Wednesday, September 30, 2009 “Tage Larsen, the Chicago Symphony’s Groundbreaking Trumpeter Talks to Sergio Mims”

[Tage Larsen (Photo from]

Sergio Mims is an African American host of a classical music program on WHPK-FM 88.5 in Chicago. He writes: “Hey Folks! Here's my interview with Tage Larsen, the first African American member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Let me know what you think of it. Front page: Larsen interview: Sergio"
By Sergio A. Mims
Refreshingly honest, passionate and extraordinary talented, trumpeter and Massachusetts native Tage Larsen made history when he became, in 2002, the first African American member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, acclaimed as one of the greatest, most prestigious orchestras in the world (with the legendary conductor Ricardo Muti, formally the music director of the La Scala Opera House, to become the CSO’s music director in the 2010/11 season).
Larsen, who previously was principal trumpet with the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra and second trumpet with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, is one of the very talented few musicians to become a member of a prestigious major orchestra with an unrivaled international reputation performing under major conductorsaround the world.

Recently Ebony had an opportunity to talk to Tage about his background, how he got into classical music and how hard work pays off big dividends.Why classical music instead the perhaps more expected genres, like jazz, hip-hop, R & B?
Well with classical music - it sounds a little bit strange - but it’s like defining yourself into the box as tightly as possible. Haydn, Mozart -- the music is so refined and there’s something about that. All the corners are rounded off in trying to achieve this sense of order and texture. I was really drawn into that dimension.
Well that brings up the point that if you’re thinking about a career in classical music, the major thing is that you’ve got to be really, really good, a virtuoso. You don’t make it by being passable or just good enough. It’s not about superficial packaging, which in other musical genres is enough to get by.
You have to be good and you have to be really interested in the craft. To achieve a high level you have to make it a personal journey. You have to be willing to sacrifice, to get better at it. With a pop Artist, you might make it big and get that hit and make millions of dollars, but in classical music there’s no such reward.
You might get a regular Sunday church-playing gig, but who knows?
There’s no guarantee.
Of course there are opera singers and concert performers who do extremely well but nothing like what say a hip-hop artist could do. You have to do it for the love of it. And that’s one of the things that drove me to it. For whatever reason I love the idea that you can strive to perfect your craft and work to achieve that goal.
You were once quoted that when you were struggling, trying to perfect your playing and but facing endless rejection trying to find an orchestral position that you said to yourself: “I can’t do this anymore. This is crazy.” What kept you going?
The love of it! I remember coming to Chicago to audition for the orchestra for the second or third time… actually there were auditions for two positions, one at the Lyric Opera and the other at the Chicago Symphony within weeks of one another. For the symphony I was in the semi-finals but I didn’t get either job and I remember after those auditions I thought I can’t do this anymore. I was driving back in my car and was so despondent I cut off the car radio. I didn’t want to hear it anymore. And then a couple of days later after getting past the disappointment…it was just the love! The love!
The idea of playing in an orchestra, performing such great wonderful music, the idea of working hard and to keep practicing made me stronger and kept me going and working at it.
I read that another influence on your love of classical music is when your father gave you a recording of Jean Sibelius' Second Symphony. What was it about that work?
The big brass fanfares, the melodies, the transforming power of it is what really drew me to it.
And what performers inspire you?
Wynton Marsalis without question. I’m always all the time checking out what he’s performing, what he’s writing about. Performers like that, performers like Wynton, Daniel Barenboim (former musical director of the CSO, now the music director of the Berlin Staatskapelle and Berlin State Opera and principal guest conductor at La Scala Opera), David McGill who’s the principal bassoonist for the CSO - they’re geniuses, artists like that have this infinite amount of… fire! Not only are they unbelievable at their craft and performance, but also in so many interested in the way music is transforming can change lives. I think we underestimate the power of music and the arts and really how important it is.
I have to ask did you, when you were younger, experience any peer pressure and criticism about your interest in classical music? You know that you’re “acting white?”
Right, right (laughs). Well I was very fortunate in the sense that I come from a multi-ethnic background so I was able to just walk along from going from middle school to high school. There was a little bit of that but it was so easy for me because in my family situation it didn’t affect me so much. I was able to concentrate on the quality of everything and not get so much into why.
What was the progression going from a music student to the Chicago Symphony?
I went to Michigan State for my undergrad and Eastman School of Music for my masters and then after that I was in the U.S. Marine Band playing for the President for four years and then to the St Louis Orchestra for two years and then the Chicago Symphony. But there was always the drive, the desire to be involved in music.
But when you decided to try out for the Chicago Symphony we’re talking the big leagues now. Any apprehension or second thoughts about trying out?
Well that’s really funny because when you’re young there is always that sort of apprehension. Am I ready? Am I good enough? Can I make it? But it was this particular experience where I realized I had a chance. I tried out for an audition for the New York Philharmonic in 1994, but I didn’t get anywhere. Then I got a call from the Philharmonic’s personnel manager. He called me after my audition and said well you didn’t advance but we have program for minorities to try out for positions, but I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the idea of getting preferential treatment. But I asked him would it be possible to come in and listen to the regular auditions, just sit in the back of the hall and observe the auditions. So I did and I heard them play and I said to myself “I can do this”. Maybe I’m not there yet, but if I work hard I might have a chance. So it was that experience that made me say if I keep working hard, who knows, maybe one day. [
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