Plus, an interview with piccolo trumpet player Joe Burgstaller.
The Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s recent “Unplugged” performance was a lot of things:
an informal preview of the 2010-2011 season, a well-deserved celebration of Robert Cross’ 30 years with the organization, and even a short but profitable fund-raising auction. More than anything, though, it was just an entertaining — albeit brief — evening of high-quality classical and pop music.
VSO Musical Director JoAnn Falletta served as the emcee, welcoming the small, general admission crowd to Granby Theater and introducing four “cabaret-style” performances:
- Violinists Vahn and Amanda Armstrong, full-time members of the VSO, kicked the night off with Bela Bartok’s “Transylvanian Dance,” and Amanda followed that with an earnest solo rendition of Robert Johnson’s blues classic, “Crossroads,” played on an electric violin.
- Trumpeter Joe Burgstaller played two rousing pieces, including “La Virgen de la Macarena,” and gave the audience a light-hearted lesson on circular breathing, a technique that allows wind instrumentalists to produce a continuous tone without interruption.
- Mezzo-soprano Sarah Williams gave lively vocal performances of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from “My Fair Lady” and “Funny Girl,” respectively.
- Pianist Robert Thies, who had traveled from Los Angeles, ended the night with a Russian etude and two beautiful George Gershwin preludes, a preview of his January 2011 performances in Williamsburg, Virginia Beach and Norfolk.
All of the performances were great, but for me, the highlight was seeing “Joey” Burgstaller, one of my childhood classmates, for the first time in more than 20 years. (Before the show, we reminisced about a talent show he won in elementary school — playing Dave Brubeck!) We didn’t get a chance to talk after the show, but I was able to do a telephone interview with him last week. Here’s how it went:
First, I just wanted to get your impression of how you thought Saturday’s performance went – either your part of it or the overall show.
The whole thing was very fun. It’s a great space because it’s that combination space, so it’s more intimate. There’s less of a wall between the performers and audience, and I think that’s what everyone’s trying to figure out in the classical music business — to provide that kind of atmosphere on a large scale. In classical music, there’s traditionally an invisible wall between the audience and the performer, and what I like to do in a performance — no matter what kind of music I’m playing — is just really connect with the audience and have no wall or barrier.
That’s something that’s been traditionally taught for many years is that staid and stiff presentation — it’s more like a museum. I don’t think that’s what real people are interested in. … I liked the atmosphere at the Granby Theater because it was more intimate; it was more real. JoAnn Falletta, the Virginia Symphony and their new executive director, Eric Borenstein, are making real efforts to erase that invisible wall. I think they are fantastic!
You’re coming back in April to perform three solo concerts with the Virginia Symphony. What can people expect if they come to those performances?
Well, we’re playing two blockbusters. The first piece is ‘Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra’ by Alexander Arutunian. He’s an Armenian composer, and it’s one of the mainstay concertos for trumpet. It has everything in it. It’s about a 15-minute concerto, and it’s exciting, it’s passionate, it has fast and flashy and slow and lament, and it takes you through a huge range of emotions and a long story that goes with it, emotionally. It’s an audience favorite, no matter what instrument it would have been written for. It’s just a great piece of music, and we’re lucky to have it in the trumpet repertoire. It’s performed on B-flat trumpet; that’s the normal trumpet that everyone is familiar with.
The other concerto – it’s an interesting story. It was originally written by Vivaldi for violin and string orchestra. Bach had a period in his life where he did a series of study pieces of other composers. He would take other composers’ scores, and he would reduce them to harpsichord so he could learn how they were writing and what they were doing compositionally and texturally and sonically, and then he had a habit of adding his name to these, so this is known in many circles as the ‘Vivaldi-Bach.’ It’s a concerto in D-major, in three movements.
I play all of this concerto on the piccolo trumpet, which was popularized by the French virtuoso Maurice Andre, who was my classical hero when I was growing up. It’s half the size of a normal trumpet and kind of sounds like a cross between a trumpet and an oboe. It’s the most difficult trumpet to master, and it has a very wonderful, beautiful singing tone, or it can turn into something exciting and sparkly. … This is really a virtuoso showpiece. It’s hyper-technical, and it’s hyper-beautiful in the second movement, and there’s a lot of opportunity for nuance and style.
So those two are highly contrasting works. They’re both really effective, and they represent part of my repertoire. … Plenty of people pay trumpet, and plenty of people can play all the standard solos, but if you really want to make a career as a soloist, you have to build your own repertoire.
How do you prepare for a show like that?
Well, preparation is long-term and short-term. Long-term, I’ve been preparing my whole life. In essence, I’ve been performing Arutunian since I was in high school, so there’s a whole body of experience on that piece, and I can draw from that, but I’m an artist, so I evolve and I change, and I change my mind every day, and I keep searching for something that goes deeper and that sounds better. You can always take one note and make it sound better, one phrase and make it more beautiful. There’s always room for improvement and better understanding and better communication for the piece. That’s kind of my long-term philosophy.
Short-term is just making sure you’re in shape and running it through. … I never really take a vacation from the trumpet. It’s one of those instruments that you can take one day off, but if you take two days off, you really have to work to get back there. I think you’ll find that most instrumentalists will say that. But that’s my life. I’m a trumpet player!
You grew up in Virginia Beach. How often do you come back, and what’s your impression of the area and how it’s changed?
I come back a couple times a year, and the area is very different than when I got there in 1979. … The roads that used to be two lanes are now four or six. Everything seems like it’s gotten bigger and wider.
My impression is that music is making a comeback in the schools. I didn’t know this until I left the area, but we were kind of in a powerhouse area for music education. … Every time I come back, I do educational components too. The last couple times, we bused a bunch of Virginia Beach music students out, and we’ve done a big master class at the Sandler Center. I’m sure we’ll do something like that again.
I guess the biggest change is it’s different. In evolving, it’s lost some of its quaintness and it’s now got some big city to it, but I like big city. I live in New York!