Hannah Edgar | Chicago Tribune
Few contest that a centuries-old violin will be more coveted than its newer counterparts, assuming it was well-made to begin with. That’s how luthiers like Stradivari and Guarneri have become household names, regardless of whether you know the difference between Prokofiev and Smirnoff.
But old brass instruments of comparable pedigrees don’t enjoy such hagiographies, outside a niche set of brass enthusiasts. Their repair needs can be esoteric, their intonation spotty, the necessary breath support challenging. That’s assuming such instruments have been maintained enough over the years to remain usable and are not dented, oxidized messes.
Even so, a select few brass players swear by century-old instruments, especially by German makers. And the most spirited acolytes of those instruments on this side of the Atlantic are right here, in the Chicago Symphony’s brass section.
Principal trombone Jay Friedman, who has collected vintage instruments since his student days, boasts a collection that wowed even conductor Christian Thielemann, when he conducted here last October. (“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Friedman remembers.) Principal trumpet Esteban Batallán is newer to collecting, but he’s already amassed about 10 such instruments since joining the CSO in 2019. Second trumpet John Hagstrom puts both of them to shame: He tells the Tribune his grand total was “classified” but concedes he owns more than 100 trumpets which he rates as “performable,” plus hundreds more he’s amassed as historical curios.
“It’s like being a cat person: there’s a point where it becomes a little weird,” Hagstrom jokes. “But like a cat, each instrument has a different personality.”
Instruments once played by top-shelf brass players, in the CSO and elsewhere, have made their way into Hagstrom, Friedman and Batallán’s collections. Some have even been happily donated, knowing they’d be in good hands — the very best, in fact. The honor of playing them, Hagstrom says, feels like “bringing a voice back to life, on an instrument that was played 50 years ago, or 100 years ago.”
But other, more obscure acquisitions require more detective work. They’ll go sniffing around when abroad on tour, or trawl the web for hits at home. (German eBay has been a winner for Friedman and Batallán.)
Friedman mostly struck out on his decades of searching for a vintage German trombone — until about 20 years ago, when he went to a cluttered secondhand shop just around the corner from his then-house in Oak Park. He’d hoped to buy a used instrument for his grandson to try out, but instead spotted a trombone on the wall so grimy “it was absolutely black.”
When the shopkeep pulled it down so he could take a closer look, Friedman, astonished, recognized it as a rare, German-made tenor trombone made around the turn of the century. He could make out an engraving near the bell declaring the horn as the property of one “O. Isserstedt” — possibly a relative, he’s since learned, of the esteemed conductor Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.
“It sat in somebody’s garage for 50 years,” Friedman says. “If it was in great shape, I would be playing it all the time. I had to get work done on it in Germany because it had holes in it and the slide doesn’t work. But it’s still the best-playing horn that I have — it has the best sound.”
That sound varies dramatically from instrument to instrument, and can vary even more depending on the mouthpiece and, obviously, the player. Generally, late 19th- and early 20th-century instruments sound more rounded and blooming than their more direct, denser modern counterparts. The instruments are handmade; their metal is thinner and more pliant, made from alloys which use more lead than modern makers would dare venture. And, much like an old violin, the sound changes with age, vibrations gradually tempering the metal even further over years of use.
“They have something that the new brands cannot have, which is the soul in the sound,” Batallán says.
Those instruments wouldn’t shine in a solo or recital context, and you definitely won’t be seeing them at Ravinia this summer — per Friedman, “the sound would just get lost.” But they’re first on-call for any indoor ensemble work which requires delicacy and blend rather than pyrotechnic showmanship. In last year’s performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, Batallán and Hagstrom were seated right behind a very apprehensive woodwind section, their earplugs at the ready. To their surprise, the softer sound — from two pre-World War I B-flat rotary trumpets from Hagstrom’s collection — was a nonissue.
“We were creating energy without pain,” Hagstrom says.
The silver piston C trumpets most often used by the section emulate the sound of an iconic model by Austro-American maker Vincent Bach, who made four such trumpets especially for the orchestra in 1955 and are still played. Those trumpets are prized by brass players the world over as a compromise between the clarion, juiced-up French piston trumpet, which ascended as the dominant style in the U.S. in the early 20th century, and the broadness associated with German horns.
But the rotary valve instruments the trumpet section usually will play for pre-20th century German repertoire are immediately recognizable: They will look like the usual piston trumpet has been tilted 90 degrees, and players press levers at the instrument’s side rather than buttons on top of the instrument. For those performances, Batallán and Hagstrom will raid their own collections to use rotary trumpets most similar to the models the composer was writing for.
Friedman, Hagstrom and Batallán all use old German instruments for composers like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Music by later composers, like Dvořák and Wagner, might require some internal discussion about whether to go old or modern. When they don’t have enough appropriate period instruments to loan to colleagues, the section will often play with a mix of antique instruments and modern reproductions of those models.
Those modern reproductions can only go so far. Even instruments by German makers who claim to source their metals from the same quarries as their 19th-century predecessors just don’t sound the same. Nor can today’s economy nurture a super-specialist industry around bespoke horns, whose manufacture is prohibitively expensive. And orchestras have also changed and homogenized, making it hard to carve a niche for those instruments in ensembles which aren’t already obsessive about tradition, like the Vienna Philharmonic.
“It’s the prejudice of technology. People wonder, ‘Why do we play these instruments at all? What’s the point? Haven’t we figured out something better?’ But the answer is no,” says Hagstrom.
“As a young player, you think the old players are just stuck in the past and that these modern instruments are so much better. But when I play a restored older German instrument in the orchestra, it hits like a ton of bricks: This is what they were doing, this is the sound. Once you experience that, it’s humbling, frankly.”
The story of why the CSO nurtures so many brass history buffs is, in many ways, a story of the CSO brass itself. Its distinctive brass tradition has been incubated by principal players with preternaturally long tenures: legendary trumpeter Adolph “Bud” Herseth for 53 years, former principal horn Dale Clevenger for 47 and principal tuba Arnold Jacobs for 44. Friedman just completed an astonishing 61 seasons with the CSO, making him and harpist Lynne Turner the longest-serving musicians in the orchestra’s history.
That influence has been augmented even further by what Hagstrom calls “a longer conduit of legacy transfer” via the Civic Orchestra: CSO members have mentored those young musicians since 1919, and for its first several decades, playing in Civic could be a direct pipeline into the CSO. (It was for Friedman and, more recently, hornists Jim Smelser, Daniel Gingrich and Oto Carrillo.) In that way, the preference for a German brass sound remained largely unbroken, unlike many other American orchestras when Germans were uprooted from their posts during World War I.
“If you got rid of the Germans in Chicago, you wouldn’t have an orchestra,” Hagstrom says.
In the 1960s, the CSO became the first modern American orchestra to go back to its roots and play German repertoire with German-style rotary trumpets, a change inspired by Herseth in the 1960s. Hagstrom sees the CSO’s historicist bent as an extension of that original attention to detail.
“What we’re inheriting is the reverence of our predecessors for this,” he says.
That reverence never forecloses experimentation. Once in a while Batallán and Hagstrom arrange “shoot outs,” when they bring selections from their collection together to test different instrument combinations. In preparation for the CSO’s recent concerts of Schubert 9 and “Missa solemnis,” Hagstrom says he and Batallán experimented with eleven German trumpets to find the perfect pairing for each piece.
“A good analogy is matching a tie with a suit. You can have a beautiful tie, but is it going to go with this outfit? You don’t really know until you really try it out with the outfit. A piston trumpet could sound like a million bucks, but it might not be a good complement” with the orchestra, Hagstrom says.
Musicians in major symphony orchestras are typically compensated extra if they play more than one instrument on the same program: trumpet and cornet, for example, or trumpet and fluegelhorn. Some orchestras include German-style rotary valve instruments of any age in that distinction.
The CSO’s contracts, however, do not account for German doublings. These players do it only for the love of the music — and the opportunity to champion sounds that are swiftly vanishing.
“No one ever asked us to do it. We’re doing it of our own volition, and we’re happy to do it, because there’s wisdom in the voices of the past,” Hagstrom says. “This is what the Chicago Symphony is all about: going the extra mile to find a connection with the music and with the composer’s vision.”
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
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