“Game Face On!” for Wagner: An Interview with Allen Barnhill, Principal Trombone

Houston Symphony brass musicians.

“Game Face On!” for Wagner: An Interview with Allen Barnhill, Principal Trombone

On October 25, 26, and 27, the Houston Symphony presents Wagner + Beethoven 2, a program of  thrilling orchestral masterpieces by two of history’s most revolutionary composers.

The selections from Richard Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg offer moments for the brass section to shine. Allen Barnhill, principal trombone, discusses the challenges and triumphs of performing Wagner.

Houston Symphony musician Allen Barnhill
Allen Barnhill, principal trombone

Houston Symphony: Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture has some big moments for trombones. What is challenging about this work?
Allen Barnhill: The “Pilgrim’s Chorus” melody from Tannhäuser is a popular trombone audition piece. The trombones are leading the entire orchestra, so the melody has to be strong, in tune, and rhythmically accurate with a beautiful sound. Not easy to achieve. It requires a mature, accomplished player.

HS: What makes Wagner’s use of brass special, or different from other composers?
AB: Wagner’s music makes more extensive use of brass instruments, especially low brass (trombones and tuba), than many other composers. We have to have our game face on!

HS: I understand you may have performed some Wagner when the Houston Symphony performed in the pit for Houston Grand Opera! How does an orchestral experience of his music differ from an operatic experience?
AB: We played many memorable performances of Wagner with HGO. The operas are very long, requiring stamina and concentration. The symphonic extractions, mostly preludes and overtures, are fairly short, concise versions of the main operatic themes.

HS: Outside of the Tannhäuser Overture, do you have any other favorite moments in the rest of the Wagner + Beethoven 2 program?
AB: The overture from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, an opera about singing, features the brass in a fanfare-like theme, as well as in beautiful, lyrical passages in a singing style.

Kerry Ingram

Hear more! Keep an ear out for Allen and the rest of the low brass during Wagner + Beethoven 2 on October 25, 26, and 27. Learn more and get tickets.

Top image, from left to right: Allen Barnhill, principal trombone; Bradley White, associate principal trombone; Phillip Freeman, bass trombone; and David Kirk, tuba

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