NYO-USA Musician Blogs: Bring It On!
Horn player Mark Trotter looks back on the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America's residency, from initial introductions and rehearsals to the orchestra's first performances in China. He also reflects on the unique skill set and level of courage that playing in the brass section requires.
On June 27 at 7 PM EDT, Purchase College, SUNY, registered a 2.7-magnitude earthquake. Its epicenter was the stage of the Music Building’s Recital Hall, and it began as a low, dull rumble, softly creaking the wooden floors. The tremor intensified, shivering up the walls and delving into the foundations, the backlash of an intense sonic propagation. Yes! The 2015 NYO-USA brass section, formerly scattered blue stars on the “Meet the 2015 Orchestra” webpage, had converged, cases open, instruments out, and the repercussions were thunderous.
NYO-USA brass players take part in a self-organized section rehearsal. (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)
Six hornists, four trumpet players, three trombonists, and two tubists, from eight states, but it took less than five hours after touch-down in Purchase to connect in our first self-led brass choir rehearsal. While the strings fretted over seating auditions, the winds whittled away at reeds, and the percussionists oriented themselves to their new toys, we brass were compelled to begin, and that meant noise.
I stepped into that room uncertain and uninformed. Though an NYO rookie, I “knew” two of the other hornists—Jack McCammon and Jasmine Lavariega—in passing from college auditions. I nodded greetings to Ethan Shrier and Aaron Albert, trombonists I’d met at Interlochen Arts Camp, but the rest were unfamiliar names from cities I didn’t know. And so, when I entered with my faux-alligator-skin horn case (I’m from Florida!), it was with a touch a trepidation, a measure of anticipation, and an overwhelming urge to put names to faces and faces to instruments and instruments to lips so that we could get things rolling.
The horn section rehearses a passage from Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. (Photo: Jennifer Taylor)
I watched as the others filtered in from the elevated rear entrance, jostling through rows of seats, before gathering on the empty wooden stage. Lincoln Valdez, Brent Proseus, James Vaughen, Anthony Brattoli, Matthew Gajda, Jack McCammon, Nivanthi Karunaratne, Jasmine Lavariega, Michael Stevens, David Alexander, Aaron Albert, Benjamin Smelser, Ethan Shrier, and Ethan Clemmitt. (Thank God for NYO lanyards and ID cards.) We are diverse, yet from that first informal session, our brass melting pot bubbled with unfettered chemistry. Despite our disparate color, gender, valve oil preferences, and music idols, we belonged together. And together, we bring a sense of “realness” to the music. A weight. A solidity that the listener can touch and feel as we color the sound—sometimes darkly, often brightly—always passionately enthusiastic, shining.
Our first official brass sectional was led by Erik Ralske, principal horn of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and we deeply valued his knowledge and laid-back, confident ease. With the assistance of David Krausse (principal trumpet, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Ko-ichiro Yamamoto (principal trombone, Seattle Symphony), and Dennis Nulty (principal tuba, Detroit Symphony Orchestra), he coaxed our ensemble, subtlety shaping and bending our playing in ways we were only too eager to learn. Soon enough, orchestra rehearsals dominated the weekly schedule, and we set aside self-gratifying brass arrangements of the Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare, Finlandia, and Lincolnshire Posy for masterworks by Tan Dun, Beethoven, and Berlioz.
NYO-USA tubists Ethan Clemmitt and Anthony Brattoli work with Dennis Nulty, principal tuba of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
(Photo: Jennifer Taylor)
In the orchestra, we eagerly arrayed ourselves in front of the percussion, our kindred spirits in sonority. Seated on a riser in a rigid arc, the horns and tubas flanked the centered wall of trumpets and trombones. Directly in front, the woodwinds waited, entrenched in their grid while the strings sprawled, filling the rest of the stage. We were set apart, and yet connected, united in purpose yet unique in musical disposition, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
You see, the brass life confounds most other musicians. While our string friends took wing as toddlers and mastered etudes in fifth grade, most brass players don’t muster passable long tones until middle school. Once you’re actually able to form a note on a mouthpiece, it may still take a few years of roaming up and down the section to find your niche, and by that time, our woodwind friends are running double octave chromatics at 120 beats per minute. For this reason, we’re overlooked. Sure, it may appear that we have fewer notes, easier parts, and lots of rests, but there’s a story behind that.
“I think I can” won’t cut it, and in NYO-USA’s 2015 brass section, I’ve admired the collective determination that declares, “Bring it on!”
Playing brass is fickle and fraught. Every time the horns go bells-up in Tan Dun or, in Berlioz, the tubas blast the “Dies Irae,” the trombones cackle in “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath,” or the trumpets shout the riotous fanfare in “March to the Scaffold,” there is a risk. We are seated above the orchestra, playing on instruments designed to project, and any imperfection rings to the back of the auditorium with angelic clarity before echoing back. We rarely have time to duck. No, brass is not for the faint-hearted.
Yet, it is Beethoven’s brass section that gives the “Emperor” Concerto’s opening its dignified, regal flair. When Berlioz’s “Reveries, Passions” movement closes on a low whisper, the brass measure the boundaries of that poignant pianissimo. We are both the lion and the lamb, and we must not err. Our personalities wildly range from morbidly introspective to exuberantly giddy, but on stage, we fall lock-step into the brass psyche. It doesn’t matter how our chops feel, if a valve is sluggish, or if there’s excess water resisting the water key, the baton is up and it’s time to play: convincingly, sweetly, heroically.
In short, it takes serious guts play brass. At the same time, it demands a certain amount of chill. Since mistakes are inevitable, we have to roll with whatever happens. A high-strung brass player can’t recover in time to nail the next entrance, rapidly approaching in five measures. “I think I can” won’t cut it, and in NYO-USA’s 2015 brass section, I’ve admired the collective determination that declares, “Bring it on!”