Love blossoms for top brass

By William Dart

Brent Grapes was smitten with a trumpet solo when he was 9 - and the rest is history.
Brent Grapes was smitten with a trumpet solo when he was 9 - and the rest is history.

Brent Grapes, who steps out of his Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra principal's chair to take the solo in Alexander Arutiunian's popular Trumpet Concerto next Thursday, warns that I am in for "a cheesy story" when I ask how the instrument first appealed to him.

The nine-year-old Grapes was smitten by the trumpet solo in Gershwin's An American in Paris when the West Australian Symphony Orchestra visited his Perth school. A few decades on, he muses that "it's all about the sound and the immediate presence of it. It's straightaway there, with an immense power that a cornet just doesn't have".

We look over the circuitous route to his APO appointment four years ago, beginning with studies at Juilliard that were a life-changing experience.

"The fact that drama, dance and music all shared the same block in New York, we were forced to share and interact. I'd be warming up as a jazz player one minute and then workshopping something with a dance student the next."

Juilliard encouraged flexibility. "It opened our eyes to everything around us. We were reminded that the journey of a musician is not a straight line."

This philosophy has served him well with the APO and its various projects, including the recent Remix the Orchestra workshops and concerts.

Grapes, who confesses to having some "old school hip-hop on my iPod", found this South Auckland experience a real treat. "It was so challenging because we were all well out of our comfort zone yet able to form relationships with people we would not otherwise have met."

Looking back, he feels the geographical isolation of growing up on Australia's West Coast turned out to be advantageous. "It was a little like Haydn working in rural Esterhazy," he explains. "We were so locked away we had to find our own thing, which was certainly the case with Perth's jazz musicians."

Grapes singles out Louis Armstrong, but more for his vocals than his instrumental powess, although he is "envious of the way jazz musicians put their personality on every note they play".

"It's something we can aspire to as classical musicians, but we're limited by what's on the page. Everything is so much more prescribed. Although I'd like to think that as an orchestra we go a little bit wild, within the limits, every time we play something."

Not surprising, for a trumpeter, Grapes' favourite composers come from the last hundred years or so, headed by Mahler. And there are even more testing moments than the nail-biting fanfare that opens the Austrian's Fifth Symphony.

"The Posthorn solo from the Third is really tough. You just hope audiences can't hear just how taxing it is. And you need a good five-minute breather after playing 'Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle' from Pictures at an Exhibition on piccolo trumpet."

Two years in the ranks of the Verbier Festival Orchestra ("a summer break in a beautiful Swiss skiing village playing with some amazing musicians") included some inspirational Strauss, conducted by Charles Dutoit. There was also "a terrifying moment in Zarathustra when a camera was swivelling around to catch me coming in with a difficult solo. They like to see the fear in the player's eyes," he laughs.

On Thursday, Grapes will be the centre of attention playing the Arutiunian Concerto he first met up with as a teenager. He enthuses over its "wonderful colours, from the fullest fortissimo to the most delicate pianissimo", but points out there are not many 20th-century works with such memorable melodies. "You'll walk out humming the tunes," he says. "There aren't many concertos that that happens with."


Performance

What: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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