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Orchestra Close-Up: The New York Philharmonic Trumpets

By Lucy Kraus
05 Apr 2009

They sit at the back of the Orchestra, playing instruments that always stand out in the crowd. On their own, they walk or jog, play golf or soccer, and work out in the gym. Meet the trumpet section of the New York Philharmonic.


Like all brass players, they are marathoners who practice every day and work hard, very hard, to stay in shape. Because everything, from lip and tongue to lungs, diaphragm, and abdominal strength, is the key to success in the career to which they have dedicated their lives.

Leading the foursome is Philip Smith, who joined the Orchestra as Co-Principal Trumpet in 1978 and became Solo Principal in 1988. Thomas V. Smith (no relation) arrived in 1998 and plays Fourth Trumpet/ Utility, i.e., whatever part is needed. Associate Principal/Third Trumpet Matthew Muckey started fresh out of Northwestern University on June 28, 2006 — his 22nd birthday — with the dual role of section player and backup to Philip Smith. The most recent arrival, Second Trumpet Ethan Bensdorf, who joined in 2008, a year after graduating from Northwestern, defines his job as “matching perfectly with Philip Smith in intonation, articulation, sound, volume — everything.”

“The trumpet is a very athletic and dangerous instrument because everyone hears it,” says Mr. Muckey. “The shape you’re in physically is reflected in your playing and performance stamina.” “Being a good trumpet player,” says Philip Smith, “is a very physical job in terms of developing your embouchure and your wind capacity. You have to stay in shape so that you can fulfill all the different requirements, like playing a Brandenburg Concerto one week and Mahler Five the next.” Thomas Smith concurs: “It’s like athletes who stretch and run sprints and distances — it requires efficiency, strength, and your brain.” “Athletes who take time off get out of shape,” adds Mr. Bensdorf. “The same thing happens with us. I don’t think I’ve ever gone on vacation without my trumpet.”

The comparison to athletes is a recurring theme in conversation with these players, who have embraced the instrument that has heralded kings and conquering heroes. Among them they own or play approximately 50 trumpets of various sizes and designs, including cornets and flugelhorns. Each player is expert on the standard B-flat trumpet, the C-trumpet (the predominant one in use at the Philharmonic), the specialty trumpets pitched in D, E-flat, E, F, and G, and the piccolo trumpets in A and high B-flat for Bach or contemporary works.

While their facility with their instruments is first-rate, the section still faces challenges. This has been especially true for the newest recruits, Matthew Muckey and Ethan Bensdorf. For them, the need to learn the constantly changing repertoire required for a major symphony orchestra, and the demands on their brains and bodies, have been constant.

“Coming from school, you’re not really prepared for the amount of sound a topflight orchestra like the Philharmonic puts out,” says Mr. Muckey. Veteran Thomas Smith agrees: “In an orchestra of this caliber, every member is capable of producing a very healthy sound, and this orchestra is known for putting it out there. Nothing can prepare you for that experience.” Is there a unique sound to the Philharmonic’s trumpet section? “It’s constantly changing,” explains Philip Smith. “I think the sound is made up from the players who are here. Our job is to listen to each other and try to meld our sound and our individualities into some kind of unison. That becomes our ‘sound.’”

To keep the section in top form, Philip Smith has created two groups: “When we’re not playing as a unit of four, we divide the work into two teams — we trade off,” he explains. “It keeps us all active and involved in the section, musically and physically. I watch the workload. There’s a lot of repertoire, and I try to make sure that we share in it and one guy isn’t overworked and another isn’t under-worked. If we ran it just by first trumpet, second, third, and fourth, there’s a diminishing return. We can’t do that: we all need to be up there ready to go. I’m counting on these guys,” he adds. “I want a section that is supportive, where they automatically step up to the plate and are as aggressive as I am so that I can pace myself. It’s like being a marathon runner: you’re not giving all the time, you know when to back into the crowd, how to be efficient, and when to go.”

The trumpet, with its enormous versatility, lends itself to numerous shadings and moods within the orchestra. This “soprano” voice of the brass section can be militaristic, as in the beginning of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony; lyrical and soulful, in Copland’s Quiet City; mysterious and soft, in the opening trumpet trio of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (being performed this month); or jazzy, with a touch of schmaltz and blues, as in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major (coming in April).

Each player has his own favorites within the orchestral repertoire. “Playing Mahler is great fun, and I love Stravinsky,” says Thomas Smith. Matthew Muckey enjoys Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony: “I love the harmonies,” he says, “and it’s heavy in brass and fun to play.” Ethan Bensdorf favors the power of Shostakovich’s Ele-venth Symphony, while Philip Smith notes that, “for trumpet players, it’s more exciting as we get more contemporary; but I love Handel and Bach.” All say they are looking forward to playing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, conducted by Lorin Maazel, at the end of the season — a piece none of them has played before.

“I love surrounding myself with sound, sitting inside the group and feeling and hearing the music,” says Thomas Smith of his job. “I like the touring, the collaboration of talent, the musicality you see every day,” adds Mr. Muckey. “For me, it’s been a lifetime involvement, with all the ups and downs,” muses Philip Smith, “but at the end of the day, to play this great music and to make a living doing it is just phenomenal.” Ethan Bensdorf smiles. “The fact that I’m playing with one of the best orchestras in the world still hasn’t hit me,” he says. “I don’t know when or if it will.”

**

Lucy Kraus is the Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.


In action! Philharmonic trumpets Thomas V. Smith, Matthew Muckey, Ethan Bensdorf and Philip Smith
photo by Chris Lee




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