Kicking Brass: An Interview with the LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Thomas Hooten

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

This week’s LA Philharmonic radio broadcast on Classical KUSC features two concerto performances by two LA Phil brass principals. Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, will play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Andrew Bain, principal French horn, will play Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Before the performance, which was recorded in February 2015, I sat down with Hooten and Bain backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask them about life in the LA Phil and their upcoming solo appearances with the orchestra.

I began by asking them each what they liked best about each other’s playing.

Andrew Bain: One of the great things about Tom—I mean, he plays with a beautiful sound and is incredibly musical—but his attention to detail and his constant desire to get the best result out of any sort of situation is really inspiring. It inspires me and it inspires the colleagues around him and definitely his section. I think it’s a really great part of his personality and a great trait. We aspire to that level as well.

Thomas Hooten: The first thing that comes to mind about Andrew’s playing is, I always get this sense that he’s in the moment of the music. He’s not in any rush. He seems really concerned about making the phrase as good as it can be. And I think that, for me—in relation to what he said about me—I’m always striving and driving to do the best I can, but it’s a nice reminder when I hear him play to take time, to make sure that you’re in the moment. And I think that’s really important for the listener. You can tell when Andrew comes in, in the orchestra we get this sense of, I wouldn’t say calm, but of breath. And it’s nice.

BL: How important is camaraderie and chemistry among the principals in the brass section?

Andrew Bain: That’s a good question, actually. I think a good, cohesive working environment is really important. And if people are friends outside of that, than that’s an extra advantage. But, I think more important is that people are striving for the same goals and that we’re working together to achieve a really great result. And I think we’re very fortunate that we have that. I think we have that in the entire brass and horn section. Everyone’s really wanting to see the growth of the section as we add new people. With the influx of new principals, that can be a challenging change for members of sections and for the rest of the orchestra, but everyone is definitely invested in getting the best result that we can.

Thomas Hooten: I would say, throughout orchestras in the country, there’s a wide variety of high artistic product and varying degrees of camaraderie. I would think, in the most logical outlook of it, that the more you get along, the more potential there is for greatness. I think orchestras are really good at hiring the best people—we have a process in place that makes sure there’s lots of vetting out—but, the potential after that of somebody actually learning to communicate with others in a way that inspires each other and also is a conduit for discovery: I think we have that here [at the LA Phil]. Through this process of us acquiring new people, I think that’s something that we’re looking for. Looking for new people that not only play great, but become citizens of the orchestra and what we want to do together.

BL: You guys both make your living at the back of the orchestra. What’s it like to take a turn up front in the soloist’s spotlight?

Thomas Hooten: I remember the first time I played a solo with a professional group—it was with the United States Marine Band—and we played From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert L. Clarke. The band started and I just remember jumping out of my skin because I hadn’t been at the very front of a group and heard that much sound, and I’ll never forget how juiced I was: “Wow, this is going to be amazing!” So [with the LA Phil] I’m looking forward to that and getting really close to the violins and hearing all the energy from them.

Andrew Bain: For the horn player it’s really fun, because we’re always at the back. To be up at the front and to actually be able to see the faces of the audience—that’s fun. And to see them when you empty the little bit of water, to see the look of panic and to feel the violins move back three paces when you play the first note, because the horn is loud, and it points backwards so they end up in the slipstream a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.

Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

BL: Tom, the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn that you’re playing with the LA Phil…as I understand it, this was a piece that was designed to show off a bit of trumpet valve technology, is that correct?

Thomas Hooten: Almost right. The trumpet it was written for was a keyed trumpet, so it was very close to when they developed valves. That’s one of the interesting parts about this piece: when it was written, this keyed trumpet was a new invention. The horn didn’t actually sound that good. It was basically like a natural trumpet that had keys in it that would help certain pitches come out, which is why you can play half-steps and more partials in the lower harmonic series. This piece was written in 1796 and wasn’t premiered until 1800 and then wasn’t played again for, like, a hundred years. … I think probably why it didn’t get played that much was because it just wasn’t that good of a sound yet. But the subtleties of half-steps and stuff are absolutely interwoven into the piece itself and, in that respect, it’s a pioneering piece for the history of the trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

BL: Thinking about that idea: even if it didn’t sound great on that instrument [the keyed trumpet], these are sounds, musically, that people weren’t used to hearing from a trumpet either. So, the concerto was super-new, modern music in its time.

Thomas Hooten: Right. The first notes of the concerto show you, “I can play an E-flat scale now.” And people probably said, “Wow, that’s amazing! This is so exciting!” Haydn has these whole themes throughout where the trumpet is going from a note in the harmonic series and then a half-step away. So, the significance of that, hopefully, isn’t lost on the audience. … The other thing I’m excited about is I commissioned a new cadenza for this concerto, written by James Stephenson, a composer who has been incredibly prolific in the last 10 years for brass in general. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a really fun cadenza: pushes the limits of what I can do. I’m excited about offering a new addition to Haydn cadenzas and hopefully people will like it and trumpet players will try it and not curse me for making it hard. [laughs]

BL: Andrew, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 that you’re performing has an interesting story behind it as well. Who was this cheese shop-owning, French horn-playing Leutgeb guy anyway?

Andrew Bain: Leutgeb and Mozart had this banter-ful relationship, so Mozart tended to write a lot of [messages to Leutgeb] in the score—mostly abusive to poor Leutgeb. [laughs] Basically, the Mozart horn concerti are very fun, playful pieces. The fourth concerto is, in many ways, the deepest musically. It’s just an incredibly fun, happy piece. The slow movement is incredibly beautiful and has lots of lovely lyrical lines. But, yeah, Mozart just found this cheese monger guy that could play the horn and he wrote some pieces and that’s what it is. It’s not incredibly deep, serious music, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very much the essence of Mozart’s writing.

BL: Mozart seemed to always know what worked for a specific instrument. He obviously didn’t play the French horn, but does it sit nicely? Does it fit well?

Andrew Bain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s written in the key of E-flat [major], which always at the first rehearsal, at least half a dozen of the violinists will come up and say, “Ugh, E-flat?!” Because E-flat for the strings isn’t the most comfortable key. But for the horn it sits beautifully. In terms of the register, it actually works very well for the instrument. On the modern horn, it works very well because the fingering combinations actually work very well. On the natural horn, of course, you don’t have to worry about that, but it actually lies very well on the instrument. There are many ways you can play it. As the horn has evolved, the piece seems to for any sort of combination of generation of instruments that we use.

BL: And you use a modern horn?

Andrew Bain: Yeah. A modern double horn with three valves and a thumb valve. Blow in the small end and hope that it works! [laughs]

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

BL: Back to the orchestra…who is sitting in the hotter seat? Principal trumpet or principal French horn?

Thomas Hooten: I think it depends on the week. In all honesty, some of the things that Andrew has to do: the delicateness and going between being on top of the horn section and an incredibly loud brass section to literally seconds later blending with the woodwind section in the most delicate transparent [music]. That’s pretty scary. That being said, sometimes the trumpet seat can be just as scary. But, I look at his job and I think you got to have nerves of steel to be able to navigate that. That’s one of the things I really admire about Andrew is that he really goes between those roles in a beautiful way. Not in an ego-driven way, but really what serves the music best. So, I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Except maybe him. [laughs]

Andrew Bain: [laughing] I mean, I wouldn’t want to play the [trumpet solo in the] opening of Mahler 5. That’s some scary stuff.

Thomas Hooten: Especially since you don’t sound good on trumpet.

Andrew Bain: Yeah, I know! And Tom has actually heard me play the beginning of Mahler 5 on the trumpet, so he can categorically state how bad that sounds.

Thomas Hooten: Was that on a horn mouthpiece or was that a trumpet mouthpiece? I can’t remember.

Andrew Bain: It was actually a trumpet mouthpiece, but the thing is, I actually played it on a rotary trumpet, but it sounded like a piston trumpet. [laughs] I have a unique gift when it comes to trumpet playing. … It’s so difficult to compare [the principal horn and principal trumpet seats]. I mean, I like my job because of the flexibility and because I get to play a lot of the stuff with the winds and with the brass and with the strings. And it’s good fun to be adjusting to whatever’s going on in the orchestra. But I certainly think, there are moments when the trumpet is sitting on top of the orchestra and if things don’t sound how they’re supposed to sound, 2,300 people are going to find out about it. [laughs] And that, in itself, is exciting as well. This is where I think you need a special character and a special personality to be a principal trumpet player. You need to want to have that moment. We’re very fortunate that we have Tom because he loves that role and it really suits him and he sounds fantastic. So, they’re different roles and they’ve got their different scary and rewarding parts and I think you could probably say that about several other positions in the orchestra too.

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