He lifts the woodwind and dampens the reed. Fingers press silver keys. Shoulders broaden, eyes narrow. A mournful note rises like the hush of a winter afternoon slipping to dusk. He follows the long lines, breath draining from him — until silence — when he releases the keys, looks up and begins anew.
David Howard has played bass clarinet for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 34 years. As a kid, he accompanied his father to concerts and waited in the Hollywood Citizen News office while the old man banged out classical music reviews. He grew up with scores and song sheets. He now travels the world with clarinet cases and bow ties, attuned to the micro-rhythms of life in an orchestra.
"I remember the physical feeling of playing the clarinet when I was 13," said Howard. "I love the way the instrument takes air from me."
Musicians in the Phil are tuned to idiosyncrasies and obsessions. Howard, 59, practices yoga to strengthen his lungs. Timpanist Joseph Pereira stretches damp calfskins across drums and fashions mallets out of wine corks and felt. Thomas Hooten, who once blew "Semper Fidelis" in the United States Marine Band, runs trumpet scales late into the night. And Christopher Hanulik, who calls his 15-pound bass "the beast," guards against strained ligaments and tendonitis: "I've got to be nimble, my muscles quick."
They are at once perfectionists and realists, chasing mathematical structures into beauty. While Music Director Gustavo Dudamel attracts much of the excitement around the Phil, the orchestra comprises world-class musicians who compose, teach, record, charm donors, indulge soloists and will tell you about bow strokes, arpeggios and why the viola, the violin's less flashy cousin, bears the brunt of orchestra jokes.
They are tough critics and keen observers. One player keeps a diary of the odd and startling things guest conductors say, such as the time one of them didn't like what he heard and chided: "Ladies and gentlemen, that's white-trash music." Musicians see up close what audiences do not: brittle scores from decades past, the intermission change in the brass section from a piston to a rotary trumpet, the harp's indentation mark on the stage.
"The percussion is sort of the orchestra's backbone," said Pereira. "The strings are the beauty and the face, the brass is the soul and the woodwinds are the heart."
Their instruments are extensions of who they have become. Hanulik's 18th century bass shines with French polish and "a bit of rosin on the belly." Pereira's calfskins, which "give a big, dark full orchestra sound," are imported from Ireland, but when he wants a "drier, punchier" timbre, he switches to goat skins and drums from Austria. Many musicians buy their own instruments — sometimes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — while others play pieces from the Philharmonic's extensive collection.
Their base salary, the highest in the country, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, is $150,124 and will rise to $154,336 by 2017. Principal players are paid much more, and all musicians can earn overtime. The orchestra's highest-paid musician is principal concertmaster and first violinist Martin Chalifour, whose compensation is $518,145, based on the Phil's latest tax filings. The next highest salary was for bassoonist Whitney Crockett — one of Dudamel's first hires — who made $306,924.
The L.A. Phil's 106 musicians picked up their instruments as children and studied at the best conservatories. But getting onto the Disney Hall stage is tougher than winning admission to Harvard. Nearly 400 clarinetists applied for a recent opening. Seventy were called for an audition. One was chosen.
"We all thought we'd be soloists," said Bing Wang, a violinist born in China during Mao Tse-Tung's Cultural Revolution. She moved to the U.S. in 1985 and studied at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. "I became a realist early on. The competition is fierce. I was very good but not a star. But to be a good orchestra musician is to possess an understanding beyond the music, beyond the notes. It's reading about the composers, learning about their times and absorbing and listening to your colleagues."
Musicians are intimate with the squiggles on sheet music and the fine print of labor contracts, although unlike many orchestras there is little dispute these days between the Phil's musicians' union and management. If a flight to an out-of-town concert exceeds 31/2 hours, musicians are not obliged to play that night. For every seven days on a tour, they receive one extra day off. If the temperature is above 78 degrees at the Hollywood Bowl, the contract allows men to shed their tuxedo jackets.
The players spend much time in pursuit of inexplicable moments when trills and scales fuse into a single voice. Their homes are practice halls, and many devote days or weeks perfecting new pieces. Orchestra rehearsals at Disney can be both relaxed and intense. Musicians wander from backstage into a dim hall, the seats empty. Chalifour, who as concertmaster is second in command to Dudamel, is a disciplinarian with a Stradivarius and a sense of humor. He tunes the orchestra, keeps the strings in sync.
At a two-hour morning rehearsal before an evening performance of Ravel, piano soloist Helene Grimaud lingered in jeans and a sweatshirt. Dudamel, who 12 hours earlier had conducted a Mozart opera, turned to the orchestra and said: "Forgive me if my arms go one way and the music another."
The musicians smiled. One sent a quick text, another closed a book. The baton lifted, and the music started. Things quickly turned serious. "We have to be bigger there," Dudamel told them at one point. "It's very symphonic.... It's already fast. Let's don't rush."
Staying focused on his goal
The trumpet is sly and thunderous. It cannot hide. Hooten discovered after years of playing that his embouchure, the way lips form at the mouthpiece, was all wrong. His range was limited, a prospect that became apparent at Rice University and threatened a career that had yet to begin.
"It was a tough time," he said. "I asked myself. 'Who are you?' I had to relearn. My identity changed, and I went from being a trumpet player to being a musician. If I'm going to communicate sincerity, joy and innocence, I have to generate that in my body, my belief system."
Teachers, including Armando Ghitalla, a mentor to Wynton Marsalis and other trumpeters, helped Hooten improve his vibration, tone and consistency. He joined the United States Marine Band and played at the White House. Hooten later enrolled in a Tony Robbins self-help course and "clarified my position: I'm going to be a trumpet player at a major symphony."
Back straight, eyes sharp, a glide in his step, Hooten, 38, has the bearing of an officer. The trumpet, he said, can sound as delicate as a flute but it also heralds catastrophe and tumult, like the ominous opening of Mahler's Fifth. "When a trumpet misses a note," he said, "everybody knows.... The last movement of the 'Brandenburg' Concerto No. 2 can absolutely shame you into sounding bad."
After his discharge from the military, Hooten played for the Indianapolis and Atlanta symphonies, joining the L.A. Phil in 2012. He joked that he has moved so many times that he's lost money on three houses.
"There are only five to seven big orchestras, so you can't choose when those jobs will be available," said Hooten, who was a featured player last week when the orchestra performed works by Haydn and Mozart. He and his wife, Jennifer Marotta, a trumpet player he met in the Marine band who has freelanced with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, have a 15-month-old son.
He practices sometimes late into the night. Ravel. Strauss. His jaw aligned, lips pursed and in place; the piston movement of the keys. He wants to help make the Phil's 15-member horn section the best of its class. He is hard on himself, and one senses he may never find the sound he aspires to; it is out there, elusive, as if at the edge of a distant march.
The beauty of the bass slides on a horse-hair bow.
"What kind of down-bow, what kind of up-bow? What pressure?" said Hanulik, the son of a high school orchestra director who joined the Phil fresh out of the Juilliard School in 1984. "Do you want it direct and immediate, or do you want the sound to open up and bloom?"
He has steady hands and a boyish mischievousness, but over the years Hanulik, 51, has come to rely on muscle memory. "I've got to be working scales and arpeggios to keep in shape. The bass is a physical instrument," he said. "Your body won't let you do things you once could. It's like an athlete. You have to guard against overuse, stress on ligaments and tendonitis."
Orchestras, like bodies, change. But Hanulik's instrument has remained constant. The endpin of his 265-year-old Italian-made bass, which he bought in 1987 for $30,000 and is now worth an estimated $250,000, has pricked stages from New York to Salzburg, Austria. He has played with dozens of guest conductors and soloists, including an unnamed diva who bristled at the orchestra: "'This is not what we rehearsed,'" said Hanulik. "She yelled at the music librarian, 'What's she doing here?'"
Symphony halls brim with egos; classical music cannot flourish without them. "The orchestra is a collection of varied personalities," he said. "The people you're playing with were all stars in high school. They were stars in college ... everybody on that stage has an idea of how it could be done."
Hanulik said the job of the bass section is to lay down a sound as plush as a carpet for the rest of the orchestra to float upon. He teaches at UCLA and is on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival; a number of musicians earn additional incomes teaching and playing with chamber and other music groups. Classical music, he said, must venture in new directions, but he wonders about where and how far.
"We're breaking down the walls of stiffness of our ties and tuxedoes. It's critical that we reach out," he said. But he thought the Seattle Symphony went too far when it played this year with rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, who chirped street-style about women's derrieres while prancing the stage. "Do we really need to be doing that? How does that translate into coming to hear Beethoven's Seventh?"
Magnetism of Dudamel
The musicians credit Dudamel, whose magnetism is often compared to that of the late Leonard Bernstein, for enriching the orchestra's sound. During rehearsals, Dudamel's Venezuelan-accented phrasings paint the mood he wants. When seeking the sound of unrequited love in a Ravel piece, he told the orchestra it was like paging through a book and glimpsing a picture you adore but cannot touch.
"He gives wonderful images, marvelously delivered. But it takes trial and error to get to what Dudamel wants to hear," said Howard. "He can get impatient. He does take the gloves off a bit, but he's always a gentleman about it."
"You see those steely eyes get a little steelier," Hanulik said of Dudamel, who has hired 15 musicians since he was named music director in 2009. "But from the very first time we saw him, it was, bang, whoa. We did Tchaikovsky's Fifth. It was a piece we did a thousand times. But it was like watching a wave go through the orchestra … just that quickly he grabbed us. The passion, the intensity, the level of detail."
Music critics have noted that the orchestra's tone has evolved from the austere precision of Dudamel's predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, a Finnish composer with a keen eye toward the contemporary, to Dudamel's leanings toward late Classical and Romantic-era textures. Or, put another way, Salonen is compact and cerebral, and Dudamel has a passion for Mozart and races through Beachwood Canyon in a Porsche.
"When you play Mozart," said Dudamel, 33, "it's so clean, it's so simple. It's the body naked. You have to build to that. You have to create. You have to approach that sound in the level of perfection and simplicity that is before you."
Dudamel, who is married to Eloisa Maturen, a ballet dancer and aspiring actress, is coiled locks and exuberance. In live performances he can seem an espresso-jazzed wizard or a bird stretching to flight; the music, somehow, seems in him, burning out.
"The sound I have in my body, that I understand, is very expressive and deep," he said one afternoon sitting near a piano in his office after a rehearsal. "Sometimes it can change and be a little sparkly and a little bit more crisp. But at the end, the sound is the personality, the stamp. I want people to close their eyes and listen and say this is the sound of the L.A. Phil."
The smallest details
An hour before a concert of Ravel and Mozart, Pereira checked his foot pedals and twisted tuning bolts to tighten the skins of his kettle drums. He raised a mallet — a customized bamboo shaft — and struck the surface for a low F note. Standing in the glow of copper drums in a horseshoe around him, he compared himself to a catcher in baseball, looking out from the back of the stage.
He is sensitive to air around him. Humidity is critical to the timpani; too much can flatten the pitch, too little can dry the skins. Pereira struck once more and walked to his dressing room, a cramped space of instruments, an alarm clock, a bag of nuts and two hanging tuxedos. He is an intense man in perpetual search of new noises. He once performed a solo piece at Disney Hall that used the body — teeth, chest, face, voice, breath — as its own symphony; in another performance, he turned 500 grains of rice into instruments.
"I started taking piano lessons at 5 years old," said Pereira, 40, who grew up on Long Island in New York. "I remember the feeling of being satisfied, but a huge piano for a kid can be terrifying. In elementary school, I thought, 'I'll just take these sticks and play drums.'"
He played in garage bands as a teenager. A high school music teacher taught him the snare drum, marimba and timpani. He won a spot in the New York Youth Symphony and performed a Bartok concerto in Carnegie Hall when he was a senior. "It's because of that piece I started composing," said Pereira, who received a master's from the Juilliard School and has written works commissioned by the Phil and the Manhattan School of Music. "It was a new language I hadn't heard before."
He spent 10 years with the New York Philharmonic. He fell in love with his future wife there, the violinist Minyoung Chang, who now plays for the L.A. Phil. Pereira joined the Phil in 2007 as its principal timpanist; the move was in large part spurred by support for his compositions by Salonen.
Critical praise and enthusiasm around his work have made him an easy player for the Phil to showcase for potential benefactors, like at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills last spring, where Pereira and Chang were invited to mingle with wealthy donors. The guests included Lenore Greenberg, who with her husband, Bernard, has underwritten a number of the Phil's commissioned pieces.
Pereira, with closed-cropped dark hair that lifts in waves at the top, often seems to be listening to music not everyone can hear. He understands how "metal particles are aligned" when appraising instruments. Much of his energy is spent trying to find time to compose while he and Chang juggle schedules and raise a young daughter.
"People like to stereotype you, 'Oh, he's a timpanist for the Phil,'" said Pereira, who recently attended a piano recital that featured five of his compositions inspired by Baroque-era paintings hanging in the Norton Simon Museum. "But I do more than that.... If you look at Mozart and Beethoven, they were also performers. They just didn't go home and light a candle and write a symphony."
A role player
Howard took a leave of absence from the Phil 20 years ago and enrolled in law school. "I quit after six months," he said. "I felt like an impostor." He returned to the orchestra, sitting in the woodwinds section with his bass clarinet, which he refers to as "more of a character actor than a leading man."
The son of accomplished pianists, he embraced the clarinet when he was a teenager. A soprano at Yale taught him to improve his breathing and strengthen his diaphragm by placing a thick phone directory on his lower abdomen and pushing it up and down. His lung capacity has also been improved by running and, in the last 10 years, by doing Bikram yoga. His nine clarinets also need attention.
"I live in pursuit of the perfect reed," said Howard, a full-time orchestra member who performs in about 100 concerts a year and also teaches at USC. "Your body learns music. You learn patience."
Howard has a lot of the classical musical repertoire in his head. He will be featured in a long solo of the orchestra's production later this month of Unsuk Chin's "Alice in Wonderland." Learning a new piece, he said, can take him between 10 minutes and a few days. Despite all that practice, however, music can be a tug of preferences between conductor and musician. One guest maestro, Howard said, stopped the orchestra 47 times with instructions during a rehearsal. Such conductors can lose the orchestra's faith and occasionally lead to both obvious and nearly imperceptible mutinies.
"Some have such a strange way of looking at things, and we just don't want to give it to them," he said. "It's like a kid who won't give a toy back. 'No, you can't have that.' … We want somebody who has the confidence that what they've digested from [the music] is deserving of commanding us."
He unpacked his clarinet, slid on the bell, dampened the reed. He held the instrument before him; it resembled a slender dancer dressed in silver and black. He summoned Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." He lifted his shoulders and exhaled. The room filled with the lament of a long-ago king.
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