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The principal trumpet of the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra is Larry Black, who retired from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra after a long career. In addition, Mr. Black taught in Atlanta and his outstanding student – of all time – was a high schooler named Christopher Martin. Martin went on to the Eastman School of Music to study with Barbara Butler and Charles Geyer, both of whom were in turn students of Adolph "Bud" Herseth. Herseth is nothing short of a legend among brass players, having played principal trumpet in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 53 years. When he retired, he left a hard act to follow, but Christopher Martin was given that task. In 2005, then-music director Daniel Barenboim appointed Martin to the Adolph Herseth Principal Trumpet chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Martin had spent his time since Eastman with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as principal trumpet, and now joined an ensemble that is generally acknowledged to have the finest brass section of any American orchestra.
Now in March 2014, Western North Carolina benefitted from an inside track: Larry Black prevailed on his former student Christopher Martin to come for a guest appearance with the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra. Saturday night was the date, and a capacity crowd at the Blue Ridge Concert Hall heard a remarkable performance: not just a classical masterpiece, Franz Joseph Haydn's Trumpet Concerto in E flat, but following that work a pops program – the virtuosic "The Carnival of Venice" and Leroy Anderson's "Bugler's Holiday."
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first half of the program, before Martin took the stage, was also a distinctive success. It consisted of Edward Elgar's Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (known as the "Enigma" Variations). The orchestra under Music Director Thomas Joiner acquitted itself very well indeed. Frances Duff delighted with her heartfelt cello solo in Variation XII (dedicated to a cellist who was a friend of Elgar's). Timpanist Jay Bopp showed a stately restraint in his timpani rolls in Variation I (dedicated to Elgar's wife) and again later, then rose to grandeur when the score called for it. The performance by all sections of the orchestra intelligently built to the climactic Variation IX (dedicated to Elgar's best friend and publisher A.J. Jaeger), and the refreshing Variation X ("Dorabella") that follows.
I have never heard the Haydn Trumpet Concerto performed so very "straight down the middle" yet simultaneously with so much subtlety. Martin's tempi and treatment were standard, but his execution was flawless and his interpretation supremely musical. He was absolutely centered in his tone, which was beguilingly beautiful. And unlike some popular brass soloists (dare I mention Wynton Marsalis?), Martin feels that musicianship requires dynamic contrast. His tone retains its luster even when he plays very softly. (For detailed commentary on his technical approach to the trumpet, I recommend his 2006 guest article "Six Months in Chicago" on Jay Friedman's blog.
After the Haydn, the orchestra's string section played Pachelbel's Canon. This was good programming; it cleansed the palate like a sorbet between two substantial courses of a banquet. It also gave Martin's embouchure time to recover.
Jean-Baptiste Arban's "The Carnival of Venice" is unabashedly a showpiece. The multiple tonguing, the bounces between a lower register theme and seemingly simultaneous upper register ornamentation, and other compositional features are all intended to amaze the audience, and as played by Mr. Martin they did so. But just as in the Haydn, they did so without ever sacrificing an intelligent presentation of the musical essence.
Leroy Anderson's "Bugler's Holiday," a Pops standard, was performed with the three solo parts played by Martin, Black, and William Shank from the Hendersonville Symphony Orchestra's trumpet section. It was a fitting nod to the musical heritage of Christopher Martin, a student of Larry Black who clearly is a fitting successor to Bud Herseth in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The future of orchestral trumpet music in America is in good hands.