by Mike Telin
Cleveland Orchestra principal trumpet Michael Sachs plays the Neruda Trumpet Concerto this weekend with the Cleveland Orchestra (April 29-May 2). We reached him at his home in Cleveland to talk about the concerts.
Mike Telin: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, I think this is going to be an exciting concert. I am wondering why you chose to perform the Neruda concerto?
Michael Sachs: Outside of the trumpet world it is not that well known of a piece. But it is a piece that is kind of in the vein of both the Haydn and Hummel concertos. It is a piece that I have been playing for a while, and I have often performed it in recital with piano and with organ. I have also recorded it with Todd Wilson at the organ, in recital about five years ago.
MT: Yes and I understand that you will be signing copies of the recording at the Cleveland Orchestra store following this week’s concerts?
MS: Yes I will, and I believe it will be after all of the concerts except for the Friday concert, because the Fridays @ 7 has the special things happening after the concert with Jamey Haddad and his guest artists. So I believe it will be on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
MT: I was doing a little reading about the Neruda concerto, and I discovered that it was originally written for Corno de Caccia, have you ever performed it on that instrument?
MS: I have not, but the Corno de Caccia is an interesting instrument, I don’t know if you have seen a picture of it, but it kind of looks like a small-coiled horn very similar to a posthorn, which is what I would use for the offstage solo in Mahler’s 3rd symphony.
Neruda wrote the piece when he was in Dresden, and I guess there was this virtuoso high horn player there for whom he wrote the concerto. I have a friend in Louisville who is a Corno de Caccia specialist, and a couple of years ago we were discussing the concerto, and I did get my hand on the instrument and played some notes on it, but it is one of those things where I would need a little bit of time with it in order to be comfortable enough to perform on it in this kind of a setting. The instrument has a really interesting sound — it’s a rich sound, but because it was written for Corno de Caccia, it idiomatically fits the trumpet perfectly since it is more in the trumpet range then in the horn range.
MT: I know that you do a lot of masterclasses, and on your website you list many topics for masterclasses. One of them is about warming up. I am wondering what your daily warm-up routine is?
MS: My daily routine is dependent on what is on the docket for the day, so that can change, but my warm-up is the one thing that is constant every single day. There are two basic warm-ups that I do. One of my teachers growing up in Los Angeles, James Stamp, who had a profound impact on my career, has a warm-up routine that he developed, and I do that sometimes and I have also formulated my own warm-up sequences that are also a big part of the fundamentals book that I wrote. This book is an outline of my routine, starting with my warm-up, and then I do some exercises that are in the Arban and Clark books. These are both staples of the trumpet repertoire.
I typically warm-up for about 45 minutes; it is the first thing that I do. I start out with buzzing on my lips, and then to buzzing on the mouthpiece, then I move to long tones, and then on to low slow lip slurs and some articulation exercises. The idea is to start out low and slow so that I build the foundation, and then start stacking the harmonics one on top of the other in a manner that is adding the extensions to something that is already properly in place, and therefore I am constantly re-enforcing proper habits of how I produce the sound on the instrument. My approach to playing the trumpet is to try to make it so that every single note has a slot where it belongs. Just like notes on the piano, so that it has the same kind of stability, whether I am coming to the note from above, below, or starting on it. Or whether or not the passage is slow or fast, loud or soft. Really it is all about making sure on a daily basis that everything is happening in the correct manner.
I also have a lot of variations on this 45-minuet routine. I have the half hour and the 20 minuet routine, and also the 10 minute and 5 minute routine, so that if I get caught in a snow storm and I only have 10 minutes to warm up at the hall, I am not stuck. It really is a lot like the conditioning of an athlete — the lip is like every other muscle in the body and there is a lot of conditioning involved. So my warm-up is as much about getting ready for the day as it is my general conditioning so that whether I am playing Mozart, the Neruda Concerto or a Mahler symphony, I have the strength and endurance as well as the flexibility subtleness to play whatever happens to be in front of me on any given day.
MT: Thanks so much for such an articulate explanation.
MS: Well it really is a realistic view of what I do, and what I teach when I give masterclasses. Because I have written this book, and because I studied with Mr. Stamp, who is very famous for his warm-up routine, I end up doing one session on this subject and another on orchestral playing and how I go about doing my job.
MT: Another interesting topic for discussion is how you go about choosing the right instrument for certain pieces. Can you tell me how you go about making those decisions?
MS: Let me see if I can articulate this decently. First, for most trumpet players the B-flat trumpet in home base. Virtually every player starts out on either B-flat trumpet or cornet. These are the instruments that are used in band, and as I said it is the starting point. It is the biggest instrument, so that if you can get everything working on that instrument, it will translate to all of the other keyed instruments. In the orchestra I use my C trumpet about 95% of the time as principal. When I had a section job in the Houston Symphony, I used both my B-flat and C trumpets quite a bit. It all depends on what your role in the orchestra is, but for the most part, orchestral players uses either of these two instruments. I use my B-flat to warm up on, as it is a bigger instrument and it has a richer warmer sound. So if I can get everything working on the B-flat, I can translate that sound to the C, or E-flat or whichever instrument, and it enhances my ability to produce different colors as well as the correct tone quality.
Now there is an instrument in every imaginable key. There are also D trumpets and E-flat trumpets, which is the instrument that I will be using for the Neruda concerto. There are also trumpets tuned in E, F, and G. You have piccolo trumpets in A and B-flat. You also have cornets that are in A, B-flat, C and E-flat. Then you have flugelhorns and German rotary trumpets that are in all of these different keys. There are posthorns, and natural trumpets as well. Now the how, when and why is that with every piece I play in the orchestra, I want to create a particular sound that will reflect the wishes of the composer — who is writing in a particular period and style. So for different pieces, that can mean different things. As I mentioned I use the C trumpet 95% of the time. But, for example when I did the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, there is only one trumpet part, and it is more of a chamber setting as well as being French, so in that case I actually used the D trumpet in order to produce a lighter articulation and sound color. It also blends a little bit better, as well as putting everything in a very nice key for me in order to play all of the passages that the piece requires.
MT: You sounded fantastic on that piece earlier this year.
MS: Thank you, but that is just one example. I also mentioned the offstage posthorn solo in Mahler 3rd. I saw a score of his once and — I hope I get the sequence right — he actually started out with posthorn, crossed it out and wrote flugelhorn, crossed that out and wrote piston, which basically means cornet, crossed that out and wrote posthorn again. So it depends on so many things like the acoustical situation, the period of the piece, and even the basic sound of the orchestra you are playing in, so again I don’t change instruments all that often but there are occasions when I do.
MT: Continuing with your teaching career, I noticed that you will be at the Domaine Forget Seminar in Québec. What will you be teaching there?
MS: This is actually going to be a brass seminar. I’ll be there, the wonderful horn player Gail Williams will be there, as well as Joe Allessi, the principal trombone in New York and Roger Bobo will be the tuba instructor. We’ll all be giving daily seminars and masterclasses, and also private instruction for a week. There will also be chamber music coaching and brass orchestral sectionals. There won’t be any performing, so to speak, but whenever I do any teaching and or coaching, I always do quite a bit of playing. I think it is important to speak about things, and also to show by example. For a lot of people, I could talk until I’m blue in the face, but to hear it will trigger something for them.
MT: Another exciting thing is that I noticed that you will be premiering a new concerto by Michael Hersch. Has that been confirmed?
MS: Yes, it is definitely on for the 2011-2012 season. We are not exactly sure when, or who will be conducting, but Michael is pretty much finished with the piece and I should be getting it in the next month or two, at which time we will take the next six months to work together at fine tuning it. He is a wonderful composer, and the best way I can describe his style is, well akin to Stravinsky. It’s very rhythmical, but he also writes beautiful melodies. I was very struck by his style, and was thrilled that the orchestra moved forward in commissioning the piece for me. It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with a terrific composer.
MT: You have a Bachelor of Arts in History from UCLA, what was your period of focus?
MS: Most of my focus was American History from the Civil War through the end of World War II.
MT: What about that era interests you?
MS: I have always been a student of history. I have always loved it. I also did some focus on immigration history. I always liked listening to my grandparent’s stories about how they came over from Russia in the early 20th Century. My mother was also an historian, and encouraged me to read books as well as taking us to a number of historical places when I was a kid. I remember going to Gettysburg when I was about 9 years old. It has always just been of interest to me. I actually don’t have a music degree. I took a little different route. When I was about to graduate from High School, I had been taking trumpet lessons and I had some success, but I was not sure I wanted to go directly into a conservatory when I was 17 years old. My parents did encourage me to get a broad education while also focusing on music. I also always wanted to go to UCLA, and while I was there I took trumpet lessons with a wonderful teacher, Tony Plog, as well as Mr. Stamp. I was also playing in a number of musical groups in and around Los Angeles that most of the music majors at the area music schools were playing in, so I was doing all the playing that a music major would, I was just not taking the classes. It was after I had attended a brass seminar at Tanglewood and spent time at Apsen that I really felt that I had to give music a shot and that it was what I truly wanted to do.
At that point was lucky enough to get into Juilliard to study with Mark Gould, although I think my Dad would have preferred that I go to law school and go back to take over his advertising agency. I guess I messed up his plan.
MT: I think we’ve all messed up our fathers’ plans.
MS: That’s right, but he is OK with it now.
MT: Michael, thank you so much. Your excitement for the trumpet really comes through. It has been fun. Do you have any final thoughts?
MS: Just to add that the Neruda Concerto is an interesting piece that not many trumpet players know, but there really is some very beautiful writing, and I think people will enjoy it very much. I am thrilled to get a chance to play it with the orchestra.