By Douglas Yeo
The last consequential musical performance I gave before the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 was a joint recital in St. Louis with my good friend, Megumi Kanda, principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony. That recital, on February 17, was hosted by the St. Louis Low Brass Collective, and it was a fun and memorable time of sharing music and music making with friends and an appreciative audience. Little did any of us know that the course of the pandemic over the next two-plus years would greatly constrain public performances. While the pandemic is still with us—let’s not kid ourselves: it’s still wreaking havoc around the world despite our collective desire to put it in our rear view mirrors—we are taking tentative steps to regain the rhythm of life that we enjoyed before anyone knew what the acronym COVID stood for.
Last year, I wanted to give a faculty recital at Wheaton College. Since 2019, I’ve been Wheaton College’s trombone professor, and the College has been important to our family since the early 1970s because my wife, our daughters, and I all went to school there. For this faculty recital, I an idea. Instead of the usual fare—play several important pieces written for bass trombone—I envisioned a program based on several stories. On April 19, 1976, I gave my senior bass trombone recital at Wheaton College; I was 20 years old. It was one of several culminating events that occurred during my last months as a student at Wheaton College and it remains memorable to this day. As I reflected on that, I realized that 2021 was the 45th anniversary of that recital. Also in 2021, I was 65 years old. In 1976 I was a senior in college. In 2021, I was officially a senior citizen. So why not do A Senior Recital, and celebrate the 45th anniversary of my senior recital—as a senior?
But it was not to be. In April 2021, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing and I could not give the kind of recital I wanted to give. I didn’t want to perform a recital in an empty room that would only be seen over a live stream. For me, concerts are collaborative events between performers and audience, interactive affairs where we all feed off each other’s energy. I put aside the idea of A Senior Recital for another day. And that day came last week.
Last Saturday, on April 23, 2022, I gave A Senior Recital, in the new concert hall in Wheaton College’s Armerding Center for the Arts. Now on the 46th anniversary of my 1976 recital, and a year older, I decided to give a recital that celebrated the spirit of creativity that infused my 1976 recital. I also wanted to perform on several different musical instruments that have been a big part of my life for many years. I spent some time during the recital in front of a long table that held all of the instruments I used in the recital and I gave a little talk about each one. A word about the instruments. Naturally, I played bass trombone, my Yamaha YBL-822G bass trombone. But I introduced the audience to some other instruments, too. Serpent, ophicleide, six-valve trombone, and my new carbon fiber conversion of one of my Yamaha bass trombones, made by Butler Trombones. “Yeo’s music store” was visible throughout the recital on a table on stage, and some of the audience reactions when I played and talked about these instruments can be heard on the full stream of the recital. More on that below.
Douglas Yeo talking about the six-valve trombone. Other instruments that are visible include serpent, ophicleide (on the table), and two Yamaha bass trombones, one with a carbon fiber conversion by Butler Trombones. April 23, 2022. Photo by Paul Schmidt.
Finally, I wanted to tell a story—several stories, actually. I wanted to tell stories about music, music-making, musical instruments, faith, hope, and love, and Wheaton College. So, I did.
At this season of life—I will turn 67 years old in a couple of weeks—I’m grateful for any opportunity I have to make music. While I don’t have my 35 year old body and I’m not able to do everything with a musical instrument in my hand that I was able to do in the past, I still like to play and share music with others. Whether in a recital, or as part of a church service, or alongside my wife, daughters, or grandchildren, music making has been a part of our family’s life for as long as any of us can remember. And for this recital, I was very fortunate to have superb collaborating artists. For five pieces, Dr. Michael Messer, a piano professor at Wheaton College, provided absolutely tremendous accompaniment for me. He is a superb musician and player—those two words do not always go together but in his case, they do, in spades—and collaborating with him was a real joy. Also, for one piece on the program, Dr. Tony Payne, a classmate of mine from my days as a student at Wheaton College who also now teaches and performs administrative roles including running the Artist Series at Wheaton College, played organ along with me. Working with these friends made the recital all the more enjoyable. For A Senior Recital, I chose a program that I hoped would be engaging for the audience, and from reports from people who attended, it was mission accomplished. We had a good time. So, in the spirit of sharing this model of putting together a recital, what follows are some links so you can watch and listen to it, too.
First, you can download the recital program by clicking HERE. The program tells a story, so if you take the time to read it, you’ll understand exactly what I was trying to do with this recital.
You can view the entire recital—from top to tail— by clicking HERE. This Boxcast link will be live for a year, until April 23, 2023. The recital was performed without intermission, and with the full Boxcast link, you’ll hear everything from Dr. Michael Wilder’s (Dean of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and Division of Arts and Communications) introduction to the moment after the last piece where our two grandchildren brought flowers to me on stage. You’ll hear my conversation with the audience about the music, and see me give brief demonstrations of all of the musical instruments I played on the recital. It’s all there.
I’ve also put videos of a few performances from the recital on YouTube—no talking or introductions, just the music. Those links follow here.
I’ve enjoyed playing many of Elizabeth Raum’s compositions over the years. When I was teaching trombone at Arizona State University (2012–2016), our faculty brass trio of John Ericson (horn), Deanna Swoboda (tuba), and me commissioned Betsy to write a piece for us, Relationships, and we recorded it on a CD produced by Summit Records, Table for Three. Click HERE to hear our recording of the first movement of Relationships, “Two Against One.” Her solo for bass trombone and piano, Turning Point, found inspiration in the Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse,” where Burns penned the famous line, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” Indeed, we have all seen this line in action over the last two years of the pandemic, where many plans were upended. Turning Point speaks to this turbulence but it ends in a positive, hopeful way. Michael Messer is at the piano.
Asking a person, “Who is your favorite composer?”, is a little like asking, “Who is the favorite of your children?” It’s an impossible question. But if I had to make a list of those composers who have inspired and challenged me, Hector Berlioz will be on that list. High up on that list. I have played a great deal of his music over the years during my long career as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985–2012). In 1840, Berlioz wrote a three movement symphony for band, his Grande Symphonie funèbre et triumphale, the middle movement of which is a funeral oration intoned by a solo trombone. I’ve known about this piece since I was in high school when I encountered it in Henry Charles Smith’s fine book, Solos for the Trombone Player (Henry retitled it “Recitative and Prayer”). Several years ago, I purchased a six-valve trombone with independent tubes, a creation of Adolphe Sax in the mid-nineteenth century. This instrument—its formal name is quite wonderful: le nouveau trombone Sax à six pistons et à tubes indépendants—was Sax’s attempt to create a brass instrument with valves that has “perfect intonation.” As brass players know, with a standard three or four valve brass instrument whose valves are used in combination with each other, the lengthening of tubing when using the valves causes intonation challenges. By creating an instrument with six valves—and the open instrument with no valves— that work independently (the valves do not work in combination), and each valve (and the open instrument) has its own independent length of tubing, certain problems with intonation that valves in combination cause are eliminated. But that’s not to say that all pitch problems are solved, and that, along with the fact that the fingerings are anything but intuitive, the instrument is quite heavy, and condensation from the player’s breath collects quickly in the small bore (.460″) tubes, led the six-valve trombone (and a whole family of six-valve instruments that Sax invented) to have its moment on the stage in France and Belgium for the second half of the nineteenth century into the twentieth century before it disappeared from the musical scene. Still, I enjoy bringing old instruments back to life, and while I have never succeeded in performing a piece on this instrument without making a valve fingering gaffe—my brain always wants to return to standard three valve fingerings, a consequence of having played bass trumpet in the Boston Symphony for many years—I like bringing Berlioz’s Orasion to audiences. In this performance I’m playing my six-valve trombone by Joseph Persy, a Belgian maker who was active in Brussels from 1897. Again, Michael Messer is at the piano.
Girolamo Frescobaldi wrote several works for unspecified bass instruments which I have played on many occasions. In 2012, I gave a recital at Arizona State University where I played Frescobaldi’s first Canzon on a bass sackbut in F with Dr. Kimberly Marshall playing organ. You can see a video of that performance HERE. I’ve also played it on bass trombone accompanied by piano. But I confess I never enjoy playing it more than when accompanied by Eddy Koopman’s creative techno-pop electronic treatment. The arrangement was written for my friend, Dutch bass trombonist Ben van Dijk, and I played it on the buccin (dragon bell trombone) in Nagoya, Japan in 2018 as part of the Second Nagoya Trombone Festival. You can read about that and see photos of that event HERE.
For my recent recital performance of Canzone, I decided to pair the oldest piece on my recital with my newest trombone, a carbon fiber conversion of my Yamaha YBL-822G bass trombone made by Dave Butler of Butler Trombones. I became interested in acquiring a carbon fiber trombone a few years ago in light of a number of challenges I’ve been facing with my shoulders, hands, and elbow. Over 55 years of playing the trombone—of lifting it up and down, holding it up, moving the slide continuously—has taken its toll on my body, and the idea of sometimes playing a lighter instrument is very appealing. I was initially suspicious of the idea of a carbon fiber trombone, but as I learned more about it and discovered that it actually sounds great, I’ve embraced this instrument as something that I use regularly. You can read more about my impressions about this instrument in an article I wrote for The Last Trombone HERE. With my carbon fiber trombone in my hands, I once again had the chance to bring Eddy Koopman’s take on Frescobaldi’s Canzon to a new audience.
My fascination with historical musical instruments dates from my childhood, when I spent many hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s (New York City) musical instrument galleries. I wrote about my first encounter—as a young boy— with the buccin, the dragon-bell trombone of the nineteenth century, in an article on The Last Trombone that you can read HERE. I’ve been playing the serpent since 1994, when I learned it so I could play the serpent in performances of Hector Berlioz’s Messe solennelle with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston, Carnegie Hall, and Tokyo. Since then, I’ve been an evangelist for the instrument. I’ve written articles about it (such as this one about serpents in collections in Boston, and this one about the serpent in the works of English author, Thomas Hardy), a book about it, and recorded a solo CD and an instructional DVD about it. I love this curious. odd, and old instrument that was invented in the sixteenth century.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the world’s leading serpent players and scholars (yes, they do exist!). Clifford Bevan is acknowledged as the leading expert on the tuba family (he authored a book of that name, The Tuba Family, which remains the seminal and most important volume about the tuba and its ancestors, including the serpent). I’ve known Cliff for many years, and in 1996, he wrote what may be the first piece ever written for serpent and piano, Variations on “The Pesky Sarpent.” The piece takes its title from a nineteenth century folksong titled, “On Springfield Mountain,” which relates the sad tale of a young man who was bitten by a rattlesnake. Cliff’s piece includes the text of the song and in my performance, I began by reading the poem before Michael Messer started “The Pesky Sarpent” in dramatic, Lisztian fashion.
Tony Payne, organ, and Douglas Yeo, ophicleide, rehearsing Sir Arthur Sullivan’s, The Lost Chord. Concert Hall, Armerding Center for the Arts, Wheaton College. April 23, 2022. Organ by Taylor & Boody. Photo by Marian Payne.
Douglas Yeo performing Sir Arthur Sullivan’s, The Lost Chord. April 23, 2022. Photo by Paul Schmidt.
After playing the serpent I turned to the ophicleide, a brass, keyed successor to the serpent that was invented in France in the early nineteenth century. The ophicleide has a warm, mellow sound, and it’s no surprise that it remained on the scene—particularly in France and England—until the dawn of the twentieth century when the euphonium and tuba replaced it in most settings. Unfortunately the lighting in the Armerding Center for the Arts Concert Hall organ loft was rather dark so the video quality is not good enough to upload it to YouTube. A few photos are above. However, an audio recording was made and you can hear my performance of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord on ophicleide with Tony Payne at the organ HERE.
The recital contained other music as well, and as I mentioned earlier, you can see and hear the entire recital on the Boxcast streaming video. Before the last piece (more on that below), I welcomed to the stage four friends from my time as a student at Wheaton College. From 1974–1976, James Roskam, Eric Carlson, William Meena, and I had a trombone quartet on campus. George Krem, Wheaton College’s trombone professor when the four of us first met in the summer of 1974, suggested that we form the quartet. That group was a very special one, and to have Jim, Eric, Bill, George, and me together for the first time in over 45 years—I invited them to be recognized on stage at the end of the recital and we enjoyed some time together afterward—was very special.
left to right: Douglas Yeo, James Roskam, Eric Carlson, William Meena, and George Krem. April 23, 2022, Wheaton College, Illinois. Photo by Tony Payne.
The recital also served as a kind of release party for a new trombone quartet compact disc recording, Like A River Glorious. Well, a new but also old recording. This CD, which features both live recordings and recordings from a recording session our quartet gave between 1974 and 1976, was produced by the four members of our quartet and our recording engineer, Craig Ediger (it is not produced by Wheaton College, although College administrators have been very supportive of and approve of the project). We made this CD to celebrate the spirit of student-led creativity that was such a part of our experience as students at Wheaton College and we are giving it away as a recruiting aid for the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music. You can’t buy it; we’re just giving it away. But we are reserving copies for prospective students; we don’t have the resources to distribute it widely by packing it up and mailing it to people. We will be getting the audio tracks available for free download soon—information about that will appear in a future article on The Last Trombone—along with the CD packaging. If you came to my recital, an usher put a copy of the CD in your hand as you left the Concert Hall. It is only 46 years overdue, but we finally made the recording we had hoped to make way back in 1976.
My recital ended with a piece that was the signature piece for our 1974–1976 Wheaton College Trombone Quartet, Donald Miller’s arrangement of Achieved is the Glorious Work from Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. I was joined on stage by three of my current students at Wheaton College: sophomore Michael Rocha, senior Daniel Casey, and Senior Jonah Brabant. It seemed fitting to close the recital in a way that came full circle for me, from my student days at Wheaton College to my time now as the College’s trombone professor. A Senior Recital.