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Trumpeting the trombone

Published Aug. 31, 2005

Sarasota native Mark Hetzler inherited his enthusiasm for classical trombone from his father and grandfather. Early in his life, he heard the Empire Brass perform near his hometown, and later he enjoyed the Chicago Symphony.

"That was it. I was hooked," he says. "I just love the warmth, vocal qualities and melodic power of the trombone."

After studying trombone at the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston University, Hetzler performed with Florida orchestras before replacing his former teacher, Scott Hartman, in the Empire Brass.

His latest venture finds him busy transcribing, arranging and performing with the new trombone quartet Nay Palm Bones.

Made up of Hetzler, Jeff Thomas (principal with the Orlando Philharmonic), Jeff Peterson (principal with the Jacksonville Symphony) and bass trombonist Harold Van Schaik (principal with the Florida Orchestra), the quartet performs a vast classical repertoire that includes Renaissance, Medieval and modern works.

"It's kind of like you do what you have to do, then you do what you like to do, then occasionally you get to do what you dream about doing," Hetzler says.

Nay Palm Bones, which held its debut concert at Lynn University in Boca Raton in January, gives its second performance tonight at the Palladium in St. Petersburg.

The program includes classical works from the Renaissance and Middle Ages transcribed for the trombone and 20th century compositions transcribed or written for trombone.

It opens with Hildegard von Bingen's 12th century chant Ordo virtutum. Fifteenth century Franco-Dutch composer Johannes Ockeghem's Gradual from the Requiem Mass represents the Renaissance. Bach's Prelude in Fugue No. 16 from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book One is an example of the Baroque.

From the modern come 20th century German composer Paul Hindemith's Four Studies for Strings from his string orchestra piece Eight Pieces; Claude Debussy's songs When e'er the Tambourine I Hear and Cold Winter Villain That Thou Art; Polish composer Kazimierz Serocki's Suite For Four Trombones; Henri Tomasi's To Be Or Not To Be; Leonard Bernstein's A Simple Song, In Nomine Patris and De Profundis from his Mass; and Dmitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 in C Minor.

Nay Palm Bones formed three years ago when its members took time off from their busy professional careers to play classical trombone music together.

"We're a great group of friends first and foremost, and we've each individually had this desire to play quartet music," Hetzler says.

Nay Palm Bones derives its name from an orchestra conductor's gesture to a trombone section to lower its volume and powerful expression. "We're saying nay to that," Hetzler says. The name also connotes the destructive power of napalm and references the palm trees in Florida.

"Our biggest challenge is trying to coordinate four very busy and diverse kinds of schedules to find rehearsal time and that kind of thing," says Van Schaik, who lives in St. Petersburg.

Discovering repertoire suitable for the range of the trombone has been a challenge, too. Few classical composers have written specifically for the trombone. That trend is changing among contemporary composers such as Americans Charles Wuorinen and Raymond Premru, and French composer Eugene Bozza. Seattle composer Dave Jones targeted a trombone quartet in his Strong Water, which will become part of the repertoire for Nay Palm Bones.

For the most part, though, Hetzler has to transcribe string and vocal pieces from previous centuries.

"A huge majority of the string quartet literature is out of reach for us, due to the fact that it's written for what string instruments can do," Hetzler says. "I've found that pieces by Shostakovich and somewhat Stravinsky and Romantic pieces translate very well over to the trombone. As far as early pieces from the Renaissance and Baroque, it becomes a much easier transition. Vocal pieces work particularly well, because the trombone is a very singing instrument. It's very easy to get that vocal quality."

This summer the quartet will record three of Hetzler's arrangements, plus some live concerts, for a debut CD.