March 26 2014 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony unleashes principal trombonist in explosive concerto


Ava Ordman will get more than a spotlight at Saturday’s MasterWorks concert. The Lansing Symphony’s principal trombonist is about to straddle a bomb like Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove” and ride it to a climax no listener is likely to forget.

Smuggled into a vigorous all-American program with music of Leonard Bernstein (“Candide Overture” and  “West Side Story Suite”) and Aaron Copland (“Letter From Home”), a 1976 trombone concerto by American composer Donald Erb may be the most out-there music yet heard under the 10-year tenure of maestro Timothy Muffitt.

Ordman will run the gamut of her instrument and way beyond, playing multiphonics (three notes at once), singing, growling didgeridoo-style and a unleashing a finale best left undescribed to preserve the surprise.

“People usually jump out of their chairs,” Ordman said. “They’re not even sure what just happened.”

Ordman, 60, has played the concerto about 15 times all over the country since the mid-‘80s, but never in Lansing.

“I did it in San Francisco and it was like a rock ‘n’ roll concert,” Ordman said. “People were screaming.”

She started training at the gym last fall to get her breath and muscles ready. She hasn’t played the concerto in almost 20 years.

“My tongue was a lot faster 20 years ago,” she confessed. “It’s an opportunity to push myself back to performance shape.”

Ordman isn’t the only one who does weird things during the concerto. The musicians take their instruments apart. They whistle and sing. The pianist reaches into the piano, rolls a bottle over the strings and bows them with the hair of a violin bow. (Not the bow, mind you — just the hair.) There’s also the rarely heard pizzicato tremolo, ominously classified as an “uncontrolled effect” in violin textbooks. Be sure to sign your waivers in the lobby.

But maestro Muffitt said the special effects are not for show. “Some composers in the middle of the 20th century lost the audience in their quest to pursue modernity, complexity and innovation,” Muffitt said. “This has all that, but it will reach the audience immediately. It’s just right there. This thing is a masterpiece.”

Each year, Muffitt features one of the orchestra’s principals in a solo turn. When the maestro asked Ordman what she might like to play, she gave him a handful of CDs, slipping in her own recording of Erb’s concerto.

“I never dreamed he’d pick that one,” Ordman said.

But Muffitt said it was a “no-brainer,” owing to a perfect match of soloist and music.

“It’s almost like it was written for Ava,” Muffitt said. “There’s a lot of personality in the music. It’s a part of her. I can’t imagine anyone else playing it.”

Ordman came to Michigan State University in 2002 and became principal trombone in 2004 after 24 years in the Grand Rapids Symphony. Her run-ins with Erb began in the ‘80s, when she lobbied Catherine Comet, then the music director in Grand Rapids, for a solo turn. Comet, a strong booster of modern music, admired Erb’s cello concerto and asked the crusty composer what else he had tucked into his cowboy boots. He told her he had several works, including a trombone concerto. She lit up and told him about Ordman, but he laughed and said the piece was too physical for a woman to play.

Comet and Ordman, both formidable women, took that as a green light.

Erb, who died in 2008, was an American original. He used everything from synthesizers to empty wine jugs in his scores and loved to rail against “commercial bullshit.” He wrote the trombone concerto in 1976 for Stuart Dempster, the first (comparatively) well-known avant-garde trombonist in America.

The ‘70s were wild and woolly times in classical music. Ordman first heard Dempster in a strange Ann Arbor performance.

“He stood up in full regalia and mouthed a speech by Gen. Douglas MacArthur through the trombone, under black light," Ordman recalled. Later, Ordman and Dempster got together and compared notes on how to handle the Erb concerto.

Ordman rode a career high when she first played the concerto at Chicago’s Symphony Hall in 1988. Before going on stage, she meditated in Sir Georg Solti’s office, under a photo of the legendary maestro schmoozing with the Chicago Bears.

“It was a life-changing moment,” she said. “Everything went as I envisioned it.”

Ordman was called back to the stage three times. The composer was so impressed they became lifelong friends. After that, Erb attended nearly every performance of his trombone concerto Ordman gave.

From the start, the music runs from the lowest to the highest notes and even sneaks in some improvisation. Then it gets very loud. “I’m telling the world I’m king of the jungle,” Ordman said. “It’s this massive statement of power.”

What follows is a phantasmagoria of sounds that includes many familiar harmonies and textures, but goes much further.

At the start of the finale, Ordman will play one note and sing another into the horn at the same time. If she does it right, physics will coax a third note out of the sympathetic vibrations. By the end, she’ll be barking and singing into the trombone, imitating a didgeridoo and fighting off volleys of percussion thunder. When the orchestra threatens to drown her out, she goes nuclear. (You’ll find out how.)

Muffitt said he expects this week’s rehearsals to be “slow going.”

“With a piece like this that is exceptionally difficult for everyone, not just the soloist, we’ll have to be highly detail oriented from the start and wait until the end of the rehearsal block to put it all together,” he said.

Ordman pretty much knows what to expect.

“People will love it or hate it,” she said. “Nobody going to go, ‘Oh, that was nice.’”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Ava Ordman, trombone 8 pm. Saturday, March 29 Wharton Center, Cobb Great Hall $15-50 (517) 487-5001,