Artist Interview: David Bilger, trumpet

By Erik Petersons on September 29, 2018

Our 33rd Season opens with a musician whose sound is familiar to many in Philadelphia—whether its the pure tones that break through in Beethoven's Leonore Overture, the triumph of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, or the lilt of Gershwin's An American in Paris. David Bilger's trumpet playing has supported the Philadelphia Orchestra, and risen high above it, for over 20 years. But for his appearance with the Chamber Music Society, he chose some of his closest colleagues for music that is rarely heard. We spoke with him about his program entitled "Trumpets 5, Music of Our Time", his philosophy on teaching, and his favorite spot for lunch.

Erik Petersons: For your program on October 15th, you’re being joined by Thomas Rolfs, the principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony, and three other colleagues. What is your relationship to each of these artists and what inspired this concert with them?

David Bilger: Thomas Rolfs and I first met four summers ago to record a Gabrieli CD with the National Brass Ensemble, and from the first sounds I heard from his bell, I knew I wanted to do a recital with him. He is one of the most interesting trumpet artists out there. This is our first opportunity to do a project like this together, and the idea is exciting to both of us. When we started discussing the program, we wanted to include some larger pieces for multiple trumpets, and it made sense to pull in some of our colleagues. Jeff Curnow and I have been making music together for almost 35 years, and I am a big fan of the personality he brings to the instrument. Tony Prisk and Ben Wright have identical positions in the trumpet sections in Philadelphia and Boston. Playing second trumpet is a surprisingly difficult job, and they are both masters. Coincidentally, both Thomas and I coached Tony and Ben when they were young musicians. It seemed like a perfect idea to bring the five of us together, along with Susan Nowicki. Susan and I have played recitals together, and she is an extraordinary pianist, with a unique voice on contemporary music. Since all of the music on this program was written after World War II, she was an especially good choice.

EP: Do you have a favorite work on the program? Are there any connections between the works that the audience can listen for?

DB: The program is designed to show off the musical diversity of the trumpet. We will also use the concert space to highlight the antiphonal possibilities. While I believe strongly in every piece on the program, of course there are some favorites. The second half of the program features three works by Sofia Gubaidulina. They were all written within a year of one another and couldn’t be more different. Her Trio for 3 Trumpets is a tour de force and is my favorite work for multiple trumpets. The program will end with a new work that Thomas and I commissioned from recent Curtis Institute of Music graduate, Steven Franklin. It is a beautifully lyrical work that adds an important voice to the repertoire for five trumpets. I’m looking forward to sharing that work with the audience.

EP: What is your practice routine like and where do you go for inspiration as an artist?

DB: My practice routine is incredibly boring. I practice all the technical basics—scales, arpeggios, articulation, flexibility, and agility—all the building blocks of good trumpet playing. Inspiration comes from several sources, which I call the 3 C’s: colleagues, composers, and conductors. Playing incredible music with accomplished and thoughtful colleagues makes every experience fresh and every concert special. That’s what this program is about!

EP: In addition to your positions at Curtis and Temple University, you have created online trumpet lessons through ArtistWorks and Play With a Pro to share techniques, musical exercises, and advice that has helped you over the years. What things do you find are important to pass onto students who are still finding their own voice and aiming for a career as a trumpet player?

DB: I want to point out that in addition to the Curtis Institute and Temple University, I have just started teaching at Northwestern University as well, and share some of the teaching load with Thomas Rolfs. But to get to your question, I feel as if my teaching is a life-changing endeavor, both for the student and teacher. I take advantage of the trumpet studio setting to teach not only music and the trumpet, but also life lessons. I make every effort to be a mentor that helps the student to understand what is important in music and also in their lives. Obviously I want to stress the technical proficiency on the instrument, for without that basis there is no ability to bring the music alive. Beyond technique, I want my students to hear music in a holistic way and to find the connections between the trumpet and the other instruments of the orchestra. I want them to try to channel the thoughts of the composer in a way that blends the composer’s intentions with their own musical ideas. And I want my students to understand their place in the world, both as artists and people. If I’m doing my job well, they will see how to touch people with music and find ways to connect with their communities outside of music.

EP: You are a Yamaha Performing Artist and a couple of years ago, they collaborated with you to redesign and launch the second generation of the Xeno Artist Model “New York” series Bb and C trumpets. What are some of its unique characteristics and what changes did you have a part in making?

DB: I had the incredible opportunity to be the Artist/Developer on the new line of Yamaha trumpets. Their team (in Japan and in the US) is made up of real geniuses in trumpet design, and they brought me on board to test the new designs and provide feedback. I think the biggest changes that came about because of my feedback have to do with the sound of the instrument. I felt the earlier designs produced a horn that played well, but that needed more sound colors on the timbral palette. I wanted a trumpet that I could color to be both beautiful and bold. With that idea in mind, the Yamaha team was able to come up with a design that does everything I could want in a trumpet.

EP: What is your favorite spot in Center City for lunch?

DB: My restaurant choices for lunch tend to be close to the Kimmel Center, and my go-to favorite is Parc.

David Bilger performs with Thomas Rolfs, Jeffrey Curnow, Anthony Prisk, Benjamin Wright, and pianist Susan Nowicki on Monday, October 15th, at 7:30 pm at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit his concert page. For more information about Mr. Bilger, visit his website.