On 29 January 2011, London Sinfonietta performed in the Palace of Arts in Budapest for the first time. Included in the programme was Living Toys by Thomas Adès, which has a particularly challenging part for trumpet.
Alistair Mackie, Principal trumpet of the London Sinfonietta, gives us an insight into how you go about preparing such a piece:
I got an e-mail last summer from the London Sinfonietta’s Chief Executive Andrew Burke highlighting a concert in Budapest on 29 January. The concert was going to include a piece by Thomas Adès called Living Toys, a piece that has gained a certain notoriety among trumpet players. As I was a new member of London Sinfonietta Andrew was flagging up Living Toys well in advance. I had the music sent to me and at first glance it really didn’t look too bad; some tricky rhythms, a lot of mute changes and a couple of jazz inspired solos with plunger mute. Good fun but nothing to stress about. It was clear, I concluded, that some of my colleagues had been exaggerating the difficulties of this piece.
My smugness was short lived.
I soon realised that most of it was written in piccolo trumpet pitch, which is to say it sounds an octave higher than written. Stamina is one of the biggest issues for trumpet players and high register playing severely restricts the amount of time you can play for.
This part felt ridiculous, full of relentlessly high passages combined with all the usual complexities of contemporary repertoire. Living Toys surely wasn’t playable.
In order to prove myself right, I tracked down a recording made by the London Sinfonietta shortly after the piece was premiered in 1994.
My heart sank – John Wallace, Principal trumpet at the time, could play it!
I put the music on my stand and began the long process of preparation. Part of that process was the usual technical work-fingers, tongue, pitch, rhythm. Most of it though was a combination of stamina building and brain bullying-trying to gain enough self belief that I could come close to playing it.
By mid January my kids were begging me not to practise it any more and, while not confident, I was beginning to feel better about my prospects. Inflicting some overdue revenge on my drum playing teenage son was an unexpected bonus!
To be continued…
The London Sinfonietta’s recording of Living Toys, featuring John Wallace on trumpet was released on EMI Classics in 1998 and can be purchased here.