Trumpet Artists Check their Egos at the Door in Chicago
— To head up the orchestra's venerable trumpet section, Yamaha artists Chris Martin and John Hagstrom draw on an artistry that patrons don't always see —
"There's great power in unity, and that's why the orchestra is such a powerful medium," says John Hagstrom, Second Trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
His colleague Chris Martin, the orchestra's Principal Trumpet, agrees. "There's a big difference between selfish ego and self-confidence, and in this orchestra you have 110 people who are not selfish on stage," he says. "They're extremely confident, but they're there to collaborate with each other, and that's what makes a great ensemble."
In those deceptively simple words, the two Yamaha artists delineate a philosophy and a relationship that allows them to carry on one of American music's great traditions: the signature sound of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Principal Trumpet Adolph Herseth embodied it for more than 50 years before he retired in 2001; today, along with fellow trumpeters Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen and the entire brass section, they keep it alive. In the City With Big Shoulders, a legacy in brass rests largely on theirs.
Serving as Principal Trumpet, the 30-year-old Martin takes the lead in breathing, phrasing and the countless other nuances that translate the printed score into music. In the second chair, Hagstrom, a 40-year-old veteran in his tenth year with the orchestra, follows – sometimes by design, sometimes on the fly. Each role carries unique demands above and beyond the workday art of performance.
"It's unique in that there are two circumstances going on at once," Hagstrom explains. "Chris is relatively new, having been here for almost two years; I have some history with the orchestra, so I can be a reference for him. But that's a very temporary function, this process of becoming familiar. The other function is the traditional roles of us playing first and second, and my role is to listen to him."
"Often people have a misconception that it's people playing two different parts at the same time," Hagstrom adds. "That's not at all the case. My job is to interpret his interpretation, to reinforce his intention in every moment, and to be the complete 'trusty sidekick' as it were. Those are judgment calls that happen in a split second."
Those on-the-fly decisions happen often in performance, Martin notes. "And you'll never find a better musical chameleon than John," he declares. "He has the best ear in the business."
"A lot of times before rehearsal even begins, we'll look at these spots and say, 'Whatever happens here, we'll do this,"' Martin says. "I'll give the tempo with my trumpet bell, or we'll look at each other, we'll breathe together, and we'll make it happen mechanically. But there are also the places that are unexpected: the places you would never think to plan or discuss, and then something happens in the performance that would be enough to derail another orchestra, and somehow we not only stay together but make something out of it. These have been for me some of the memorable musical experiences of my short time here."
"It's kind of like using the Force," Hagstrom quips.
Chicago native Hagstrom has occupied the second chair since 1997. A longtime Yamaha artist, he helped design the artist model C trumpet that he and Martin both use. Martin, 29, grew up in Marietta, Ga. and arrived in Chicago from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in June, 2005.
Belying the fast friendship they've struck, the two artists didn't know each other personally before Martin came to Chicago in June of 2005. But they're both alumni of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. ("Yes," Hagstrom intones, "but I was there 325 years before Chris") and they both spend time away from the orchestra as active educators. Martin has taught at Emory University and Temple University, and currently coaches at Northwestern University, while Hagstrom, a former professor at Wichita State University, leads the trumpet studio at DePaul University.
Both feel that the collaborative spirit they bring to their performances is necessary to any musician's success.
"The students who know when it's important to shine and when it's more important to step back and allow your friends and colleagues to shine in an ensemble setting – those are inevitably the students who make the best musicians, and who are then inevitably successful," Martin says.
"For young students, there is a danger in teaching music with a primary focus on competition, rank and victory," Hagstrom observes. "In that model you get awards, you get dominance, you move up or you move down in your ranking. You indoctrinate young students with the core value of music as a means to dominate, and to be victorious. That's antithetical to exactly what we're talking about – a unified effort towards a common goal."
With the orchestra deep into its second century, and their collaboration less than two years old, it's that spirit that infuses Martin and Hagstrom each time they take their seats at Symphony Center.
"It feels like we've known each other for longer," Martin says. "We have to have confidence, but we have to realize that there's something bigger than us. The power of us putting our best efforts together in agreement is much greater than getting our own way. That's the power of an orchestra."