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Ray Premru: An Appreciation

Raymond Premru, ex-bass trombonist of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Philip Jones Brass Ensemble passed away on Friday 8th May 1998.

As a tribute to this great musician, we are including this article from the Autumn 1988 issue of The Trombonist.

Ray PremruIn August 1988, Ray Premru, the Philharmonia Orchestra's bass trombonist for thirty years returned to his native America to become Professor of Trombone at Oberlin College, Ohio; a job that will leave him sufficient time to develop further his already successful composing career.

During these 30 years, whether you were talking about the musicians or the London telephone book, it was true to say "there's only one Ray Premru". I first became aware of this when I was sixteen and a regular listener to BBC Radio's Jazz Club broadcasts; I remember hearing some pretty stunning jazz improvisation, the product of a fertile mind on the bass trumpet. Believing this to be Ray's exclusive field of specialisation, I attended my first Philharmonia concert a year or so later to find this chameleon-like character sitting at the back of the Royal Festival Hall stage, contributing his generous bass trombone sound to the lower end of the orchestra's sonorous brass section. As if bi-schizophrenia wasn't enough, Ray was a member of the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble from 1964 until Philip's retirement in 1987; he played in the jazz quintets of pianists Dil Jones and Eddie Thompson as well as the famous Kenny Baker's Dozen; in addition he co-directed the Bobby Lamb/Ray Premru Big Band. Furthermore, he found time amongst all this activity to write a Symphony, a Concerto for Orchestra, Concertos for numerous instruments, music for choirs, brass ensembles, brass bands as well as incidental music for television and films.

How did one individual manage to fit so much creativity into the Philharmonia's busy schedule, be scrupulously efficient in his letter-writing and accounting, pay regular visits to the theatre and cinema, play tennis, run most days, lend a fatherly ear to his grown-up daughters, in a modest way add his support to the profitability of Young's brewery and still leave you with the overwhelming impression that he had all the time in the world? I suppose some of these attributes must have been inherited; Ray's father, a retired Methodist minister and first generation American of Slav descent who possesses infinite patience, has an impish grin that almost belies his calling and appears decades younger that his eighty-six years, was obviously a strong influence.

Ray's musical education centred around his home state of New York. His early trombone studies were with Dale Clark; later, Emory Remington was a forceful personality in Ray's musical development. His American studies culminated with the award of a Bachelor of Music degree in composition at the end of a four year course at the Eastman School of Music, Rochester.

It was the furtherance of his composing talents that brought him to England in the first place. He landed in Hull in 1956, having survived a two week voyage on a freight steamer out of Baltimore, whose main cargo was a consignment of wheat destined for the new and rapidly expanding sliced bread market. It was his intention to stay for six months in order to study composition with Peter Racine Fricker. His appetite for Europe had been whetted two years previously when he had made a twelve week tour of the continent playing "kidshifter" trombone with the Yale University Dixieland Band. It was, of course, only a matter of time before a player of Ray's talent would be taken seriously by one of the London orchestras. Two auditions for trombone vacancies occurred simultaneously. Ray was offered the second trombone job in the London Philharmonic, but found it less attractive than the bass trombone position in the Philharmonia, who could boast Herbert von Karajan as its principal conductor; thus began the era that was to become an inspiration for generations of young players, myself included.

One of the qualities that makes Ray's playing special is the quiet warmth of sound he makes, and there is an emphasis on a cantabile style rather than virtuoso pyrotechnic displays. He possesses a vast dynamic range and has the ability to overpower the orchestra with a frightening fortissimo, however, he is always aware of dynamic levels within the section, and it is largely due to his musicianship that ensemble, intonation and balance needs only occasional attention. In addition he has the most secure high register of any bass trombonist I know - his accuracy in the upper reaches of his four octave compass would out to shame a lot of tenor trombonists.

It is significant that, at a time when bass trombone mouthpieces have tended to get deeper and bells bigger, and more and more bits of plumbing and extra plugs have been added to modern instruments (so much so that one wonders whether it is accurate to call them "slide" trombones any more), Ray stuck to a Holton 169 with a Vincent Bach 2G mouthpiece with a built-up rim, widened but flat (modified by John "Tug" Wilson, tuba player with the Philharmonia 1960-66). A tireless worker, he practised daily, generally for an hour or more, no matter how intense the orchestra's schedule; his enthusiasm for playing and his pursuit of perfection remained unabated throughout his time with the Philharmonia.

Ray's own compositions are tonal in concept and obviously aurally conceived. He has no difficulty hearing exactly how a score will sound and so his own scores are full of meticulous detail of phrasing, note lengths, tempo changes, dynamic and expressive markings. He is an individual voice, but there can be heard influences of Berg, Ives and Stravinsky, as well as some jazz idioms.

Three of his major orchestral works have received performances at the Royal Festival Hall by the Philharmonia: the Concerto for Orchestra and the First Symphony with Lorin Maazel, and Music for Three Trombones, Tuba and Orchestra with Riccardo Muti. The list of his repertoire written over the last fifteen years is impressive. It includes large-scale orchestral commissions from the Cleveland, Philadelphia, Philharmonia and Pittsburgh Orchestras; smaller instrumental works given first performances at Cheltenham, Harrogate and York Festivals; vocal pieces for Roger Norrington's Heinrich Schütz Chorale and the Royal Choral Society. He is completing his Second Symphony, commissioned by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Cleveland Orchestra for three performances at the end of November 1988, a convenient location, lying only thirty miles away from his new home.

Ray's departure is something of an upheaval for the brass section in general and the trombone section in particular. When a section strives for a consistently high standard, there are inevitable discussions on questions of style and balance. This can easily lead to friction and subsequent difficulties in functioning at a professional level, and still remaining on good terms. In my fifteen years with the Philharmonia, I have never known anything other than a cordial and relaxed atmosphere, largely due to Ray's strong sense of consideration for others. When we finally bade Ray "bon voyage", we said adieu to a valued colleague, a great player and a real friend.

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