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What Are Orchestral Musicians For?

Years ago, before I was shown the door, I briefly taught at the Manhattan School of Music within their graduate program for aspirant orchestral musicians. My intention was to impart some knowledge about the history of the orchestra in order to shed light on the decline of orchestras and of orchestral performance – and to suggest that young musicians might be able contribute constructively.

I boldly inflicted both reading and writing assignments.

The class was large (it was in fact required) – more than 50 instrumentalists. The majority tolerated my course. A vocal minority found it revelatory. And equally vocal minority found it an imposition; they refused to read or write. (The administration backed the dissidents.)

One day I brought my friend Larry Tamburri to address the class. At the time, he was CEO of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, where he had succeeded in creating a unique institutional culture. The NJSO musicians were partners. Some sat on the board. Some had artistic input. Astoundingly, Larry’s strategy enabled him to negotiate contracts with the players without the participation of attorneys.

(Subsequently, as CEO of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Larry discovered himself unable to achieve what he had accomplished in New Jersey. I noticed, sometime later, that when the Pittsburgh Symphony players went on strike in 2016, they insisted on distinguishing themselves from the institutional identity of the PSO. This us-versus-them mentality, pitting musicians against “management,” remains pervasive.)

In my class, Larry drew two circles on the blackboard, a big one and a little one. The little one, he explained, signified the traditional institutional role of orchestral musicians. The big one showed what orchestral musicians needed to become: full institutional participants. Larry said that he was having trouble finding young big-circle instrumentalists for his orchestra.

In my various orchestral adventures and misadventures, I had occasion to take part in the ritual of contract negotiations as CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1990s. I discovered that members of the orchestra with whom I thought I had a decent personal relationship became different people when seated on the opposite side of a table. A counter-example is the South Dakota Symphony, about which I have often written in this space. That is an orchestra full of big-circle musicians.

In PostClassical Ensemble – the renegade DC chamber orchestra I co-founded fifteen years ago with the conductor Angel Gil-Ordóñez – our big-circle contingent includes our principal trumpet, Chris Gekker. Now in a late phase of his career, Chris is one of the best-known brass players in the US. No other member of PCE is more keenly engaged by the intellectual content of our programing. Chris is also one of two PCE players who sits on our board of directors (the other being Bill Richards, our splendid principal percussionist).

Chris’s big-circle attitude, I am certain, has something to do with a decision he made at the age of 25. Even though he had access to membership in major orchestras, he decided that he would pursue a different career trajectory and restrict his orchestral playing to part-time positions. So he became principal trumpet of both Orpheus and of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York. He occasionally subbed as principal trumpet with the New York Philharmonic, or the San Francisco Symphony, or the Santa Fe Opera. And he simultaneously pursued a free-lance solo career including jazz and recording gigs. So he retained independence.

Chris grew up outside DC. He’s recalled: “My parents were both European immigrants; my sister and I are the first Americans in our family. In addition to hearing various languages spoken at home, there was music; they both knew a good deal, and my father was a fine amateur pianist, playing Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, and his beloved Russian music. Outside the house, in the 1960s, the sounds of soul and rock bands were everywhere, and I began playing in bands very early, so I had exposure to a lot of music.”

Chris’s unusual qualities as a person correlate with his eclectic background. I also believe that his professional independence correlates with his unusual qualities as a trumpeter. His style of playing is utterly personal – but subtly so. The clarion swagger many associate with the trumpet is not for him. Rather, he has developed a lyric vein of his own.

I cherish many memories of Chris Gekker in performance with PostClassical Ensemble – e.g., the cantabile solos in the second movements of both Gershwin’s Concerto in F and of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (our soloist, Alexander Toradze, called Chris “free as a bird – he creates on the fly”). But mainly I remember his contribution to Silvestre Revueltas’s fabulous score for the film Redes – music we have both performed and recorded. With the Mexican bandas of his childhood always in his ear, Revueltas is a creative and demanding composer for brass. His tuba parts are unique. In Redes, he creates a work-out for solo trumpet that is grueling and rewarding in equal measure.

Near the end of this hour-long film, there is an exquisite muted trumpet solo marked “piano.” I have produced Redes performances (the film with live music, plus exegesis) with more than half a dozen American orchestras. Chris is the only player who has so much as attempted to play this solo really softly, let alone pulled it off memorably. Our Redes recording documents his first take, at the tail end of four days of rehearsal and performance. Accompanying a funeral procession (one of this film’s many indelible episodes, with cinematography by Paul Strand), it sounds like this, with PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez:

Chris once shared with me his sublime second movement solo in Gunther Schuller’s recording of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, with Russell Sherman at the piano. It sounds like this

Typically, Chris had something interesting to say about it:

“Gunther used the original Paul Whiteman Band scoring – which you didn’t hear in those days. The Gershwin estate actually tried to stop him.  They only wanted the symphonic version to be known. The trumpet solo in that standard orchestral version is marked ‘with felt crown’ — so it’s usually played with a soft hat mute, often literally a cloth hat or beret. In the Whiteman version, it’s marked ‘megaphone mute.’ No one knows exactly what that means — no such mute exists nowadays. Gunther brought one for me to use. In the original Whiteman performances, the solo was played by Charlie Margolis, who was the premier free-lance trumpeter in NYC during the ‘20s, commanding triple scale wherever he played, and in constant employment by radio company orchestras. The original parts, which Gunther used, just had people’s names on them, not ‘trumpet 1,’ ‘trumpet 2,’ etc. Bix Beiderbecke was in the band, he was a notoriously bad reader, so there is a trumpet part for him but it is mostly blank; according to Gunther he was expected to be onstage but was not given much to do during the Concerto.”

Chris’s most recent CD is titled “Ghost Dialogues.” The music is intimate. It ranges in style from classical to jazz. I was especially stirred by the title number, composed by Lance Hulme; Chris is here joined by the terrific saxophonist Chris Vedala. In an interview in Fanfare Magazine, pegged to “Ghost Dialogues,” Chris renders his high school impressions of Miles Davis and Maurice Andre, of Bobby Hackett and Ray Nance, of John Ware’s posthorn solo in the Bernstein/NY Phil Mahler Third and says “I loved the sound of the trumpet played softly.”

Chris Gekker is also a teacher – and has been a member of the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Maryland (College Park) since 1998. I have no doubt that his special qualities as a person make him a special pedagogue.

In fact, this past summer he became the first member of the School of Music faculty to be named a Distinguished University Professor.

For a filmed interview with Chris Gekker, by PCE’s resident film-maker Behrouz Jamali, click here.





  1. Robert Berger says

    Interesting article, but I do not think orchestras and orchestral playing are in any way “in decline “. In fact, standards of orchestral playing are higher than ever before , and there are more world class orchestras in America than ever before . The term “Big Five Orchestras ( New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago symphony, Cleveland orchestra , Philadelphia orchestra ) is now obsolete . There are many orchestras in America which are ion no way inferior to these .

  2. I agree with Robert – there is no decline. Quite the opposite – thanks to the many music schools and modern teaching methods, there is a surplus of superb players. Even our local amateur, semi-pro groups have benefitted and prospered thanks to so many highly skilled players being available but not quite good enough to get a prestigious job in major orchestra.

    On the other hand…I have noticed that many younger players have next to no connection to the repertoire. One of my bassoon teachers was blunt: if you want to play in an orchestra you have to get rid of the hip hop, rap, and other low value music you listen to and learn the extensive standard repertoire of orchestras everywhere. So I’m playing 2nd bassoon on Scheherazade and this new PhD in bassoon has never performed it, never heard it. I had to explain to her how those solos should be played, what they mean. Same with the Shostakovich 9th and much more. The kids can play all the difficult solo lit, all the monstrously complex etudes, etc, but their connection to the classical repertoire is niggardly.

  3. Taking off from AZ Cowboy’s comment, orchestral playing has gotten better and better technically–but stylistic differences from one orchestra to another, or the same orchestra playing different kinds of music, have pretty much disappeared. AZ Cowboy’s young bassoonist is typical of younger orchestral musicians these days: highly proficient technically, able to play just about anything with minimal rehearsal, but not acquainted with matters of style–the stylistic differences from one composer to another, but also the old national stylistic differences, as when you could tell a Russian (or French) orchestra by its brass, or a Czech (or French) orchestra by its oboes. The Philadelphia Orchestra was once defined by its lush strings, the Boston Symphony by its rich bottom end, the Chicago Symphony by its brass. So the decline is not in technique, but in style.

  4. If anything the technique of playing is far superior than it has ever been .
    What is in decline if not moribund is the orchestral players not understanding their “art” form ,its history and practice.

  5. Jerome Hoberman says

    I think someone may be pulling someone else’s leg, or perhaps someone is confusing Concerto in F with Rhapsody in Blue. According to all the sources I’ve seen, the Concerto was commissioned by Walter Damrosch for his NY Symphony Society after he heard the first performance of the Rhapsody, and Gershwin orchestrated it himself (for full orchestra — his first attempt at orchestration). Maybe someone arranged the Concerto for the forces of the Rhapsody’s original ensemble? Maybe so that the Whiteman band could play it, too?

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