Solo and Orchestral Trumpeter and Educator

Thoughts on music, trumpet playing, and education from Eric M. Berlin, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Massachusetts and Principal Trumpet of the Albany Symphony and Boston Philharmonic Orchestras.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Rite of Spring as a Barometer of Progress

A few weeks ago, I took part in a remarkable event. Members of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, the Sheep Island Ensemble and local Boston music students gathered to perform Stravinsky's Rite of Spring for a "Dance Party" to raise money for an organization called Music for Food which supports local food banks. This event in itself is worthy of discussion and may be the subject of a separate post, but what I want to talk about is the performance of the piece itself.

As the orchestra was donating a large portion of their time, we put this together in a single rehearsal preceding the event. What was most striking to me was the fact that this huge orchestra under the direction of James Blachley read it through and hung together in the Danse Sacrale even though a large number of folks (students and pros) were playing it for the first time.

How wonderful that such complexity of rhythm has become part of our language!

I remember my first time through the Rite. I was still a student member of the Boston Philharmonic when we performed it in 1991 (you can still buy the commercial recording we made). Playing 4th trumpet, I held on by my fingernails trying to decipher the strange time signatures that kept changing bar after bar. Ben Zander found a piano roll which Stravinsky created and we did our best to adhere to his fast tempos for this recording. What a terrifying but exhilarating ride! By the end I could feel the groove and ever since, it feels like a comfortable glove that feels better every time I put it on.

As a child growing up in the 70's and 80's with with YES and Rush on the radio jamming in complex meters, and of course Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" already part of our cannon, it was still difficult for me in those first rehearsals, even after a conservatory education. What must it have been like in 1913 for musicians whose most complex rhythmic adventure would be the waltz in 5/4 in Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony!

So, I see the Rite of Spring as a good way to measure my own progress and also watching young performers master it with increasing ease, as a measure of our overall progress. I am happy with what I see.

What will be the mind benders of today which will remain in the repertoire 100 years from now and how easy will it be for those who will come to take our places? My first thought is John Adams Nixon in China.  About a decade ago, Boston Modern Orchestra Project performed this at the Majestic Theater. Sitting in the pit with Jeffrey Work and Terry Everson behind a bobbing and weaving sax section, I had never concentrated so hard for so long. What a rush that was, and absolutely worth the trouble.

Imagine for a moment if Stravinsky was alive today, what would he write to keep us dancing on the edge?!