Tom Hooten, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s distinguished Principal Trumpet, was thrilled to learn that the orchestra had commissioned a new work featuring him as soloist. His excitement grew when he found out that Steven Mackey would be the composer. He was eager to jump in with both feet.
Yet when he was told that Mr. Mackey’s primary inspiration for the piece was to be obscure English words, he knew that he’d limit his contributions strictly to musical elements. Spelling bees were not his thing. Studying SAT vocabulary never got his blood pumping.
“There’s a running joke in our house,” he chuckles to me over the phone. “If anything important needs to be written or an email needs to be sent, my wife is gonna be the one who’s writing it.”
That’s not to say that he doesn’t appreciate the eleven words that serve as the jumping off point for each of the movements of Shivaree: Fantasy for Trumpet and Orchestra, the new piece being given its world premiere tonight with three more performances throughout the weekend.
“There’s multiple ways each word or definition can be interpreted, and Steven’s music reflects that.” He brings up “deliquesce,” the tenth movement’s title which means “to melt away.”
“ ‘Melting away’ can be a feeling, it can be a musical expression like a high note fading away, it can be something else. I think the range of possibilites are fascinating.”
He’s also keen on Shivaree pointedly being a “Fantasy,” not a concerto. He mentions that Mr. Mackey used the analogy of a concerto being like a steak dinner, with the soloist as the big piece of meat — the main focus — with the orchestral part being the garnish and side dishes, and the traditional three movement structure being like three fixed courses.
“Steven says this is more like tapas. You get a little taste of this, a little bit of that. Smaller bites but more of them and with greater variety.” To that end, Mr. Hooten will be playing three different horns (E-flat trumpet, piccolo trumpet, and flugelhorn) with a variety of mutes.
Moreover, there is a panoply of ways the composer uses those horns, from stereotypical triumphant-sounding fanfares to more avant-garde moments that require extended trumpet techniques. He gets extra animated talking about a split tone technique that Mr. Mackey uses which creates a specific 7th interval.
“It’s particularly challenging, not least of which because I’ve spent my entire professional career trying not to play split tones. But it’s really cool,” he says enthusiastically. “Sure, we can sound like we do in Mahler or Beethoven, but we can do this other stuff too.”
He’s proud to be adding to the trumpet repertoire and pushing technical boundaries in the process. He cites a former Principal Trumpet of the LA Phil, the late Thomas Stevens, as a key inspiration. We discuss how influential Mr. Stevens has been to modern trumpet playing, and I ask him to compare Shiavaree to Berio’s Sequenza X for solo trumpet and piano resonance, another LA Phil commission which was written for and premiered by his celebrated predecessor and has since become a trumpet repertoire touchstone.
“This is nothing like the Sequenza, particularly in how melodic parts of it are,” Mr. Hooten says with a bit of a laugh. “I’m surprised how often I’ve found myself humming some of it.”
I also ask him to talk about his preparation for Shivaree versus that for the iconic Haydn Trumpet Concerto, the last big orchestral piece in which he was the featured soloist.
“Obviously, it’s a completely different challenge,” he acknowledges.
For something as well known as the Haydn, he describes how you can’t play it too straight because people will say you’re bringing nothing new to the table, and you can’t play it too differently because people will say you’re taking too many liberties with a masterpiece.
“So you have to thread the needle between the two,” he explains. “That can be exciting in its own way, but it’s inherently constricting. I’m enjoying the freedom in bringing this new piece to life.”
As he continues to compare and contrast the rigor and discipline required in most orchestral trumpet playing to this notion of playing more freely, I bring up his relationship with jazz trumpet legend Arturo Sandoval. He seems eager to talk about their time together.
“I have gotten so much out of our interactions,” he beams. “Arturo is an amazing player. Let’s face it, he sometimes plays unhinged, and I mean that in the most respectful way. To be a great jazz trumpeter, you have to be willing to go there. That’s not how we [classical trumpeters] are trained. We play — we have to play — with more control.”
[I’m reminded of the moment during one of their YouTube conversations when Mr. Sandoval asks Mr. Hooten for advice on how to approach the opening of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, and the younger trumpeter responds, “You have to give me advice too — on how to be less tight!” They both laugh in response.]
He mentions how taken aback he is by Mr. Sandoval’s improvisational skills, particularly his ability to not just create impromptu trumpet solos over chord progressions but to sing and scat them as well, and the different kind of musical talent and discipline that requires.
Yet he comes back to the notion of playing more “unhinged” himself, and how that dovetails into preparing the world premiere of Shivaree. He recounts Mr. Sandoval playing a challenging lick ending with a loud, high note.
“I asked him about it, and he told me, ‘Man, I can feel it in my calves!’ And we both laughed at the time. Then after a while, I thought about it more and said to myself, ‘Wait, there’s something there.’ He puts his entire body, his entire soul into every note, and you can tell.”
“There’s a unique type of commitment, a freedom to playing that way. I’m thinking of how to incorporate that kind of freedom into my own playing more, and I think [Shivaree] is a perfect vehicle for that to come out.”
Given how Mr. Hooten has brought more sizzle to the brass section of the LA Phil since joining it a decade ago, this is quite a statement. It adds to an already compelling set of reasons to look forward to his playing, both in this new work and in the broader orchestral repertoire this season and beyond.
Gustavo Dudamel leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the world premiere of Shivaree: Fantasy for Trumpet and Orchestra by Steven Mackey tonight (Thursday, October 21, 2021) at Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Thomas Hooten as trumpet soloist; also on the program are Strum by Jessie Montgomery and Mahler’s 4th Symphony featuring soprano Camilla Tilling. They will be repeating the program Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available HERE.
Random other thoughts:
- If you’d like to read more about the Berio Sequenza X in Thomas Stevens’s own words, you can read his thoughts via the links below:
- Berio Sequenza X: A History of My Participation in the Berio “Sequenza X” (Part I)
- Berio Sequenza X: A History of My Participation in the Berio “Sequenza X” (Part II)
- If you want to watch some of the conversations between Tom Hooten and Arturo Sandoval, here are two YouTube videos:
- Tom Hooten will record John Williams Trumpet Concerto with composer conducting; idea to become reality thanks to successful Kickstarter
- Comings and goings at the LA Phil (Summer 2017 edition): Details on Ghez, Dennis, Hooten, and others (UPDATED)
- My interview with LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Tom Hooten for LA Weekly
- A chat with Arturo Sandoval: the legendary musician talks about the state of jazz, sharing it with younger generations, the importance of Arban, and much more
- Portrait of Thomas Hooten: photo by Rob Shanahan
- Portrait of Thomas Stevens: courtesy of International Trumpet Guild website
- Thomas Hooten and Arturo Sandoval: screenshot of YouTube video