Meet the Musician: Assistant Principal Trombonist Douglas F. Rosenthal

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Where did you grow up? Did you come from a musical family?

I'm a Chicago native. Well, a Chicagoland native. The suburb of Northbrook, to be exact. 

I didn't have a musical family per se, although my mom deserves an "A for Effort" on singing the harmony in "Happy Birthday." And my dad is taking piano lessons in his retirement. My two siblings and I all had piano lessons growing up with our family-friend Mrs. Mueller, and we all participated in the bands, orchestras, and choirs of the public schools.

Even though I'm the only one who continued professionally, the K-12 music teachers we had access to were incredible to all of us. They taught us more than just how to play music, although they did that wonderfully. We learned what it means to be diligent, resourceful and creative. And punctual. And that wearing navy blue socks isn't acceptable when the dress code calls for black socks. Also, all three of us are pretty good in front a crowd.

What is your position in the orchestra and when did you join?

September 4, 2012 marked my first rehearsal as the orchestra's Assistant Principal Trombone. In this position, my job is to have both the 1st and 2nd Trombone parts performance-ready at any moment. The bulk of my work is done playing 2nd Trombone, but when our Principal (Lee Rogers) is absent, I move up to 1st Trombone. 

The responsibilities when I play the 1st Trombone part include leading the Low Brass Section (usually 3 trombones and 1 tuba), which most often actually means coordinating the section with what the rest of the orchestra is doing musically. Aspects such as volume, style, rhythm, and intonation are included here. When I'm playing 2nd Trombone, I  mostly rely on the 1st Trombone for these things. 

What has been your most memorable musical experience at the KCOHO?

Without a doubt, our epic 2016 Ring Cycle takes the cake. (The Ring Cycle is the series of four operas by Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung.) 

The music in these operas is exactly what drew me into classical music in the first place. It's also what ultimately drew me to join an opera orchestra. It has all the adjectives: It's expressive, emotional, glorious, haunting, beautiful, monumental, profound, sinister, light-hearted, hair-raising, tear-jerking, breath-taking...The Ring has a fascinating storyline, too. Rooted in Norse Mythology (think "Lord of the Rings"), the actions and fate of each character mirror an aspect of any human's life experience.  

It's more than just a privilege to play the music of Richard Wagner. It's vital to present our audience with some of the most transformative art ever created in the Western Hemisphere. Personally, the Ring Cycle also gave me artistic opportunities that I think we'll get to in a couple questions... But for now, suffice it to say that it was an honor to play for WNO's Ring. Brilliant people from every corner of our company showed our audience what happens when we dream big.

What made you decide to play the trombone and where did you do your musical studies?

My first band instrument was the euphonium (think "small tuba"). In grade school when we could choose an instrument, I wanted to play the trumpet just like one of the animals in Disney's "The Jungle Book"; the euphonium was a better fit. As I progressed, I wanted to play in jazz band and orchestra. There weren't euphonium parts in those groups, but there were trombone parts. So, I evolved into a trombone player by the time I was in high school. (The trombone and euphonium are very similar. The mouthpiece size is the same, and each valve combination on the euphonium corresponds to a trombone slide position.) 

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Actually, a fun KCOHO fact: All three KCOHO trombonists began on euphonium!

So many people can pinpoint an exact moment in their lives as "that moment" when they knew they had to follow their dreams. As for me, I just didn't want to stop playing, and thankfully no one told me to stop playing. So, I kept going. I went to Northwestern University for my Bachelor of Music, studying with Chicago Symphony trombonist Michael Mulcahy as well as Charlie Vernon (Chicago Symphony), Randy Hawes (Detroit Symphony), and Peter Ellefson (formerly Seattle Symphony).

Civic trombone section with Kent Nagano

Civic trombone section with Kent Nagano

While at Northwestern, I began a two-year position with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. This was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's training orchestra, meaning that our coaches and the conductors we worked with came from the CSO. I then went on to a fellowship at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. New World simulated a professional orchestra's work schedule, and they also brought in professionals from all over the world to coach us, prepare us for orchestra auditions, and teach us about all the different corners of the industry. This included everything from connecting with patrons to union membership to public speaking. 

You have become a bass trumpet specialist. Tell us about that!

Yes! The bass trumpet was actually the first instrument I ever played at Carnegie Hall. Nine years ago, I was 2nd Bass Trumpet in Leos Janacek's "Sinfonietta" with the Chicago Symphony.

But going back to the Ring Cycle, as promised...

One of the most prominent voices from the Ring Orchestra is from an instrument called the bass trumpet. It is just like the trumpet we all know and love, but it contains twice the length of brass tubing. Because of this, it plays an octave lower than the trumpet, which puts it in trombone territory. Its mouthpiece is also very close in size to a trombone mouthpiece. So, the bass trumpet is played by trombone players; in our 2016 Ring, I was the one who played. (My early years on the euphonium continue to prove so helpful in playing valved instruments!)

Originally a military band instrument, Wagner brought it into the orchestra as a "bridge" between the trumpet and trombone sections. But he also wrote solo after solo after solo for the bass trumpet, often placing it with different sections of the orchestra. During a Die Walküre rehearsal, a friend of mine once told me, "You're like a penguin on your own little iceberg, aren't you. Sometimes you drift over and play with the horns, sometimes you go over and play with the trombones, or the trumpets, or the woodwinds...but at the end of the day, you're all alone on that iceberg." Truth!

Doug with his new bass trumpet in Bremen, Germany

Doug with his new bass trumpet in Bremen, Germany

It's a rare instrument, and there are a lot of less-than-ideal bass trumpets out there. I wanted to do it right. After doing my research, I decided to purchase from a brass maker in Bremen, Germany named Thein-Brass. I could have ordered it and had it shipped, but I felt it was best to make a fun Euro-trip out of it. The great thing about going to the source is they were able to make a couple small tweaks to customize the instrument to the way I play. 

(It was a fun trip too! KCOHO Principal Bassoonist Joey Grimmer is very helpful with figuring out an itinerary, word to the wise.)

Our WNO Ring has led to some other opportunities to play the bass trumpet elsewhere. Productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre with my hometown opera company, the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Die Walküre with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Leos Janacek's "Sinfonietta" with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony. "The Rite of Spring" with the Colorado Symphony. And this summer, I'm looking forward to joining our friends at the National Symphony for a performance of Ring Cycle highlights at Wolf Trap. 

I never expected to be doing all this with such a rarely-seen instrument, but like a Valkyrie on her way up to Valhalla, I'm embracing the ride!

When you are not playing trombone or trumpet, what do you like to do? 

Force-cuddling with my pug Jake is definitely top of this list. He's been my roommate, bedfellow, and travel companion for five years now. He sleeps 25 hours a day, and he brings a very low-key energy into my apartment. He balances out my crazy.

Doug with his pug Jake

Doug with his pug Jake

Since moving to DC, I've become very interested in Labor. I'm involved with the internal affairs of the orchestra, and I'm also on the Executive Board of the Musicians Union. (AFM Local 161-710) Through this, I am a delegate to our local chapter of the AFL-CIO and a local organization called DC Jobs with Justice. This is a lot of alphabet soup to say that in addition to playing music, I am passionate about workers rights. After all, the way people are paid and treated in the workplace are a reflection of gender issues, race issues, LGBTQ issues...all types of human rights issues. There's always something to march for in DC!

Moving back to music, I also author a monthly blog called "Who's Your Audience?", which investigates the Art and Industry of Classical Music. And I teach! Private lessons as well as serving on the faculty of Levine Music, a local music center that serves all ages.

Outside of (Congresswoman) Eleanor Holmes Norton's office after meeting with her staff

Outside of (Congresswoman) Eleanor Holmes Norton's office after meeting with her staff

Aside from all of this, I'm incredibly interested in US History and Government. I am on a quest to tour every state's legislature (I'm only at 15...), and I love anything presidential. In fact, I just got back from a getaway to Central Virginia, which holds not only Thomas Jefferson's Monticello but also James Madison's Montpelier and James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland. (True, I was more down there for the wineries...but I had to do something before noon!) I'm a descendent of Ulysses S. Grant, so I'm on a constant look-out for all things Grant. This made performing in the WNO production of Philip Glass's opera Appomattox especially thrilling!

With Nancy Pelosi at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015

With Nancy Pelosi at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015