LA JOLLA — When virtuoso trumpeter Rolf Smedvig enters the room, he looks like the all-American boy ready to do nothing more serious than trade baseball cards. At age 33, however, Smedvig is securely ensconced in the musical major leagues.
Founding member of the globe-trotting Empire Brass Quartet, Smedvig has made the transition from musical prodigy to music professional with serene aplomb. At age 13, he made his solo debut with the Seattle Symphony; at 19 conductor Seiji Ozawa selected him over 130 other trumpeters to be the Boston Symphony's assistant principal trumpet, making him the youngest player in that most blue-blood of American symphony orchestras.
"Right now, I feel no sense of burnout," he said, "and I can't imagine giving up any part of my schedule." When he's not performing, recording, or conducting the Williamsport, Pa., Symphony, Smedvig is teaching at Boston University and Tanglewood's Berkshire Center. Not bad for a musician who was able to retire from a 10-year symphony career at 28.
Local audiences can hear Smedvig perform the Haydn E-flat Trumpet Concerto on Monday night at La Jolla's Sherwood Auditorium with the San Diego Chamber Orchestra under its resident conductor Donald Barra. The program will be repeated Tuesday night at the Fairbanks Ranch Country Club.
Only one thing perturbs this gregarious, almost impish, brass virtuoso. He resents the second-class status a trumpeter enjoys compared to the real virtuosi, the violinists and pianists.
"It annoys me a lot. Because I think trumpet playing is more difficult than playing a violin. Just blowing a brass instrument is a lot of work," he said. "Before I go on a tour, I have to go into physical training just to keep in shape. As an instrument, the trumpet is much more unpredictable, and everything depends on delicate facial muscle."
A Seattle native, Smedvig sports a convincing musical pedigree. His father, Egil Smedvig, is a music instructor and composer who studied with Darius Milhaud during the noted French composer's salad days on the Mills College faculty. "My father is not a successful composer--at least in terms of commercial success--but he's written some fabulous music," Smedvig said. "He does a lot of arrangements for my quintet."
A hard-working Norwegian-American, Egil immersed his son in music immediately. "I don't remember ever not playing the trumpet, but I do remember seriously making a record at the age of 7," Smedvig said. "I played pieces my father wrote and a couple little (Rafael) Mendez solos with my father playing piano. I never got along well enough with my father to actually sit down and have real lessons with him, though. As good as he was, he always sent me to other people to take lessons."
Despite the rather specialized following brass music has, Smedvig sees its popularity expanding. "Brass playing is like a cult," he said. "Compared to the typical symphony orchestra audience, the aficionados who enjoy brass are even a more elite group."
Smedvig's Empire Brass Quartet was one of the ensembles selected to celebrate last month's reopening of New York City's renovated Carnegie Hall.
"During the first week of programs, we gave a brass band concert, and the audience went totally nuts," he said. "The concert was sold out. We added seven principal brass players from the New York Philharmonic to play Gabrieli, Handel's 'Royal Fireworks Music' and a lot of Bernstein. The excitement level of the brass sound was like an athletic event. Massed brass brings out the animal instincts in the mildest and calmest of people."
When he is not stimulating those animal instincts, Smedvig is cultivating contemporary composers to supply him and his ensemble with new repertory.
"Most contemporary music is absolute garbage, but I have a tremendous interest in it," he said. "I have stacks of scores people have submitted. Out of every 120, there is only one that I'll actually play."
Among today's composers, Leonard Bernstein is one of Smedvig's idols. He commissioned him to write a piece for his quintet to open up a new festival in June, 1988, in Michigan with the Detroit Symphony. He's hoping his personal ties with the less than prolific composer will ensure the completed composition. Before Ozawa discovered Smedvig, Bernstein had invited the budding virtuoso to play the trumpet solo in the world premiere of his dedicatory "Mass," which opened Washington's Kennedy Center.
"British composer Peter Maxwell Davies wrote us a piece that we're going to play in England," Smedvig said. "It's so difficult, we could never play it two or three nights in a row--it physically hurts you to play it. We're going to England, where we're going to film it, record it and play it in one live performance in London's Wigmore Hall. We'll be in training two weeks before that performance."
Smedvig describes his style of trumpet playing as "definitely American, which is the best in the world. It's a very open, warm, projecting sound that has various tone colors, not just a loud, brassy sound that many foreign players tend to have. It's not as small or compact a sound as the French school associated with Maurice Andre."
Surprisingly, the instrument he tries to emulate is the cello.
"I love the sound of the cello," he said. "I'm not into a small, thin sound--I like to get a darker, warmer sound with this little piece of brass. That's not an easy thing to do."