In Concert

In Concert

by Carl A. Vigeland


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In Concert by Carl A. Vigeland

An intimate, moving, dramatic story about the musicians in a great orchestra who make music come alive in performance and recording. The musicians here are members of the fabled Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Seiji Ozawa, during a season highlighted by Mahler’s Second Symphony, The Resurrection.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504034142
Publisher: Open Road Integrated Media LLC
Publication date: 08/23/2016
Pages: 238
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Among Carl Vigeland’s other books are The Breathless Present: A Memoir in Four Movements , The Mostly Mozart Guide to Mozart , Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life (with Wynton Marsalis), and The Great Romance. Vigeland has also written for a wide variety of magazines, including The Atlantic , DoubleTake , Downbeat , The New York Times Magazine , Playboy , and Sports Illustrated. A graduate of Harvard, Vigeland for many years taught writing at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he lives.

Read an Excerpt

In Concert

By Carl Vigeland


Copyright © 2016 Carl A. Vigeland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3374-9


Long before he leaves home this morning, Charlie Schlueter can feel the knot in his stomach begin to tighten. It happens every time he has to go to work. He gets up early, usually by six o'clock, and fixes breakfast, including the first of many cups of black coffee he will drink today. After nervously puttering by himself in the kitchen, putting away the dishes from the dishwasher, he glances at the Boston Globe the newsboy left on the porch of his simple, comfortable house in Newtonville, Massachusetts. Today is September 30, 1986, the first day of the Boston Symphony Orchestra's new season, so there are no reviews about him in the newspaper. That's a relief.

In a few hours, at 10:30 A.M., Charlie must be onstage in Symphony Hall to begin the rehearsal of Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony, the Resurrection. Charlie is the principal trumpet in the orchestra, a job that means more than the honor of being titular head of his section. He not only plays the most difficult trumpet solos — and any solo on the trumpet is difficult — but he also sets a tonal standard for the entire brass section, a standard that influences the way the whole orchestra sounds.

Handling the pressure of his highly vulnerable position is a constant test of his nerves, and though Charlie tries, as he puts it, "to stay a day ahead of the struggle," the nature of his profession makes tension inevitable whenever he must rehearse or perform. He says goodbye to his wife, Martha. Their two grown daughters are away at school, and Martha, an accomplished violinist, has started to spend more of her time painting in an upstairs studio at home. Charlie puts his trumpet in the passenger seat of the Toyota Corolla and backs out of the driveway onto Otis Street for the twenty-minute drive to the hall.

"Playing the trumpet is hard because it's so easy," Charlie often says. He likes aphorisms. "What I do makes no product, it's all process" is another of his favorites. He also likes analogies, which usually take the form of anecdotes that he weaves into conversation.

The pitch rising in his natural tenor voice, he recalls an incident a few seasons ago, when guest conductor Bernard Haitink led the BSO in Mahler's Seventh Symphony. At a rehearsal, the faint plaintiveness of the first chords didn't sound the way Haitink wanted them to. So Haitink stopped the orchestra and told a story about Mahler's writing this piece. Haitink said that when Mahler created the beginning of the symphony he'd been rowing a boat on the lake where he was spending the summer. Think of the sound of the oars, Haitink told the players. As soon as he heard this story, Charlie said, his sense of the music's character changed.

But this morning he is not preoccupied with the subjective qualities of Mahler's music. Guiding his car through the busy suburban traffic of Newton, Charlie tries not to think about everything that could go wrong when he gets to the hall. His part in the Mahler Second is extremely demanding, calling for endurance as well as skill, with several exposed spots of solo playing. For him, rehearsing with music director Seiji Ozawa is in many ways more unsettling than presenting a concert. No instrument stands out more in the orchestra than his, and Charlie has repeatedly gotten himself into terrible trouble for standing out too much. Yet he yearns to do just the opposite, to draw attention not to himself but to the music. In Charlie's view, he and his music director simply disagree on how. It is as though with each phrase he must prove himself. Mahler Two, as Charlie and most of his colleagues call it, will be an ordeal.

But Charlie's anxiety is mixed with anticipation. Mahler is his favorite composer. His writing for the trumpet, says Charlie, "is lyrical and refined, not just, 'Here I am a trumpet player.'"

Mahler is also unpredictable, a quality Charlie admires. He hates to do the same thing twice, and even in the most routine, pedestrian score he will look for a fresh nuance. Mahler, however, is never routine. "Just when you think he's going to be lyrical, there's a quirk. Mahler's always pushing and pulling. That's the nice thing about him, the constant shifting about. The music's schizophrenic. Each one of his symphonies is like a whole lifetime."

Charlie's life began in 1939 far from Boston in the coal-mining town of Du Quoin, Illinois. It is a community where success consists of keeping a roof over one's family and putting enough food on the table for them to survive. Music, the kind of music Charlie plays for a living, could strike most Du Quoin men and women as an anomaly in a world where the basic virtues are hard work and sacrifice. To this day, there are Schlueter relatives who don't understand what Charlie does.

If he had followed in his father's footsteps, Charlie would have entered the coal mines after finishing high school. But when Charlie was ten years old, his father introduced him to another miner, Charles Archibald, who was also a Du Quoin music teacher and an amateur trumpet player. Though Charlie had picked out an accordian in the Sears catalog, Archibald persuaded him to start with the cornet instead. Archibald's lessons were expensive for the Schlueters — seventy-five cents — but Charlie's father supported his son's interest in music, even if he did not completely understand it. Perhaps the lessons would help Charlie escape a life in the mines of Du Quoin. Charlie quickly discovered that practicing the trumpet was a way out, not of Du Quoin, but of doing household chores and, as he got older, homework.

But when Charlie was thirteen years old, his father became very sick and had to quit his job. And the Schlueters could no longer afford to pay for Charlie's trumpet lessons.

That year at school, a drawing contest was sponsored by the Egyptian Music Company (southern Illinois is known as Little Egypt, because two of the towns on the bordering Mississippi River are called Thebes and Cairo). Don Lemasters, a trumpet player and professor at nearby Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, was a partner in the Du Quoin branch of the music company, and first prize in the drawing contest was ten lessons with Lemasters on whatever instrument the winner selected.

Charlie entered the contest. Luckily, the boy's musical ability was matched by artistic talent. Charlie's winning drawing of a Christmas scene meant he could continue studying the trumpet for at least ten weeks.

Lemasters knew Charlie's family was poor, and he knew Charlie's father was sick. And before Charlie's ten lessons were over, Lemasters also knew that his young pupil was not just another boy who wanted to play the trumpet in his school's marching band. This young trumpeter was special.

Most of Don Lemasters's students showed up for their lessons armed with excuses about why they hadn't been able to practice during the past week. But Charlie practiced all the time. And he always learned what Lemasters had taught him at the last lesson.

"I can't pay for any more lessons," Charlie had to tell Lemasters after his ten weeks were up.

"I know," Lemasters said. "You don't have to. You can study with me for free."

Charlie played his first solo, Adeste Fideles, in fifth grade. When he was twelve, 14,000 people heard him at the Du Quoin Fair.

By the time Charlie was halfway through high school, Lemasters realized he'd taught his star pupil all he could and telephoned his friend Ed Brauer, who played trumpet in the St. Louis Symphony. He offered to pay Brauer for Charlie's lessons, if Brauer could fit him in. Brauer told Lemasters to keep his money and he found a space for Charlie in his busy schedule — Saturday mornings at 7:30.

For two years, Charlie got up each Saturday at 4A.M. so he could make the drive to St. Louis for his lesson. His father had bought him a new trumpet, for which Mr. Schlueter had had to sign a promissory note. Charlie played in two bands, Du Quoin High's Indianairs and his own Charlie Schlueter and His Orchestra. While most of his friends planned to put away their trumpets and trombones, flutes and clarinets after high school, Charlie was determined to enter the musical world beyond Du Quoin. His next step was as easy as it was audacious.

Though he had no idea how he would pay for it, Charlie applied to the Juilliard School in New York City, probably the most prestigious music conservatory in the United Sates. Juilliard in the 1950s was headed by the American composer William Schuman. Some of the finest instrumentalists in the world taught there, and its string quartet, which took the name of the school, was renowned. For a high school senior from Du Quoin, Illinois, Juilliard represented not only an escape from the coal mines but also the expression of a wish to experience something new and largely unknown. And it was an early demonstration of what would become a lifelong trait, the capacity to grow.

Charlie was accepted in the class of 1961. He had a small scholarship, and earned the rest of his tuition by playing in a salsa band at a Puerto Rican nightclub in upper Manhattan. He also sang in a church choir, for which he received five dollars a week; that covered a quarter of his weekly expenses. At Juilliard, Charlie often practiced six or seven hours a day. "It kept my mind off being lonely and depressed, and having to do other work," he says.

At Juilliard, Charlie studied with William Vacchiano, beginning a relationship that he would remember affectionately as "four years of agony. I never knew what was going to happen." By virtue of his position as the New York Philharmonic's principal trumpet player as well as his teaching association with Juilliard, Vacchiano was considered the most illustrious classical trumpeter in the country. Only the best trumpet students at Juilliard studied with him, and they were required to audition before he accepted them.

Charlie had met someone who was more than his match. No matter how well he played, Vacchiano always saw room for improvement. At Charlie's first lesson, the celebrated teacher asked Charlie to turn to page 59 of Arban's Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet. Since childhood, Charlie had been playing from this comprehensive 350-page manual of exercises and études by a nineteenth-century French virtuoso, Joseph Jean Baptiste Laurent Arban. The page Vacchiano requested began with one of the first things he had ever learned, a C-major scale. Somewhat befuddled by the easiness of the assignment, Charlie nevertheless did as he had been told. Had he really come all the way from Du Quoin to play this?

But Vacchiano interrupted Charlie repeatedly to correct his attack, phrasing, and breathing. Written in 2/4 time — two beats to a measure, with a quarter note getting one beat — the first exercise Vacchiano requested requires staccato tonguing. Each note must be given a clean, sharp attack, the trumpeter showing no strain as the scale ascends. The spaces between the notes that make them staccato must be even. Further sequences in the exercise present different combinations of loud and soft, and add increasingly difficult intervals between some of the notes. Intervals are tricky on the trumpet because they are often played without a change in the fingering. To get an interval right, the player must trust his ear and control the tension in his lips.

Uncountable other Arban exercises filled Charlie's lesson and practice hours, and he still uses the volume today with his own students. Mastering the trumpet's technique under Vacchiano taught Charlie something he doesn't like to remind his students: Playing the trumpet is hard because it is hard.

What Charlie learned or relearned from Vacchiano was to have a connection to everything he played in his professional career. There is a direct link between the staccato notes in that first Arban exercise and numerous places in the Second Symphony of Gustav Mahler. And Vacchiano was always dispensing tips. "Never keep the tuning slide in the same place," he'd remind Charlie. "No good musician accents an upbeat," he'd say. Or "A staccato eighth note followed by a sixteenth note is short." Like a father giving advice to his son, Vacchiano was getting Charlie ready to handle the musical challenges ("Carry two mutes, one for high notes and one for low") and personal challenges ahead ("Talk back to the conductor"). And, he told him, "when you're onstage and the lights go out and you're going to be broadcast, always look for security." Vacchiano meant a player shouldn't take unnecessary chances, advice that headstrong Charlie would not always follow.

Three things made a good trumpet player, according to Vacchiano. "First of all, you have to be a good bugler." Then, he continued, "you have to read." You must, in other words, know your instrument's literature and understand what different composers require of you in their scores. This, of course, is only possible if you possess a trumpet player's third quality. "You have to know what you're doing." Vacchiano liked to let that phrase dangle. He didn't want its simplicity to mask its significance.

By 1961, Charlie was a good bugler, becoming better. Completely, irrevocably, he was also on his own. His father had died when Charlie was eighteen, leaving Charlie free to make the final break from Du Quoin, but with the responsibility to go home whenever he could to see that his mother was provided for. And Charlie had met his future wife, who was studying the violin in New York and who lived in the same apartment building as he did. One night Martha heard Charlie's trumpet through her open window. A diminutive but feisty woman who acts on her thoughts, Martha wondered who was playing so beautifully and found out by ringing the doorbell of Charlie's apartment. They were an unlikely match, Charlie, from a strict Lutheran family, and Martha, a New York Jew, but they fell in love and got married the year of his graduation. Instead of taking a honeymoon, they traveled on a cross-country tour for five months as players in the American Ballet Theatre's orchestra.

Returning to his midwestern roots, Charlie in the next decade established himself as one of the country's top orchestral trumpeters. He held jobs as principal or co-principal in Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, before taking the position of principal trumpet in Minneapolis in 1972. Then, in 1981, exactly twenty years after leaving New York, he and Martha returned east to Boston. It was a move that would shake the foundations of Charlie's career.

Winning the audition for the BSO job had been almost too easy. If he'd been a baseball pitcher, it would have been like throwing a no-hitter in his first game with a new team.

Under normal audition procedures, the BSO advertises an opening and invites candidates to send taped examples of their playing from a prescribed list of pieces. An audition committee screens these tapes and winnows the applicants. Those who survive this cut are asked to come to Boston to play for the committee behind a screen placed in the middle of the stage, hiding their identities. And the finalists from this group then play before Seiji Ozawa and the committee without the screen. For a principal position, the final candidates sometimes play with the orchestra as well. Then the audition committee makes a recommendation to Seiji on whom to select for the job. It is Seiji's decision whether to accept that recommendation.

The orchestra had actually tried to persuade Charlie to audition when Armando Ghitalla announced he was retiring after the 1978–79 season. Personnel manager Bill Moyer wanted Charlie to apply for the position being vacated by Ghitalla. Moyer, who had begun his BSO career as a trombonist in the orchestra, knew of Charlie by reputation. But when he called Charlie in Minneapolis, Charlie said he was happy where he was. Furthermore, Charlie said, he wasn't going to come to Boston and play what he called a "naked audition." At this stage in his career, he wasn't going to play unaccompanied behind a screen. Terribly unnerving, it also seemed humiliating. Having recently turned forty, Charlie thought he was too old to be treated that way.

Two years later, the job was again open. Twice more, Moyer called Charlie. The first time, with his typical bravado, Charlie suggested to Moyer that he listen to the Minneapolis orchestra on the radio. When Moyer called again, over one hundred people had been rejected in the preliminary rounds of the new audition, and Moyer said the audition committee would permit Charlie to play just with the full orchestra in the finals. Feeling he had nothing to lose, and perhaps realizing that he was trying Moyer's patience, Charlie said okay. He'd gotten his way.


Excerpted from In Concert by Carl Vigeland. Copyright © 2016 Carl A. Vigeland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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