1996 Instrumentalist of the Year: Adolph Herseth

By John von Rhein (published December 1995)

In September, the man known to symphony musicians the world over as “Bud” Herseth began his 48th season as principal trumpeter of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But it’s not for longevity alone that Musical America has named Adolph Herseth its Instrumentalist of the Year, the first orchestral player to receive the award. At 74, Herseth continues to be a role model for everyone who plays, or aspires to play, in an orchestra. Listen to the CSO brass section riding the sumptuous tonal crests of a Mahler symphony or a Richard Strauss tone poem and you can trace its distinctive sound and style to Herseth. It is his golden trumpet that sounds the Promenade theme on all six of the Orchestra’s recordings of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. Herseth is, in fact, such a vital ganglion of the Chicago Symphony’s nervous system that it is hard to imagine the Orchestra making music in quite the same way without him.

“Herseth was my idol as a trumpet player even before I joined the CSO,” says Dale Clevenger, principal horn of the Chicago. “He sits so close to me and has so many solos that hearing his inspirational tones again and again has been a wonderful experience.”

Herseth confounds the popular notion that when brass players reach a certain age, their lip is the first thing to go. By his modest reckoning he is “80 percent of the player” he was 20 to 30 years ago—a standard of achievement that would be the envy of trumpeters half his age. He keeps in shape by daily practice in the basement studio of his Oak Park, Illinois, home, and having recently undergone quadruple bypass surgery, he feels “solid as a rock.”

Herseth never dreamed of retaining his post for nearly a half century; in fact, he never imagined he would ever make it to the first chair. It was Artur Rodzinski who, in effect, plucked him from the chorus line and made him a star. The temperamental music director of the CSO from 1947 to 1948 had heard of this hotshot trumpet player who could play rings around his fellow students at the New England Conservatory of Music. The Minnesota-born Herseth was there pursuing a Master of Music degree, hoping eventually to land a high school or college teaching job.

But then, in 1947, a telegram arrived from the CSO management summoning him to an audition with Rodzinski, who had just been appointed music director. At the time Herseth knew very little of the orchestral repertoire. Undaunted, he scoured the Boston libraries for as many symphonic trumpet solos as he could find. At the appointed hour he showed up at Rodzinski’s apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue. “I dumped the music on the rack of his grand piano in his enormous living room,” Herseth recalls. Rodzinski had him play for an entire hour. “I wasn’t nervous, because I thought I was auditioning for the third-trumpet position. Imagine my surprise when he said, ‘You will be the new first trumpet of the Chicago Symphony.”‘

Much to his regret, Herseth never did play under Rodzinski, as the conductor parted company with the CSO in 1948, after a single season of internecine warfare with the trustees; Herseth didn’t join the Orchestra until later that year. Until Rafael Kubelik arrived in 1950, the Chicago Symphony was entrusted to guest-conductors; the young principal trumpeter considered this a blessing because it gave him the chance to amass, as he puts it, “five years of big-time repertory in my first two seasons,” playing under such luminaries as George Szell, Bruno Walter, Fritz Busch, Pierre Monteux, and Charles Munch.

Like many CSO veterans, Herseth characterizes the Fritz Reiner years, 1953 to 1963, as a golden age that codified and proclaimed the greatness of the Chicago orchestra to anyone with ears.” All Reiner wanted you to do was come in and give 110 percent every day; and that’s what any good conductor expects you to do,” Herseth now says. “He went through the Orchestra with a fine-tooth comb, especially the winds and brass. Whenever a piece came up that had a special passage for a player, they damn well better have come prepared, because he was gonna give them a hard time. Even if you played it really well for him the first time, he was always testing you.”

Herseth seems to have been one of the few section principals who made Reiner’s  “A-list” early on and never left. At an RCA Victor recording session for Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kije Suite in 1957, producer Richard Mohr suggested to Reiner that he and the Orchestra do a second take of the “Kije’s Wedding” section, with its prominent trumpet part. Mohr thought he heard a wrong note from Herseth. The trumpeter protested he had played the passage perfectly, and Reiner agreed. Leaning over the talkback mike that linked the Orchestra Hall stage to the recording booth, the maestro admonished, “You had better apologize, Mr. Mohr.” Recounting the tale, Herseth affects a deadly accurate imitation of Reiner’s saturnine growl.

Indeed, the avuncular trumpeter has no shortage of anecdotes about seemingly every other famous conductor who has fronted the Chicago Symphony. Here he is on George Szell: “They said he was cold-hearted, but we did some things with him that had such warmth. When he conducted, it was as if he was trying to play the orchestra like he played the piano.” On Carlo Maria Giulini, the CSO’s principal guest conductor from 1969 to 1972: “Everybody just loved him. When he got into a really heartfelt passage, particularly in a slow movement, he would stand there with his eyes closed and you could feel the emotion he was trying to convey to the audience through the orchestra.” On Daniel Barenboim, the current music director: “He’s an unbelievably gifted guy. There are times when you wish he’d be a bit more precise, show more impulse. But he’s one of those conductors who likes a somewhat arpeggiated attack from the orchestra; there’s something to be said for that, especially in certain kinds of [German and Austrian] music. You learn to stay flexible and keep your eye on him closer than you ordinarily would.”

Herseth reserves particular admiration for Barenboim’s predecessor, Georg Solti, the CSO’s music director from 1969 to 1991. The trumpeter vividly recalls playing in a CSO/Solti performance of Schoenberg’s formidably difficult opera Moses und Aron in 1984 at Carnegie Hall. “There was an especially tough spot with mixed meters, and it started to come apart a little bit. The brass had a 20- to 30-bar rest. Solti was nervously looking at his score and at me because there was an important trumpet entrance ahead. His look said, ‘God, I hope you’re counting, Bud.’ I knew that entrance was gonna be a rallying point for everyone, so I raised the bell of my trumpet and really whacked it. Everything fell into place. At that moment Solti looked directly at me and wiped his brow. His lips formed the words: ‘Thank you, Bud!”‘

Herseth has always considered himself an orchestral player, first and foremost, not a soloist, although he has performed well over 50 times in that capacity with the CSO. He says he hasn’t found a single trumpet concerto that is as musically gratifying as playing a Mahler symphony. “To me that’s the biggest thrill of all, just to be in a band like this, with colleagues like these and with conductors for whom we can make exciting music.”

The dean of orchestral trumpeters says he hasn’t made up his mind when he will retire. It would be nice, he suggests, to be around long enough to celebrate his golden anniversary with the Orchestra. But he’s not pushing it. “I’ve been up-front with management. I told them I may not know when the time is right for me to start thinking about retiring, so they should tell me. At this point it’s a day-to-day, month-to-month affair. I’m just glad I’m still able to do it. If I can make it for a few more years, wonderful. If not, I had a helluva time.”

John von Rhein has been classical music critic of the Chicago Tribune since 1977 and is a frequent contributor to national publications.