Interview with Vivian Fung, composer & Mary Elizabeth Bowden, trumpet
Philharmonia Northwest is excited to welcome composer Vivian Fung and trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden to the Seattle area this week for The Trumpet Shall Sound, a concert featuring the glorious tones of brass instruments and the Pacific Northwest Premiere of Fung’s Trumpet Concerto; Bowden performs as soloist on E-flat, flugelhorn, and piccolo trumpets. The Concerto, written for Bowden in 2020 and co-commissioned by Philharmonia Northwest, barely received its World Premiere before a certain pandemic postponed its subsequent concert dates. It receives its long delayed first Philharmonia Northwest performance this Sunday.
Fung and Bowden are both standout artists in their respective fields. The Canadian-born Fung is a JUNO Award-winning composer whose work has been performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra, Montreal Symphony, Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, and the American String Quartet, among many other ensembles around the world; NPR hails her as “one of today’s most eclectic composers.” Bowden, a Yamaha Performing Artist and Gold Medal winner of the Global Music Awards, is praised for her “splendid, brilliant” playing (Gramophone Magazine) and her “pure, refined, and warm” tone (American Record Guide); her 2022-23 season includes no fewer than four world premiere concertos, including works by Clarice Assad and 2020-21 Seattle Symphony Composer-in-Residence Reena Esmail.
In anticipation of this long-awaited Premiere, Philharmonia Northwest interviewed Fung and Bowden this week about creating a new piece of music together, showing audiences new sides of the trumpet, and, of course, what their pets have been up to.
- What are 1-2 interesting things you’d like to tell us about yourselves that are unrelated to this Trumpet Concerto project?
Vivian Fung: We have a 14-year-old Shiba Inu dog (Japanese breed, smaller version of an Akita) named Mulan, and she is my walking companion every morning and evening. She likes to do what we call the Shiba 500–you know, the Shiba version of the Indy 500–(well now that she is older, maybe it’s more like the Shiba 300) around the house when she gets excited or after a bath, which she hates. She is one of my Muses.
Mary Elizabeth Bowden: I am married to a trumpeter, David Dash. Our lives are very nomadic as we are based in North Carolina, Virginia, and New Mexico throughout the year. We love bringing our trumpets on vacation, and we did practice everyday together on our honeymoon in France (which is probably something only trumpet couples do!) We love finding places to practice. One of my favorite places we practiced in was a small church that was open in Wengen, Switzerland.
We also have 2 cats, Sophie and Duke. Duke is our travel companion and we love taking him on walks with and without his leash. He always comes running to us when we whistle his special whistle. You can catch him on my Instagram account!
- Tell us a little about your relationship and the genesis of the Trumpet Concerto. How did you two meet, and where did the inspiration for this piece come from?
VF: Mary contacted me about writing a new piece for her after hearing about me from a mutual friend. She listened to previous concerti I had written and became a fan! She came to my house so she could meet me and play for me, and specifically requested that I write the concerto for her on the E-flat and flugelhorn. The concerto was inspired by a conversation about Mary’s journey in her solo career in general, and as a woman in a male-dominated field. Ideas of striving, overcoming challenges, frustration, passion, and ultimately joy and celebration are all explored in this piece.
MEB: I loved hearing the different colors of sound in Vivian’s music and knew that she would write something special and unconventional for the trumpet. I love that a lot of emotions are in this piece and she had told me that it was inspired by me and my story. I may come across as a quiet person, and it was fascinating to me that she captured my personality which is self-reliant, motivated, bold, and decisive.
- One of the things we love about commissioning new music at Philharmonia Northwest is the opportunity it creates for interaction between composers and performers. What has your collaboration on this Concerto been like, and could you give some examples of how that composer-performer interaction has propelled this project forward?
VF: Mary and I went back and forth with many drafts of the work, and we even kept revising sections after the premiere. Luckily, we had a consortium of commissioners and a few performances lined up, giving us the opportunity to tweak it until we got it just the way we wanted it. For example, the first version of the concerto had a piccolo trumpet at the end, but we both felt after the premiere that the E-flat would be more appropriate for the ending, and that has become part of the final version.
MEB: Vivian has been a joy to work with in creating this piece – one of my favorite parts of commissioning is the collaboration to make the final product. From the initial draft, we went back and forth, editing and adjusting both the solo and ensemble lines until we were both happy with the part. When I perform the piece now, I feel as if it is an extension of my body and voice which is a very unique experience.
- What are some of your favorite parts in the Concerto? For someone who’s familiar with standard trumpet repertoire but hasn’t yet branched out beyond the Haydn and Hummel Concertos, what do you think might surprise or even delight them about this piece?
VF: I really like this really groovy dance-inspired section of the concerto, and we came up with a sound that really makes it pop–a fat and “ugly” sound. I also love the flugelhorn section because it brings a different color to the concerto, and Mary does that so well! My writing for trumpet is not the same as the older concerti, many more chromatic notes, very demanding but in a good way. I try to highlight the myriad shades that the trumpet has—lyrical, brassy, loud and in your face, subtle and quiet, etc. I try to push the boundaries of trumpet writing in my own way. I hope that will bring out a fresh way of looking at the trumpet.
MEB: Something that might surprise and/or delight them is the fact it does not sound like the typical Haydn or Hummel concerti. There are things you can expect from a trumpet concerto for instance, fast sections, slow sections, and the piece being incredibly virtuosic. This concerto comes with pushing the trumpet to explore what is possible, a variety of colors through the use of different trumpets (E-flat and flugelhorn) and instead of the typical concerto format, this piece is one continuous work with various episodes throughout. The concerto starts with a cadenza with a lot of virtuosity.
- Suppose a young audience member leaves this performance thinking “That was so cool, I really want to write music now!” or “I really want to learn to play trumpet!” What advice on getting started, or general life wisdom, would you impart to them?
VF: Explore as many different types of music as possible! Actively listen to all kinds of music, and if you are really serious, find a teacher whom you admire and learn from them. Music is really a life-long gift and journey!
MEB: The first step is getting started and taking the first steps, whether that is learning to read music or taking your first trumpet lesson. My advice is to stay curious, listen to lots of types of music, and be willing to put in the work to improve. With a growth mindset, music can be a life-long enjoyable challenge. There is no end goal as I know every day I can improve and continue to grow.
Also, never let someone tell you what you can’t do!
The Trumpet Shall Sound takes place Sunday, February 12 at 2pm at Shorecrest Performing Arts Center in Shoreline. In addition to this performance, Mary Elizabeth Bowden will give a free masterclass at Music Center of the Northwest, Friday, February 10 at 5pm; Fung and Bowden will also appear at a reception for Patrons for New Music members following the Sunday concert. Read more about Fung and Bowden at their respective websites, and more about the Trumpet Concerto here.
(Blog post and interview questions by Soren Hamm)