Ron Barron in conversation...
This is an interview I conducted a few years ago when principal trombonist Ron Barron retired from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. I received an email from a friend in Canada only a few weeks ago who has asked for it to be republished on my blog as it had been lost in the digital ether somewhere. So Colin, here it is:
It becomes big news when one of the Principal brass players of one of the USA's finest orchestras decides to take retirement, even bigger news when two players from the same section decide to take a back seat. Ronald Barron, Principal Trombone of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Norman Bolter, second trombone and Principal in the Boston Pops Orchestra have recently announced their retirement. Before they both decide to put their feet up (!) I thought it would be nice to catch up with Ron to tell us a little about his decision and his life in the orchestra.
NH: First of all many congratulations on your forthcoming retirement from the BSO. You must be one of the longest serving Principal Trombones of any professional symphony orchestra, when did you officially accept the trombone position and what were your musical experiences prior to that.
RB: I joined the Boston Symphony in September of 1970, and was principal in the Boston Pops from 1970 until 1983. I moved to first in the BSO in 1975. Before the BSO, I was second in the Montreal Symphony for two seasons and before that I was in Music College, twice working in the summers with the American Wind Symphony in Pittsburgh.
NH: That's some background. Why the move to Boston? Montreal Symphony has some band! Is it a job that you set your sites on from your college days?
RB: I had no ambition to move to Boston or anywhere else for that matter, but I was let go in Montreal. The first player moved to second, in that he had seniority and I did not win the audition for first, so that was it. In retrospect of course, it turned out great, but who knew at the time. It was a rather odd thing. I had been the second choice originally, in 1968, when offered the job, but I took it. The same audition result occurred two years later, and the winner (the same guy) took the first position. Oddly, he left Montreal after a few seasons, moved to Boston and actually took a lesson with me! Now that’s weird. Anyway, he went on to a fine career as a full time player in another orchestra, but I always found the sequence of events to be a strange one.
NH: I have very fond memories of listening to your 1970's LP recording with trumpeter Gerard Schwartz; 'Cousins'. It was a real inspiration to me and gave me my first insight into the music of Arthur Pryor. I'm sure many people will have heard this album, it must have been recorded about the same time you joined the BSO?
RB: “Cousins” was recorded in February 1976, in New York. Parts of it still exist on a CD titled “Cornet Favorites”. That is a reprint of the LP of the same name plus some cuts from “Cousins”. The material was essentially the same style. The recording was one in a push by Nonesuch to record a lot of Americana as part of the bicentennial in the US. It received a Stereo Review Record of the Year Award in 1977, so I'm rather proud of that! While it seems fair to say that this style is not musically complicated, it's a window into American culture which I feel is important to preserve. The brass soloists of this time set the standard for playing to which most still aspire. From Arban through Souza and all the others of that era, we have a tradition which deserves remembering and honoring.
NH: Pryor had a very unique playing style, did you feel you had to honour his musical approach to these pieces or were you intent on stamping your own mark?
RB: Perhaps a bit of both, though I never looked at it that way. I feel players often cheapen these pieces with some of their interpretations. They play great, have more than enough wonderful technique, but do things which play down to the weakest elements of the style. Arthur was a great showman, but he took his work very seriously, never performing unless he could practice at least two hours a day. He was very proud and I think honored his listeners. To play his works as though one is making cheap music for dumb listeners truly insults the essence of this style. As I suggested, it is not high art, but it is honorable and for my taste needs to be revered as such, not as cheap trash with no musical depth. There were things which Arthur did which I can not, but I feel I understand the style and I feel a kinship with it. Though I added the cadenza in Annie Laurie, I feel what I did is definitely something which Arthur would have approved. It was never my intent to improve upon or personalize any aspect of Pryor’s solos. It would be difficult to say more than that here, but rather to demonstrate the style by playing and discussing it live.
NH: Tell us a little about your college years and your own personal mentors...a certain Ernie Glover comes to mind?
RB: Yes, I'm quite nostalgic about Ernie these days. He passed away just after I left school in 1968. I'm quite sorry he never was able to follow my career. He would have been proud to see one of his students in the BSO. Ernie was soloist with Frank Simon and the Armco Band in the 1920’s and 30’s, and was an original member of the American Band Masters Association in 1930, joining all the big names in the band business. After a lengthy career as a member of the Cincinnati Symphony, and a teacher at the Conservatory, he was very much looking forward to his retirement in 1968, when he tragically died. As I retire, I can’t help but reflect on all of that. He was quite an inspiration to me. Along with Ed Kleinhammer with whom I took a few lessons, he formed my thinking and approach to trombone. I'm proud to have been his student.
College provided a rounded and diversified opportunity for me. It seems I played in every ensemble possible from jazz band, marching band, orchestra, brass choir, wind ensemble, to doing Broadway shows at the local professional theaters. I suppose I somehow had time to practice and get through classes. I recommend to students to take advantage of all type of performance chances, one never knows where life will take you, and all experience adds up. I know the jazz environment I had in college and high school helped when it came to Boston Pops work, though I would be quick to add that the orchestra has trouble swinging as much as a smaller band, it certainly helped me.
I also did some big band work on the road out of Cincinnati, where we would drive somewhere in the Midwest and be the Buddy Morrow Band, or the Warren Covington Band or something else. Also, there was a gig as the James Brown Band in Montreal. That was a hoot! I might add here that the instructor I had for brass repertoire at CCM was Betty Glover, former student and wife of Ernie, with whom he worked in the Cincinnati Symphony for many years. Betty is retired and living happily in Provence, France. She too was very influential in school, and has a lengthy list of successful students.
NH: Obviously the music business has changed dramatically over the years with work for trombone players in short supply. Have you found that your teaching approach has changed because of this?
RB: I suppose not. Recognizing, or at least trying to feel, what lies ahead for my students is important, though no one really knows where things will go. As I suggested above, I have always encouraged students to pursue all types of performing opportunities. To be prepared for this, I push technique, range, articulation, etc. anything one might need to be as well rounded and prepared as possible technically. No one can really teach musicality to a student, this must come from the students themselves, by digesting all music possible and then doing something with it. I can express my own feelings, which I hope can be positive, and can show what I believe to be musical, but one’s complete life experience teaches more than one’s trombone teacher can impart. We must each put it together to meet our own unique needs. It's like my wife’s lifetime career as an elementary school teacher, where she often said that a child will learn when they are ready and not before. No matter how much a parent pushes, the child will gain the ability/knowledge for whatever it is when they are physically, emotionally, or developmentally able to handle it, or I could add, when they see the need to do so. This is definitely true with any student, at any age, no matter what you tell them as a teacher. I hope for my students that they will find satisfaction with music, but as you say, it can be unpredictable at best. The longer I live, I feel that way about most things however, so why not give music a chance to make your life worth living!
NH: You've recently released a CD of alto trombone repertoire; tell us a little about your thoughts surrounding this 'unsung hero' of the trombone family.
RB: My interest in the alto trombone began later on. I went to the Munich competition in 1974, having no idea what it was really about. One of the three required pieces was the Albrechtsberger Concerto. Though most players were performing this on the tenor trombone, I thought it might be nice to do it on alto. Well, though there were commercial instruments around, both Conn and Bach in the US, I couldn't buy one - they were scarce. The companies only made them when they got a lot of orders, then they made a batch, then forgot about it for some time, maybe a few years, until they made some more. Anyway, I bought a small bore tenor instrument, made by Beacon, a Boston name long since out of business. I took it to Bill Tottle the local repair fellow and he cut it down to Eb with the tuning on the slide. It sounded really nice but was terribly out of tune! So, I took this Eb tenor to Munich and played the Albrechtsberger on it. I'll never forget Bill Cramer, long time trombone icon and teacher at Florida State Univ. coming to me during the competition and asking me what brand of alto I had. He was hanging around with the jury and said that the jury was curious. I said with some strange pride that it was a BEACON. This response left him totally bewildered. I assume he reported to the jury, and I imagine they felt the same. Anyway, I managed to play well enough to get a prize, but it was no thanks to the awful pitch of that thing. I still have that instrument, though I never play it! I later bought a commercial instrument and again it sounded good but with poor pitch. In the last 20 years I got more serious and in the late 1990’s I found what I currently have, a Yamaha 8710K, which apparently is a Kuhn model. I find it the most balanced and satisfactory instrument I've played; very even and well in tune. I very much enjoy using it in the orchestra and for solo playing. Hence my last two recordings on alto trombone, and a much greater orchestral use, mostly for repertoire before 1850. However, it was great on Gurrelieder! One must put in the time on alto, like anything else. It can not be only a thing you pick up once in a while, with high hopes! (pardon the pun)
NH: You've completed a remarkable nine solo recordings over the years, some featuring French and American repertoire. These recordings are a fabulous reference point for college students looking for definitive performances of classic trombone literature. Tell us a little about them.....
RB: Well, I had no preconceived notion that I would do such a thing. It just seemed like a good idea. When I was a student there was little to hear in recordings by trombonists. Now, of course there are hundreds! It has become like a business card. My choice of repertoire initially represented pieces I knew, and which I felt were often played by students. That seems to still be the case. I've learned a great deal and really improved my playing in undertaking these projects. I think I will be even more devoted to American music in future recitals. We have a young and evolving culture in this country, in many ways struggling for identity, so many different influences. Performing what we have, encouraging new works, and attempting to discuss and demonstrate what we have done feels important to me. Naturally, we look to Europe for musical inspiration; the orchestra plays almost entirely European music, had its beginnings as an institution to do just that, but is searching for direction and balance to survive in our culture. At least, on an individual level, I can represent American music in all its evolving diversity and try to bring a sense of pride to what we now have, and what is to come.
On the French question, there is so much worthy 20th century repertoire for solo trombone that it was easy to assemble the material on my two CDs. This too is justifiably worth hearing and performing, and is very popular among students and professionals alike. Of course, the history of the concours pieces is so strong and worthy that students everywhere use them and will continue to do so. They are designed to be used in showing growth of a young player. I should like to think that ITA, BTS, and other trombone societies can encourage composers to provide new repertoire with actual melodies and manageable technique, to encourage younger players. It is fine to have works which show off great performers, but most players can not access these compositions, and only hear them. They admire the performers, but it stops there. The large collection of French concours works helps provide performance opportunities for these less grand players.
Music comes from everywhere, it's just that these two areas of focus (American and French) have provided the material for five of my recordings. By no means do I wish to suggest that there is not other worthy material.
NH: This is interesting Ron, I too have found that in this day and age we hear far too much 'technically based' playing, this is all well and good when looking for audience 'flash' factor but I believe music is a medium that should touch the emotions. There simply isn't enough emphasis on the importance of making music out of simple melodies. I remember my mentor, Howard Snell telling me that you can spot a fine player by simply listening to them play an eight bar melody……
RB: It seems everyone wants to know the secret……as though there is one. Such as, what is the most important aspect of playing? Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? After some thought, I often respond ‘a lovely sound’. You know, I think maybe that’s true. You can make someone truly melt with a beautiful sound when all the notes in the world mean little. There was a great contest in 1879 between Jules Levy and Matthew Arbuckle, who both were cornet soloists for Patrick Gilmore. Levy was billed as the ‘greatest cornetist in the world’ and Arbuckle as the ‘great favorite American cornet player’. Gilmore, ever the showman, loved pitting the two against each other until he actually did just that, by having both featured on the same concerts. The fans of each would applaud their guy and boo the other. Levy’s technique was impeccable and Arbuckle’s lyric beauty was unmatched. How could one decide? Clearly each camp had their star. As they say, you can’t please all the people all the time, but I must agree with you and Arbuckle, that a beautiful melody can make life as meaningful as all those brilliant notes anytime.
NH: Going back to French repertoire, I hear you've recently uncovered a hand written copy of the Saint Saens Cavatine, signed by the composer himself. This sounds really interesting, how did you get hold this?
RB: You've asked a ‘very big’ question here. What I have is the only copy of the Cavatine made by Saint-Saens before giving it to Durand to publish. He sent it to its dedicatee George W. Stewart, the director of music at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. Stewart had hired Saint-Saens to attend the fair, compose the official piece, conduct concerts of his own works, and generally be important. He did this, and in late July, early August 1915 sent a thank you note to Stewart; the Cavatine. The copy I have was given to me by a friend here in Boston who had bought it from a cut out bin on the street at a local (long gone) music store in 1952. He had it for 53 years! It is signed by Saint-Saens, and there is correspondence regarding its existence between Saint-Saens, Stewart, and Durand. This is all leading to a book; “Saint-Saens, Stewart, and the BSO”. Stewart was an original member of the Boston Symphony trombone section in 1881. Because of WWI, he engaged the Boston Symphony to come to the San Francisco fair in 1915, where Saint-Saens heard them during their two week engagement. So, all the pieces have come together for a most intriguing story, which I have been researching for three years. It is now time to write! This is at the top of the list of things to do after I leave the orchestra. So, I hope to eventually have a book for sale, which I hope will be of interest to trombonists as well as others.
NH: Wow, this sounds fantastic. You must keep us up to date with the book, I'm sure it will be a wonderful read.
There must have been so many highlights of your time with the BSO. Asking you to pick just one is probably an impossibility. However, what would you rank as your greatest musical memory or achievement throughout your time in the BSO?
RB: You're quite correct to say that picking one is nearly impossible. I suppose one wonderful memory would involve the Dvorak Cello Concerto. I have an LP of this with Rostropovich and the Berlin Phil., done in the 1960’s. I listened to this over and over when I was in college, and was taken in by the beauty, power, and joy of the piece and the performers. Then, 20 years later, I had the unbelievable joy to record this with Rostropovich, and the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall. Such a long life connection was very emotional for me. I think this performance is even better than my old LP! It's not easy to have events later in life surpass the impressionable nostalgia of youthful formative influences. Then, perhaps five or so years ago, at Tanglewood, Rostropovich was again working with us, maybe it was even again Dvorak, I'm not sure, but I did go to him and tell my story. That it had been so important to me, I think that made it meaningful to him as well. He was very gracious in thanking me, and I felt complete in that I had found the chance to share this with him. He was a great artist! His death in 2006 was very sad for us all.
NH: One of the great things about the BSO is the fact that you've had such a stable trombone section over the years. You have some wonderful musicians in the bone section; Norman, Doug etc How long have you all been together?
RB: Norman joined the orchestra in 1975 and Doug Yeo joined as Bass Trombonist in 1985. We have an unspoken understanding. It will be hard on Doug to lose both of us this year. It just seems that the time is right. Norman and I have many years of musical energy remaining and I think I can speak for him as well in saying that we wanted to spend more of it outside the business demands of the orchestral schedule. I have more respect for the music than ever, I'm just not interested in performing those same works again and again, wonderful as they are.
NH: I notice you've recently changed allegiance from Conn to Edwards. Being a 'Conn' man for so many years, what made you make the change and how has it affected the overall sound and musical approach of the section?
RB: It would be perhaps difficult to say for sure how this has changed the whole section, but my Edwards instrument gives me some of the same lyric beauty my old Conn had, adding stability and strength necessary for the bigger orchestral repertoire. I made this change ten years ago after many years of playing both Conn and Bach interchangeably in the orchestra. Norman and I both played our Conn 88H’s to begin our careers. I started with it in 1963. He now plays a Shires and I feel the combination works well. We will always remember our Conns and use them for certain things. They are wonderful instruments for singing beauty. Having moved to the Edwards, I find the 88H lean and limited when I return to it. It does not project or center as well. It is hard to say how I might use both instruments when I do not have to think about the orchestra. We will see.
NH: I also hear that you have been kept busy with your other interest, your Bed and Breakfast business. How do you find time to keep this running as well as keeping the hot seat in the BSO?
RB: My wife and I have been doing our B&B business for 22 summers. For now, we'll continue. We have a substantial investment in the property, and I know will enjoy continuing the relationships we have cultivated over this time. We might expand the time frame of operations to the shoulder seasons of summer, but what success this might bring remains unsure. Until now, the summers have been action packed!! Between the B&B, the orchestra, the Tanglewood Music Center, and practicing, (sometimes very little) life has been too hectic. This will be a major change with orchestra retirement.
NH: I'm sure you're not going to be twiddling your thumbs after your retirement. Do you have any plans?
RB: Well, as I said, the book is on the front of the agenda. Our B&B might expand, come see us!! My interest in wine has led to some certification in the field, and I might find some type of employment there. Not sure yet. Additionally, I do hope to rekindle the kind of recital/master class activity, which I enjoyed some years ago. In 1996/97, I had the pleasure to visit all over the USA, England, the continent, and Japan to perform recitals, work with students and teachers and feel quite enriched doing so. I do not know how many places might welcome a return engagement but I am ready and willing. As I suggested earlier, there are years of energy remaining, and new experiences are essential for everyone, even after 40 years in the orchestra.
NH: I'm sure after people have read this article the 'phone will definitely start to ring! It's been a real pleasure talking to you and hearing about your life Ron, you've been a true inspiration for many a trombone player and I wish you all the best with your future musical activities.