A brass sales pitch lets PSO tune in to a trumpet tradition

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Any performance by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Heinz Hall weaves together a number of historical traditions, some obvious and related to the music and others less so. For instance, the principal oboe plays a note to tune the orchestra. Traditionally, in the modern American concert hall, that note is an "A440." The pitch has a frequency of 440 Hz -- meaning, there are 440 sound waves beating in the air per second. This tradition among American orchestras has been more or less set for the better part of a century. In some European countries, however, orchestras tune to and play at a slightly higher pitch.

In the PSO trumpet section, there's yet another tradition being followed. The threads of music history connect prewar France to mid-20th-century Boston to every concert in Heinz Hall.

That is thanks to decades-old orchestral C trumpets.

Vintage trumpets bring special sound to PSO

Three historic trumpets built by Vincent Bach give the Pittsburgh Symphony players a special sound. (Video by Doug Oster; 1/3/2014

The C trumpet is the traditional trumpet used in American orchestras. The "C" refers to how the trumpet is tuned; a C on a C trumpet matches a piano's C, while a C on a B-flat trumpet matches a piano's B-flat. A historical thread from early 20th-century France to early 21st-century Pittsburgh goes through three trumpet players; Georges Mager, Adolph "Bud" Herseth, and George Vosburgh.

Mager was born in southeastern France in 1885 and trained at the Paris Conservatory. Before World War I, he played with the Paris Opera. After the war, he immigrated to the United States where, by the 1920s, he was the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Eventually, he went on to teach some of the most important American trumpet players of the mid- to late-20th century, including Herseth, principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Roger Voisin of the BSO and Bernard Adelstein of the Cleveland Orchestra.

That Mager was also a sales representative for the Vincent Bach Corp., which went on to set the standard for orchestral trumpet manufacture, is of no small importance to this story. As the BSO toured the East Coast between the wars, the symphony's "French" sound went with it. Part of that sound can be attributed to the French trumpet players playing French-made C trumpets in the brass section. Along with being a sales rep, Mager was also working with Vincent Bach (himself a onetime BSO player) on some early trumpet designs.

Vincent Bach was born Vincent Schrotenbach near Vienna, Austria, in 1890 and was trained as an engineer before serving in the Austrian military. By 1914, he changed his last name to Bach and immigrated to the U.S. After a brief stint in the BSO before World War I, he went on to manufacture trumpet mouthpieces in Manhattan. By the mid-1920s, he was manufacturing trumpets and by the end of that decade, he moved his shop up to the Bronx and later to Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He sold his business to the Selmer Co., and it was eventually moved to Elkhart, Ind., where it has remained to this day. These three locations denote the three main "eras" of Bach trumpets.

The tradition among French trumpet players to play the C trumpet was the tradition Mager handed down to Herseth, who joined the Chicago Symphony in 1948. Mager sold Herseth an early New York Bach horn before the younger man left for Chicago.

Sometime in the early '50s, someone -- some say it was an executive of Armour Meat Packing -- thought all the trumpet players in the Chicago Symphony should play on matching trumpets. A deal was struck, and in April 1955 (when Bach was making trumpets in Mt. Vernon) six new Bach C trumpets were delivered to Chicago.

These horns, due to the outstanding performances played on them, have achieved an almost mythic quality. A number of brass manufacturers (Selmer and Yamaha among them) have, for the past few years, been selling copies of these horns to aspiring trumpet players everywhere. Expensive processes have even been developed to convert a new trumpet into one of these old Mt. Vernon horns. These conversions, by Scott Laskey in Illinois, seek to change a newer standard trumpet into one more closely resembling the Mt. Vernon Bach horns sold to the Chicago Symphony in 1995.

PSO principal trumpet Mr. Vosburgh joined the Chicago Symphony when he was 22. He played Herseth's New York Bach and fell in love with the basic design. The "wrap" of those older horns was a bit tighter than the standard Bach horn of today. The main curves are narrower and the two sides are closer together. To Mr. Vosburgh, this gives the trumpet a brighter, more colorful sound, greater back pressure and agility but with, perhaps, a slight loss in intonation compared to its modern counterpart.

"It's a Ferrari," he said. "It's a very difficult horn to play."

While he was still in Chicago, Mr. Vosburgh heard about another vintage New York Bach for sale in San Francisco. He bought the trumpet, which became the first of the three New York Bach trumpets the PSO players procured.

Shortly after joining the PSO in 1997, trumpeter Neal Berntsen learned that the principal player of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Ramon Parcells, had an old Bach but didn't like it. Mr. Berntsen had been playing on a Laskey conversion and jumped at the chance to play an original New York Bach. Chad Winkler's New York Bach arrived by way of a pawn shop in northern New York. He, too, had been playing on a conversion when he learned that a Bach had been pawned for a guitar in Buffalo. He tried it out, loved it and knew he would buy it.

There are four trumpets in the PSO and while the co-principal, Chuck Lirette, doesn't play on an old New York Bach, he does play on a conversion.

"It's the only trumpet section that looks backward to this vintage design" of these older horns, Mr. Vosburgh said. "Everyone else is looking forward. We're looking backward -- on purpose."

Some orchestras aren't at all particular about the brands on the horns used in performance. The musicians in the trumpet section of the Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, play on a mixture of Bachs, Yamahas and others. Their principal, David Bilger, even has a custom-built new Shires trumpet. The idea over there is for each player to be comfortable with what he is playing.

On the other hand, in Pittsburgh, "When I hear these horns sounding together, that's how I know we're doing the right thing," Mr. Vosburgh said.

Freelance writer David DeAngelo has a degree in trumpet performance from the University of Connecticut and is one of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's community bloggers.

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