Music Director Peter Oundjian Interviews Principal Trumpet Jeff Work

September 9, 2022

(photo: Principal Trumpet Jeff Work [third from left] during a Colorado Music Festival performance)

Music Director Peter Oundjian sat down with Colorado Music Festival Principal Trumpet Jeff Work to discuss his career path, a few of his favorite music venues, what it feels like to record music over Zoom, and more.

Watch the interview or read the full transcription below. [Recorded in 2020.]

How Jeff Chose the Trumpet

Peter Oundjian: Hello, everybody, and welcome to a little time with Jeff Work, our Principal Trumpet player with the Colorado [Music] Festival Orchestra for the last several years. Hi, Jeff.

Jeff Work: Hello, Peter.

Peter: Nice to see you. So I always like to start off by asking, how did it happen? You started playing the trumpet. Why the trumpet? How old were you? And all that kind of stuff?

Jeff: Well, I guess I was approaching nine years of age. Middle of fourth grade, or I guess early in fourth grade, we had an assembly at elementary school to meet the instruments. And when I was child, my father always used to say to me while records were playing on the turntable, “Hear the trumpets, Jeff? Hear the trumpets?” I would say, “Yeah, Dad, I hear the trumpets.” And perhaps when we had that “meet the instruments” assembly in elementary school, the trumpet just popped into my head for whatever reason. I’ll tell you, we were very lucky though. The guy who was doing the demo was a trumpet player and the elementary music teacher, so he was a terrific guy, turned out to be a great first teacher for me. 

Peter: That’s always so fortunate. And where were you living at that point?

Jeff: Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

Peter: Beautiful place.

Jeff: Outside of Manhattan. Yes. And this gentleman had a career as a Broadway trumpet player and just happened to teach on the side at this elementary school. And I’ve had a million strokes of luck in my career, but that was the initial stroke of luck, was to get a great first teacher who really knew what he was doing and someone with whom I got along very well.

Peter: Wonderful. And how long did he teach you?

Jeff: One year. Just one year. And then my father’s job moved to the Washington D.C. area, and he told my parents, “You get this kid a good teacher. He’s good.” And we were very fortunate that I ended up with a terrific teacher in the D.C. area, a guy named Sergeant Major Robert Ferguson. He was the Sergeant Major of the United States Army Band, as he always used to like to qualify. 

Peter: And did you stay with him for several years, like throughout high school?

Jeff: Yes. When I reached my senior year in high school, he said, “I’m kicking you out. You need to study with someone in the orchestra world for a year before you go off to conservatory.” But fifth grade through and including 11th grade were with this Sergeant Major from the United States Army Band, Bob Ferguson.

Peter: So you must be very grateful to him.

Jeff: Oh my goodness, yeah. And we were a great fit interpersonally as well. He had a great sense of humor and really knew how to handle me well, I think, and usher me along on my journey.

Peter: Interesting. Because most of us, I think, go through a period when we’re like maybe 15, 16, where we start to rebel against the instrument. I mean, especially if you play the violin, it’s not terribly cool. Maybe the trumpet is a cooler instrument. But did you go through any kind of stage like that?

Jeff: Not really, and that’s not to say that being in band was ever cool in the eyes of the “cool crowd,” let’s call them. But I went to Interlochen summer music camp three summers when I was a kid, from following my sophomore year through following my senior year of high school, and that was really—

Peter: Great place. Great place. Way up in Michigan, right?

Jeff: Yes. In the lower part of Michigan, meaning the part that looks like a hand, but yes, otherwise way up in Michigan. Beautiful country. And that gave me the opportunity to meet people who got me and who I got. And when I went back to high school, I thought, “Wow, those people from the summer, they’re my people.”

Peter: It’s interesting. In a way, you knew that professional musician was the way you were going to go at that point.

Jeff: Yeah, it really kind of brought it home to me. You get to play with a really fantastic orchestra. I had a good youth symphony, but this was sort of a nationwide, “wow” youth symphony.

Peter: Interlochen’s a phenomenal place, absolutely. So what about college? Where did you go after that, after high school?

Not Exactly College

Jeff: Well, I went to Not Exactly College. The New England Conservatory, NEC, which we called Not Exactly College.

Peter: Oh, that’s very funny. Never heard that in my entire life, although I know that place so well. Beautiful, great conservatory.

Jeff: So I got my bachelor’s degree there, loved it, and then went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and studied with my teacher’s predecessor.

Peter: How nice. Here’s a question for you, because New England Conservatory has one of the most beautiful halls in it. It’s not a very large hall, but it is Jordan Hall. It has possibly the most beautiful sound of any hall I can think of in America. What would you say? A thousand seats? 900 seats?

Jeff: I’d give it 1,200 even. 

New England Conservatory - Jordan Hall

Peter: 1,200 maybe? Okay. Smaller than any symphony orchestra plays in, but okay. So I’m going to give you a compliment now, because you have a very beautiful sound, a sound that carries but is not harsh. And I’m curious as to whether you feel that playing for four years in Jordan Hall quite frequently was an attribute for you.

Jeff: Well let me say, I revere Jordan Hall with an almost religious fervor, and I feel I grew up in that place. That said, I’m not sure if it was a product of playing in Jordan Hall or a product of the person with whom I studied. Because the Principal Trumpet of the Boston Symphony at that time was a man named Charlie Schlueter, and Charlie had a very rich, velvety sound, and his soft playing… People knew him as a loud player and could really raise the roof, but it always astounded me to hear his soft playing. And so I tried to take from him the desire to project a really nice sound that doesn’t peel paint, if that makes sense. Hopefully that makes sense to what you hear from the podium.

Peter: Absolutely. And interestingly, of course, right across the street from Jordan Hall is Boston Symphony Hall, or more or less across the street. And I mean, another of the greatest halls, I don’t know, something over 2,000 [seats], but a hall in which you never have to force, right? The sound is so resonant and beautiful in that hall.

Jeff: And you know, Boston even had what was apparently one of the great small opera houses on the planet until it fell into disrepair and then fell to the ground to make way for a building on the Northeastern University campus. It was similarly a block away from Jordan Hall in the other direction.

Peter: Incredible. What year did that cease to exist?

Jeff: I think maybe late ’60s, late 1960s, but Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, and Sanders Theatre in the Harvard University campus as well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that one or if your career as a chamber musician took you there.

Peter: No, we only played in Jordan. I didn’t know that hall. It’s very beautiful as well?

Jeff: Another sort of spherical, wooden relic from yesteryear—

Peter: Wonderful. So did you become a Red Sox fan or… Because the Nationals didn’t exist at that time—

Jeff: The Nats did not exist. And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it took me until my senior year at NEC to set foot in Fenway Park. And once I did that and saw it in person, I was hooked. 

Peter: Understandably. It’s a magical place.

Jeff: It is. And I really got hooked when I went and I moved back to Boston from Ann Arbor. So I spent six years in Ann Arbor, two of them getting a master’s degree and four of them really starting to learn the business. Starting to learn the profession, I should say, not the business, but the profession, learning how to do work.

Driving for Dollars

Peter: What were you doing professionally in those years in Michigan?

Jeff: Well, I was a freelancer. I had contracts. When I left there, I had contracts with five orchestras. And so remember, a long time ago, there was a television show called Bowling for Dollars, and it was people bowling and winning little monetary prizes. Well, we always called our careers Driving for Dollars, because we probably spent more time behind the wheels of our cars than we did the behind music stand performing.

Peter: Incredible. Did you play with… Of course there’s an Ann Arbor Symphony.

Jeff: Yep.

Peter: And then Detroit’s not that far away.

Jeff: Yeah. I never played with Detroit. I never played with Toledo. But I had contracts with Lansing, Flint, Saginaw, Battle Creek and Ann Arbor.

Peter: Incredible. So what took you back to Boston, then?

Jeff: I wanted to get back to a major city, and I applied for a program at the New England Conservatory that was sort of an artist-in-residence kind of program called Artist Diploma. I’m going to brag on myself a little bit here. I was the first trumpeter to ever be accepted into that program. They took about four people each year. And I always called it the “So, Kid, You Want to Be a Soloist” program. 

Peter: Which wasn’t your intention, in fact, but—

Jeff: Well, I had ideas about that, but no, it really wasn’t. I think I’m grateful that it didn’t come to that. I admire people like you and Peter who lived out of a suitcase for many years of your life, but I think I would have been ill-suited to that career.

Peter: I can well understand that for sure. Now before I forget, you went to the Marlboro Festival, which—

Jeff: Yeah.

Peter: Am I correct? That’s a festival that was started by Rudolf Serkin, I think, many, many decades ago—

Jeff: I think that is when we met.

Peter: Yes. And tell me about that. How did you get involved in Marlboro?

Jeff: You know, I’m not really honestly sure how I got involved in Marlboro except to answer my telephone. And the truth be told, Marlboro rarely included the trumpet except when they did the Beethoven Choral Fantasy or the Beethoven First Symphony as a season ender. And so I enjoyed the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, I think, twice, once with Maestro Goode and once with Maestro Uchida.

Peter: Uchida. Mitsuko Uchida. That’s right, two years in a row, and you were there both those years.

Jeff: I think that’s right. And I am going to struggle to remember a name, but give me a second or give me the name of the absolutely revered violin teacher at Marlboro who was not a young man.

Peter: Well, Felix Galimir, perhaps?

Jeff: Felix Galimir, yeah.

Peter: One most incredible musician and teacher, yeah.

Jeff: I had the privilege of playing two Beethoven First Symphonies with him sitting on a cello box at the concertmaster’s chair with his violin, conducting us and coaching us and playing.

Peter: Fantastic.

Jeff: And those were two of the best Beethoven ones I think I’ll ever do in my life. I was surrounded by musicians with just wonderful talent and great instruments and a love of Felix Galimir that you could just… It was dripping in the room.  

Peter: Felix Galimir, of course, was such a renowned musician, and especially as a teacher and an inspiration. He taught at the Curtis Institute. He taught at Juilliard. I played for him every opportunity I got. I mean, I probably studied with him for four or five years in a row, and I considered him always one of my most important teachers. And I think so many, I mean, literally thousands of us who went through school… And I’m so delighted to know that he even touched the trumpet section in that kind of way, because he was a very magical person. By the way, the concertmaster, I just remembered, for one of those was Frank Huang, young Frank Huang, who now is the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic.

Jeff: There you go.

Peter: He was probably 22 at that time or something like that. I can remember, so… Well, good old days. So what happened? How long were you in Boston, and what were you up to in Boston?

Jeff: Well, I was in Boston [for] 13 years. Again, basically the two first two years were as a student, but also as a freelancer, because the Artist Diploma program… I used to joke that my main job was to walk around the New England Conservatory looking like I was thinking I was really cool and important and play recitals in Jordan Hall. Speaking of Jordan Hall, I got to do a recital each year in Jordan Hall. And for the two years of my Artist Diploma, I played in there nine times as a soloist, which was amazing. But it was basically a freelance career until I won my job with the Oregon Symphony. 

Peter: What year was that, about?

Jeff: That was 2006. I won the job during 2005 and then took it the following fall. So it was a Halloween weekend audition, which was very strange. In Portland, Oregon, Halloween is a kind of bizarre holiday, shall we say.

Peter: I see. And who was the music director of the orchestra when you were hired?

Jeff: Carlos Kalmer.

Peter: Already at that time?

Joining the Colorado Music Festival

Jeff: Yes. Yes, he was indeed the music director, but my… I have to backtrack, though, because I want to say what the real beginning of my orchestral career was. It was when Giora Bernstein hired me to play the Colorado Music Festival.

Peter: Oh, so that preceded your appointment in Oregon.

Jeff: Yeah.

Peter: Okay, good. Tell us about that.

Jeff: I joined up in 1999, and it took me two auditions to win the job. I’ve always been a little fuzzy on what happened in the intervening year. But I took an audition for Giora in a hotel in New York, and he asked me if I could play the Brandenburg for him after this whole long audition. And I said, “Well, I usually practice for that one. I have a special trumpet that I play it on, and—”

Peter: “—And I don’t have it with me.”

Jeff: Yeah, and—

Peter: And the second Brandenburg is one of the most virtuosic pieces still, right?

Jeff: Yeah. I used to play that, but what happened was—

Peter: Good idea, Jeff. You’ve given me a good idea. Right. [laughs]

Jeff: But what happened was, he then asked me the next year. The Festival asked me to submit another tape recording of myself. And I thought, “Well, darn it. I played a good audition. It was 25 minutes long last year. What gives?” So I mailed them a tape of the Brandenburg and said, “Okay, that’s me playing the Brandenburg in public for money, if you’re interested.” 

And the next year I took the audition again. And I actually had to cancel my audition, because I had a sub job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was a great phone call to be able to make. And I’m sorry for sounding like such a braggart here, but I got on the phone and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t make my audition because I have to play with the Boston Symphony. Can you reschedule me?” And they put me for a day or two later, thankfully. And I went and made my case to Maestro Bernstein, and they accepted me.

And I think the personnel manager at the time was worried that I would bag [the Festival] to go sub with the Boston Symphony if they called me, and I made a promise back then that that was not going to happen, that I was the Principal Trumpet of the Colorado Music Festival. That’s that. And I stuck to that. I absolutely stuck to that. And when I did the job for that first summer, I thought to myself, “Okay, I just proved to myself that I’m worthy of this type of a job out in the world,” because the orchestra that surrounded me was fantastic, as you know.

Meeting Chautauqua Auditorium

Peter: Of course. Tell us all about your first reaction when you went to the Chautauqua, looked at it, got your trumpet out, played a few notes.

Jeff: Well, I’ll tell you first, the reaction is just looking up at the Flatirons and looking up at the building. I mean, to me Chautauqua Auditorium is one of the most quintessentially American facades that I’ve ever seen, that and the State Capitol in Massachusetts in Boston. To me, those are American buildings. They couldn’t be anywhere else. And then to walk inside there and hear all these great players warming up and hear the sound of the auditorium and realize, “Oh, this is just awesome. This is going to be great.” And then I spent the next couple of weeks just being scared out of my gourd and trying to do good work.

Peter: It seems to have gone all right, though.

Jeff: Well, yes, I was proud of what I did that summer. But I’ll tell you, when I left at the end of that summer, I was so relieved at having the knowledge that I did a good job the whole summer, the whole thing, I caught one of the worst colds I have ever had in my life. It was one of those, “Okay, you’re done now, you you can be sick” kind of colds, and I blew my nose 100 times per 100 miles on my drive home. I went through… It was terrible. It was just terrible, but it was one of those—

Peter: It’s interesting how that can happen to us. When your adrenaline is very high for weeks on end or months on end and you get home and you say, “Finally, I can relax and enjoy myself,” and the next thing you know, you’ve got a fever. It’s happened to all of us many, many times. 

Jeff: That really was a coming-of-age summer for me as a professional, because I knew I was surrounded by nobody but professionals.

Peter: Absolutely. Now, there’s been some significant evolution of the orchestra since then, but it always had wonderful qualities. And am I right in saying it attracts a sort of similar kind of musician, in a way? Do you find there’s a certain energy that people generally have in common in that orchestra?

Jeff: I think that the orchestra generates that energy. I’m not sure it’s necessarily that a certain type of person comes to the Colorado Music Festival. I think the Colorado Music Festival influences the people who come here, for the better. And we have a terrific working atmosphere. I love the fact that my trumpet colleagues and I have been together for decades by this point, I think, 18, 19 years at least as a trio of trumpets. And I have had the same roommate, the same apartment mate for all of my 21 seasons, Kirby Nunez, one of our excellent bass players. Our friend Kirby has become a lifelong friend for me because of the Colorado Music Festival. And as you know, there are also marriages that came from the Colorado Music Festival—

Peter: It’s interesting you mention that, because the relationship between the podium or the conductor and orchestral members varies from place to place. It’s very, very warm. I find the orchestra very, very warm and very collaborative. But there are certain things that almost would never happen in other situations. One of your colleagues, when you were playing Mahler 3 so beautifully, in one of the rehearsals at a break, he came over to me very, very politely and he said, “You know, I just have the feeling that in this one bar, it would be wonderful if you can keep the flow a little bit more for Jeff.” You didn’t ask me. I mean, we may have discussed various other things. And it was so lovely. It was so collegial and so helpful. And the other nice thing about it, we get to that place the next time we’re going through it, and I keep everything flowing a little bit, and I look at the said player, and there’s a nice little mutual smile. I mean, to me, that’s the magic of orchestral playing and conducting, when you have that kind of relationship, and it’s so possible with the [Colorado] Music Festival.

Jeff: Peter, I think that’s also an example of what I know you seek, which is big chamber music for an orchestra.

Peter: Absolutely. That’s the greatest orchestral playing, right?

Jeff: Yeah, the fact that you can talk amongst our colleagues about things like that and have a smile about it in subsequent moments, that to me says big chamber music, which is great. I mean, that’s what we all strive towards.

Peter: Absolutely. So now this summer [of 2020], of course, very sadly, we’re not going to be together, but I wanted to ask you a couple of things about it. First of all, we’re going to be doing some sort of virtual Zoom-y type performances, and you’re very kindly taking part, of course, in some of these things. Have you done any of these yet? And tell everybody a little bit about that experience, what it feels like.

Jeff: It’s an unusual experience. Our lives during the pandemic have been difficult. I’ll be very candid about that. Because as you know, you’re a performer, you understand that we don’t play our instruments for ourselves. I mean, we take joy in it by ourselves, but we do it for our audience, and we do it also because we love making music with others.

And so to be on a Zoom recording session where you try to fit in with others, and you’re not sitting with them, and you’re not talking with them at break and making jokes and talking about how you want to play something and being able to react to what they do is a very difficult thing. That said, I know our audience will miss us this summer [of 2020], and we want to do everything that we can to connect with them, stay connected with them, reconnect with them, and encourage them to remember us during the summer when we’re not going to have the pleasure of being together.

Peter: Yeah, well said. Yeah. I know. It’s a very fascinating thing to… You have maybe some earphones, and I could just imagine you’re playing a trumpet in a room to a microphone or even a… What we used to call a telephone, an iPhone. It’s an astonishing thing, but yet somehow we are able with technology to bring it together. It doesn’t feel the same, of course, because you’re not next to any of your colleagues.

You’re not feeding off their energy directly. But you might be feeding off their sound, because you receive their sound if you’re not one of the first ones to do it. So it’s a fascinating thing, and I’ve found when well done it’s actually very beautiful, because it also shows just how well you know each other and how sensitive you are to each other even without being next to each other. And so we’re going to do our very best, as you absolutely rightly say, to keep our connection with all of the music lovers who come to the Colorado Music Festival, and then hope very much that things will develop more quickly than we may fear.

One other thing I wanted to ask you is, I have heard that trumpet players do not emit terribly much in the way of the aerosols or droplets. Is this true? There was once an image of somebody with… There was a candle, and a trumpet player trying to blow out the candle. Tell us a little bit about this.

Jeff: You know, I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen the candle demo, and I’m quite certain that my friends and colleagues who sit in front of me might have a different take on this question. But on the downside, I will say, we trumpeters and we wind players basically sit very close to one another, and we have to lick our instruments to play them. And so that is what is guiding, I think, most of our safety-minded mentality at this time.

Peter: Well, Jeff, delightful to spend time with you. And we all love your playing, and I know that you have a lot of loyal fans out there who will have very much enjoyed getting to know you a little bit better.

Jeff: Well, you are very kind, and they are very kind. And I know because I keep in touch with my colleagues in the orchestra, we can’t wait to get back and play for all of them in person again. It really is… The rhythm of our calendar year is to come to Boulder every summer and enjoy playing for the audience, enjoy hiking in the mountains, and enjoy renewing the old friendships.

Peter: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time.

Jeff: My pleasure.

Peter: And it was delightful to chat with you. And to all of you at home, I hope you enjoyed getting to know Jeff a little bit better, and we’ll see you next time.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this interview. As a bonus, watch Jeff Work perform a special birthday greeting to Music Director Peter Oundjian “in the musical form of a turn-of-the-century coronet solo”! 

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