to Tsontakis, so he asked him to choose works that had made an impression on him or inspired him.
“It’s like a Whitman sampler,” Tsontakis said with a laugh.
He chose two works by Beethoven: the “Egmont Overture” for its power, tight brevity and because it makes its point quickly; and the Allegretto from his String Quartet, No. 16. He chose Debussy’s “Nuages” and “Fetes” from his “Nocturnes” because he loves the poetry of Debussy’s tone poems. And, of course, Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” which for Tsontakis, is part of what started his life’s course.
After the ASO records “True Colors” this month, Berlin hopes to take the concerto on the road. Initially, it’s scheduled for a May performance at the International Trumpet Guild Conference, which is a worldwide organization with more than 6,000 trumpet members. That may lead to more performances of the concerto, but Tsontakis is only looking at the first one.
“David says he loves the piece; Eric says he loves the piece. Now, let’s see if I like the piece,” Tsontakis said with a laugh.