Pitch Perfect

Photography by Jeff Nelson

As the Colorado Symphony opens its season, we sing the praises of eight of its star musicians—and the instruments that are their constant companions.

CourtneyResized_Colorado Symphony6334

Instrument: Harp 
Symphony title: Principal harp
Years with the symphony: 18

How did you start playing the harp?
My mom played the harp professionally, and I grew up with her music filling the house. When I told her I wanted to play, too, she was completely supportive. She wanted me to have that dream.

Where was your first job as a professional musician?
My first job was in the military. During my senior year at the Eastman School of Music, where I did my undergrad studies, a harp job opened for the U.S. Army Field Band in Fort Meade, Maryland. I took the audition, won it, and a week after I graduated from Eastman, I shipped off to South Carolina for my basic training. I played with the army for three years.

What makes the harp unique?
The harp is very different from other stringed instruments because there are about 2,000 pounds of pressure between the neck and the soundboard. Because of that, harps don’t last hundreds of years like old master violins, for example. Also, people aren’t usually familiar with the intricacies of the harp. They don’t realize we’re not just plucking strings. We have seven pedals at the base of the instrument that change the pitches. It’s a very complex instrument. And it’s uncommonly beautiful. In my opinion, a harp sitting on a stage—especially when it’s alone—is one of the most gorgeous pieces of art you will ever see.

How many harps do you own?
I have three instruments at home—two concert grands and a small Irish harp. And then the symphony owns a concert grand. When I’m playing as a soloist with the symphony, I usually bring in one of my own—whichever one I’ve been practicing on. I use the symphony harp for everything else. It’s a phenomenal instrument.

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Instrument: Bass clarinet
Symphony title: Bass clarinet
Years with the symphony: 25

How did you acquire your bass clarinet?
My clarinet came from a dear friend and mentor, Donald Ambler, who was the bass clarinetist for the Colorado Symphony for 30 years. Don was an exceptional teacher and one of the most generous men I have ever known. After he passed in 2013, members of the Colorado Clarinet Choir— which Don founded—as well as other musicians, teachers, and friends, came together for a celebration of his life. At the end of the event, I was asked to come forward for a final, surprise presentation. It was my birthday. Everyone asked me to close my eyes, and when I opened them, I was looking at Don’s pride and joy: his Buffet bass clarinet with a custom-made bell by Hans Moennig. It was Don’s final gift to me. It brought me to tears.

Where did the instrument come from?
This instrument was originally owned by Leon Lester of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Don regarded him as the foremost bass clarinetist in the world. Leon played this very instrument in the soundtrack recording of Disney’s Fantasia in 1940. It’s featured prominently in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” as well as “The Rite of Spring.”

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Instrument: French horn
Symphony title: Principal horn
Years with the symphony: 21

Where did your horn come from?
I literally found my horn in a closet. The former owner had gotten it at a garage sale, and it sat unused in her house in Lakewood for 30 years. It’s an Elkhart Conn 8D, an instrument no longer in production, and it looked brand new when I discovered it. It was like Christmas morning—I opened the case and there it was: shiny and beautiful, with a rich, warm sound. The former owner attends concerts regularly to hear her old horn played in the symphony.

Your wife, Julie, is also in the symphony. What is it like to live with another musician?
Julie and I met through the symphony. At times, it can be challenging to balance everything—work, music, the rest of life—but Julie has an amazingly relaxed disposition. She practices and works hard, but she’s able to keep our family balanced, too.

What do you love most about the horn?
Because the horn has so many overtones, it creates a complex, chameleon-like sound that can take on so many different colors. Sometimes it can sound like a woodwind, sometimes a brass, sometimes even like a cello.

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Instrument: Violin
Symphony title: Concertmaster
Years with the symphony: 18

How did you start playing the violin?
I started playing the violin in fifth grade at a music magnet school in Philadelphia. I had immigrated from Korea only a year before, and I was originally admitted to the school for singing. When I picked up the violin, I took to it right away. The sound of the violin is so close to the sound of the human vocal chords, which is a strong connection for me. I think all good musicians aspire to the voice.

Where did your instrument come from?
My current instrument once belonged to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. I started performing with them in 1995, playing on a modern instrument made by Clifford Roberts. I heard through the grapevine that the symphony owned a Carlo Landolfi violin, made around 1752 in Milan, which was sitting around unused. Through a very generous offer by the symphony, I ended up acquiring it. I had it fully restored, and I’ve used it ever since. Even after so many years, I’ve never found another instrument that has the same amount of musical potential at the price I paid. The instrument market has been driven to unfathomable heights in the last 25 years by investors and collectors, which is a challenging situation for players. In the ’40s and ’50s, a working musician could potentially acquire a Stradivarius if she worked for a few years to save the money. Now, a Stradivarius is $10 million or more.

JulieResized_Colorado Symphony7425

Instruments: Piccolo & flute
Symphony title: Piccolo/utility flute
Years with the symphony: 21

Where did your flute come from?
I purchased my flute when I was a sophomore in high school, after my music teacher encouraged my parents to get me a professional instrument. The only way we could afford one was to go through the court system to access some money from a car accident settlement that wasn’t supposed to be given to me until I was 18. My mom fought hard for me. She petitioned a judge, telling him how important the instrument was for my future. It was a long process, but finally she succeeded, and we ordered the flute shortly after my 15th birthday. Several months before it was delivered, my mom passed away suddenly. Later, whenever I questioned my music path in college, I always remembered the effort she put into getting this instrument for me. It was a reminder of my purpose. Thirty years later, I’m still playing the same flute, and I plan to play it for the rest of my life. It’s a part of me.

JohnSResized_Colorado Symphony7513

Instrument: Trombone
Symphony title: Principal trombone
Years with the symphony: 4

Where did your instrument come from?
My instrument is a stock factory trombone that I bought in 2001, when I was in high school. Most people play on highly customized equipment and make several instrument changes throughout their careers. I guess I’m a creature of habit. About five years ago, I bought a new trombone and played it for a year. It was customized and much fancier. I took nine auditions that year and had terrible results. After that, I went back to my old horn, and I won three auditions in a row.

What do you love most about the trombone?
I love the sonorous qualities of the trombone. It’s a very versatile instrument. I don’t think there’s any other instrument in the orchestra that has quite the same range of styles—from the big, rich, brassy stuff, to dark velvety sounds, to jazz, to pop music. Trombones can do it all.

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Instrument: Bass
Symphony title: Assistant principal bass
Years with the symphony: 9

Where did your bass come from?
My bass was built in France around 1800 by an unknown maker. I’ve had it for about 12 years, but it accumulated a lot of history before it found its way to me. It played in the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein in the ’50s and ’60s, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and many other places. This bass has played more concerts in its lifetime than I will ever add to it.

How did you start playing the bass?
When I was young, my dad and brother both played the guitar. We had a lot of guitars lying around the house, and at some point we got a bass guitar, though no one was really playing it. I picked it up because I wanted to play the music I was listening to: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Primus. When I started high school and became interested in jazz, people wanted to hear an upright bass, so I switched my focus to that.

What do you love most about the bass?
I love the sound of the instrument, plain and simple. Whenever I take more than a day off, I come back to the bass and think, “Oh, yeah. I love this.” When I listen to music, I’m interested in the harmonic movement of a piece—the pacing of the chords, the pacing of the beat, how those elements make you feel. The bass has a lot to do with that.

JohnKResized_Colorado Symphony7369

Instrument: Percussion
Symphony title: Principal percussion
Years with the symphony: 33

Do you own the percussion instruments you use in the symphony?
In the percussion section, the symphony owns most of the bigger instruments—the bass drum and marimba and xylophone—but most of the small stuff we own ourselves, like the snare drums, cymbals, and tambourines.

How did you start playing percussion?
In fourth grade, I started playing the drums because I wanted to be in a rock-and-roll band, of course. That dream faded by high school. I started to become more serious about classical percussion, and when I was a sophomore I won a job with the local symphony orchestra. The path progressed from there.

Which of your personal instruments do you cherish the most?
When I was doing my graduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music, one of my colleagues wanted to buy a new drum set, and to raise the money he sold me his vintage Deagan xylophone from the 1920s. It’s made of Honduras rosewood, which hardens as it ages, producing an incredibly beautiful sound. Ever since then, he’s been wanting to buy it back from me. Not a chance, I tell him.

What does it take to be a percussionist?
You have to be hyperaware of your surroundings. You have to be on top of the beat, but you can’t rush. You also have to be flexible, because in a symphony orchestra the tempo never stays the same for very long. And you have to be adaptable, because the percussion section encompasses so many different sounds—everything from the snare drum, which is like the motor of the band, to the mallet instruments, which carry the melody like woodwinds or brass.

 MAKEUP: Gina Comminello and Megan Gregory using FLAUNT YOU! CUSTOM COSMETICS; hair: Tyree Carter and Alex Cox, all from THE LOOK Salon / 303.322.4902

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