Interviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

A 2020 chat with Norman Pearson: the tuba player talks about his career & influences, the evolution of the LA Phil’s brass section, his preferred place to play on the Disney Hall stage, and much more

Norman Pearson played his first concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1982 as a substitute on 2nd tuba. Simon Rattle conducted The Rite of Spring. Not a bad start.

He’d go on to spend most of his professional career with the LA Phil, including many more concerts as a substitute before becoming an official member of the orchestra in 1993, and finally retiring last year after a distinguished 27-year tenure.

Last summer, during what we now know to be the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, the LA native kindly agreed to do a Q&A via email to talk about his career and his plans for the future. We followed that up with a phone call going into more detail about various topics and broaching some new ones, including his teaching at USC Thornton and The Colburn School and his memories of concerts with fellow tuba stars and USC faculty members, Jim Self and Doug Tornquist.

Throughout the process, Mr. Pearson was kind, open, and self-effacing. The detail and thoughtfulness of his written responses carried over into our phone conversation, and he was very generous with his time. Alas, the recording of that phone conversation was lost before I could finish transcribing it, and I was unable to include any of it here. Luckily for us, the original email exchange still exists, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it with you below.

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CK Dexter Haven:  How/when did you first get interested in music? 

Norman Pearson:  Music was very important to my family; my mother played the piano and my father was a singer. There were seven children in my family and we spent quite a few evenings singing and playing instruments around the piano with my parents. My mother made sure we all started piano lessons in elementary school, so I literally learned to read music as I was learning to read.

One of my sisters played string bass and the school let her take one home to practice on. She never really liked to practice so the bass usually sat unused in the corner of the dining room. A large unused instrument is quite a temptation for a seven-year-old boy, so I started messing around with the bass and figured out the different notes on it. In school we could start a band instrument in the fourth grade but could start a string instrument in the third grade so I chose to play the bass.

Our elementary school band played a lot of traditional music and the band director liked to include a string bass as a part of the band. I would always look at the tuba player and think, “Man! That looks like a lot of fun.” It just seemed to make a lot more noise than the bass. I asked the band director about playing the tuba but was told he needed me to play bass in the band for the rest of the year, but he would talk to the junior high school band director about me playing tuba the next year. He let me take an old sousaphone home over the summer between 6th and 7th grade and I taught myself the fingerings and that fall I started playing tuba in the band.

CKDH:  When was the first time you heard the LA Phil play?

NP:  In the summer of 1968 at a Hollywood Bowl Rehearsal. I was in summer school orchestra and we had a field trip to the Hollywood Bowl to observe a rehearsal. That was very exciting to me and when I got home I told my mother I wanted to play in the LA Phil. Of course, at that time I wanted to play the bass.

CKDH:  When did you decide that tuba was going to be your instrument and that you’d pursue a professional career in music?

NP:  I started college at Cal State Los Angeles as a music education major with two major instruments: tuba and string bass. The bass teacher at that time was former Los Angeles Philharmonic member John Schiavo and the tuba instructor was Jim Self (LA Studio Musician, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and LA Opera). During that time, I gravitated exclusively to the tuba and the bass fell by the wayside.

I eventually transferred to USC as a music performance major to study with Tommy Johnson (LA Studio Legend). I also started to study on and off with former LA Phil tubaist Roger Bobo. I had it in the back of my head that I wanted to play music for a living since I was a child, but it was during this time in my life I felt that I may actually possess the skills needed to pull it off. I was totally immersed in the tuba and started to win auditions and competitions.

The semester before I graduated, I won the tuba position for Orquesta Filarmonica de Caracas.  I started playing [with them] in January 1981. Actually, about a week before Gustavo [Dudamel] was born!

CKDH:  What was it like playing in Venezuela? 

NP:  The orchestra was mostly made up of Eastern Europeans, young Americans just out of college or conservatory, and interestingly only a few Venezuelans. I had never been out of the country before and for the most part it was a great experience. We played great repertoire at a high level to mostly sold-out houses. I learned what it was like to be a professional musician but more importantly an orchestra musician. I didn’t have any real orchestra experience before I got the job, only a few concerts at USC. I ended up staying for only one year: It was a great experience, but I decided to come back home and finish my degree.

CKDH:  By the way, how was it for you to go back to Venezuela when the orchestra went there on tour a few years ago?

NP:  The trip back to Caracas with the LA Phil was bittersweet for me. When I lived there, I felt comfortable walking the streets and going to shops and cafes. The country was quite prosperous at that time. There were four orchestras in Caracas all funded by the government.

It was sad for me to see what had happened to the country after 30 or so years. Due to the high crime rate, we were not allowed to leave the hotel without escorts. The only bright light for me was El Sistema; it was still fairly new when I was in Caracas in 1981 and had flourished in spite of the political turmoil.

CKDH: That’s too bad, but it’s another reason to be grateful for El Sistema.  So after you spent a year playing in Caracas for your first professional job, you came back to LA.  What happened next?

NP:  I started freelancing as soon as I got back. I played any and every job that I could: Polka Bands, Tuba Quartets at Disneyland, church jobs, anything for anyone who would call.

I also started subbing in the LA Phil, [and] I played studio sessions, ballet, opera, and subbed in the Pacific Symphony.

CKDH: What do you miss most and least about freelancing?

NP: I enjoyed the variety of music I was playing and also playing in many different venues.

I love my Philharmonic colleagues, but I do miss working with many of the great musicians outside of the orchestra. I don’t miss wearing lederhosen and riding on a carousel at Disneyland; however, for a few years I had to do a variety of non-musical jobs to support myself. I do not miss that either.

CKDH:  When you eventually did join the LA Phil as its tuba player, you followed a couple of legends — Roger Bobo and Gene Pokorny (who took one-year leave from the Chicago Symphony to play in LA) — first as a long-term sub, then officially.  What was that like? 

NP:  In 1989 Roger Bobo took a sabbatical and I was asked to sub for him while he was on leave. I loved playing with the orchestra and was honored to be asked to fill in. I had no idea that Roger would not return, and I ended up playing full time for three years.

In 1991 Gene Pokorny won the audition for the LA Phil. I was surprised when he showed up for the audition but was not surprised that he won. Gene is arguably the greatest living orchestra tuba player. I was devastated when I didn’t win the job, but it did put things into focus for me.

I think I took the job for granted when I was there. While Gene was here I really missed it. When Gene told me he decided to return to Chicago, I decided that I was not going to lose the next audition. I really wanted that job.

CKDH:  How is your playing similar to and/or different from them?

NP:  I don’t know how I could even begin to compare myself with Roger and Gene. They are giants in my mind, not only on the tuba, but they are both incredible musicians who just happened to play the tuba.

But if I do have to say what similarities we have, it’s that we all grew up in the Los Angeles area and started off with similar concepts of sound. Gene and I both grew up listening to the amazing tuba sounds of Roger Bobo and Tommy Johnson. When we were younger, as most students do, we tried to emulate what we heard. Over the years we had different influences and became more individual in our sounds and approach. Gene is still one of my all-time favorite tuba players.

CKDH:   Your career in the brass section of the LA Phil bridged two eras:  the first which included legends like Tom Stevens, Don Green, Bill Lane, Ralph Sauer, Byron Peebles, Jeffrey Reynolds (among others), and the current group led by Tom Hooten, Andrew Bain, and David Rejano.  Talk to me about both of those sections:  what’s noteworthy and unique about each of them, and are the similarities (if any)?  Is there a signature LA Phil brass quality or sound, or if not, has one begun to emerge with the newer players?

NP:  That’s a tough question.  I loved working with the musicians in both eras. The LA Phil has been blessed with great trumpet sections. In the Tom Stevens era, I was amazed that the trumpets all had such different individual sounds but always blended. The individual players in the new trumpet section has, at least to my ears, similar sounds. They are also phenomenal. I was in awe of the sound Tom Stevens made on the trumpet and I am completely blown away at the musicianship and technical prowess of Tom Hooten as well.

The horn section has always been good but now I think it is one of the become greatest orchestra horn sections. Andrew is an amazing player and a great leader. The horns have a very unified concept of sound and they also seem to really like each other! They get along well with one another on and off the stage. There is a lot of magic happening.

Ralph Sauer, Byron Peebles, Sonny Ausman and Jeff Reynolds had a unity of sound that is hard to duplicate. It was even from top to bottom, never forced, always with a warm sound. As a section they never had to talk anything through, it just happened. The current section is also quite incredible. The sound is vibrant and clear. Overall the new brass section plays a bit brighter than the old section. That is not a bad thing, just different. Both sections played with a high level of artistic integrity and pushed me to levels I had not thought possible.

CKDH:  The low brass section has moved around since Walt Disney Concert Hall opened, from being behind the trumpets, to being beside them (both towards the wing and now more centered).  How have those different locations affected your playing?

NP:  As good as Disney Hall is from an audience perspective it can be a challenge, at times, for the performers depending on where we are placed on the stage. There was a big adjustment period for me when we moved from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I was used to playing in a sound shell. The sound on the stage at the DCP was actually quite nice, from a performer’s perspective. I had no trouble hearing myself or the other musicians around me.

Disney Hall, on the other hand, has a high ceiling and the tuba sound seems to just go away. Also, it’s a bit harder, at least for me, to hear across the stage. I feel like I had to play much louder in Disney Hall as opposed the DCP.

The orchestra started experimenting with different seating arrangements and ended up moving the basses to stage right, so called European seating. That changed the setup for the low brass as the percussion, piano and harp moved into our space. At one point it left me with no place to go except behind the trombone section. I really hated that set up since there was no way for me to play together with the trombones. Also, I was across the stage from the bass section as well.

People may not realize that the tuba is not just part of the brass section in a symphony orchestra. About half of the time, the tuba functions as a fourth trombone but also quite often is part of the bass section, bassoon section and quite frequently the bottom of the horn section.

A few years ago we played a Wagner concert, I can’t recall the conductor, but the brass section was reversed with the tuba in the middle of the orchestra. That was a revelation for me: I could hear everyone in the orchestra, I felt like a part of the ensemble for the first time since we moved into Disney Hall. I finally felt like I did not have to force my sound, I could hear every note that I played. I could finally hear the trombones and the basses and also was thrilled to sit behind our wonderful horn section. What a treat hearing Andrew play solos night after night. I will really miss that. There is not as much room to juggle tubas and mutes with that setup but I don’t care, the sound is so much better.

CKDH:   What are your favorite tuba parts you’ve played in the orchestra?  Doesn’t have to be solos, it can be something you played as part of the section.

NP:  There are lots of pieces that I enjoy playing, mostly because it’s satisfying to be a part of a large brass section in a Mahler or Bruckner symphony, etc; however, the piece that always thrills me is The Rite of Spring. I first played it in Caracas in 1981, then with the Joffrey Ballet in the mid 1980s and many, many times on both the first and second tuba parts with the LA Phil. I figure I’ve played it more than 150 times. It never gets old for me; I always hear something different.

CKDH:  What’s your funniest story of being in the LA Phil?

NP:  Most of the funny stories are from tours and are probably best untold.

But I do have one: 

On our 1991 European tour, we played a concert in East Berlin shortly after the wall had come down. One of my colleagues had a running gag that on tour he would learn how to say “keep ‘em coming until someone passes out” in the native language. After a concert the low brass went to a beer hall with the East Berlin Philharmonic low brass. My colleague proceeded to pull out his cue card and told the waitress to “keep ‘em coming until someone passes out” in German. We all had a good laugh, including the German brass players. Beer kept coming although I don’t recall us asking for more.

One by one people started to leave and go home or back to the hotel. Then there were only four of us left at the table and the waitress brought us twelve beers!

CKDH:   What’s your best memory of the orchestra?

NP:  It’s hard to remember my best musical memory as there are so many:

  • Playing Mathis der Maler with Erich Leinsdorf
  • Bruckner 4 with Kurt Sanderling on tour in East Berlin in 1991
  • Participating in the Salzburg Festival
  • Playing in the Musikverein in Vienna
  • and playing a John Williams concert in front of 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl.

All great memories.

CKDH:  When and why did you decide that you’d retire this summer?

NP:  Musicians are artists but we are also athletes. As we age some things are not as easy as they are when we are younger. I know of brass players who have problems at 40 and others play well into their 70s or even 80s (Doc Severinsen is 93!). We are all different.

There are some things I feel that I still do very well but many things that I can’t play as well as I did 30 years ago. I don’t want to get to the point where I am no longer a contributing member of the orchestra.  I remember reading an interview with Abe Torchinsky (tubaist with the Philadelphia Orchestra 1949-71) years ago. He retired from Philly and went on to teach at the University of Michigan at age 51. When asked why he retired at such a young age from the orchestra he replied it’s better to have someone ask, “Why are you retiring rather than why don’t you retire.” That stuck with me.

CKDH:  Obviously, this hasn’t been the farewell season you’d wanted.  How have you approached everything (music, your day-to-day life now, and your post-retirement plans) in the midst of a very challenging year where little has gone as expected?

NP:  The overture from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of my favorite pieces and my favorite tuba part. The brass writing is very sparse: two trumpets, horns and tuba. It’s more like chamber music piece and the tuba part very soloistic and is written high and requires a light touch. I played it the night before I got married and it was supposed to be on my last concert at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. I was looking forward to going out with that piece.  Needless to say, I am very disappointed.

Like everyone else on the planet, I’ve had a lot of time to mull over things and I am at peace with my decision to retire. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of my life although it has not been written yet. I may continue to teach a bit.  I’m transcribing some pieces for tuba.  I’ve gotten into baking bread.  I may take up golf, who knows. I will finally be able to have weekends free to spend time with my wife and hopefully be able to travel so I can visit my son, who is moving to Portland.

CKDH:   If you could go back in time to talk to your younger self right before you embarked on your musical career, what would you say?  What do you know now that you wish that you knew then?

NP:  Don’t spend all of your time working, try to have some fun!

CKDH:  Thank you so much for your time.  I hope you are safe, healthy, and in good spirits.

[Many thanks to Mr. Pearson for his time and consideration and to the team at the LA Phil for making it happen. Best of luck to him on the next phase of his career and life.]

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Photo credits:

  • Portrait of Norman Pearson: Mathew Imaging, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic Trombone Ensemble:  courtesy of Western International Music, Inc.
  • LA Phil brass section: screenshot of YouTube video, “Mars from Holst’s The Planets with Dudamel & the LA Phil” (Published by LA Phil)

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