In 2019, the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus co-commissioned a concerto for trumpet and orchestra from Juno-winning composer Vivan Fung, who wrote the piece for trumpet soloist Mary Elizabeth Bowden. But did you know it’s the first-ever concerto by a North American woman composer written for a woman trumpet soloist, and that it’s coming to town? SFR caught up with Bowden to learn more about her path, the trumpet and what it’s like to have a piece written just for you.
SFR: I think there’s one burning question likely to be on everyone’s minds—were you ever in a ska band?
Mary Elizabeth Bowden: I was never in a ska band.
Ha! Still, when we think classical music, we tend to envision strings. Is yours a common path for a trumpet player?
I think a common path is the orchestral route. The role I’m playing as the soloist is less common than seeing a piano soloist or violin, but trumpet is becoming a more popular classical solo instrument. I’m seeing a lot of new works being commissioned, including [Fung’s], and I think the trumpet is a very versatile instrument that can do so many different things with colors of sound.
Was classical music the organic path on which you found yourself, or was it something you specifically wanted?
I started off in the band program when I was 10 years old, and my brothers were also brass players. I didn’t know anything about classical music before then. I mean, we listened to a little bit of it, but I hadn’t studied or thought I’d be a musician. Our first teacher, who was a horn player, would take my brothers and I around the Chicagoland area to hear concerts, and a lot of those were the Chicago Symphony. The three of us fell in love with classical music, especially my older brother. He really helped me open my ears to understand what I was listening to in a symphony and its structure. It was nice to have this journey when we were young. I also married a trumpet player, David Dash, who plays in the summer in the Santa Fe Opera. I have a long connection with Santa Fe being a summer home. I’m often traveling, but last summer, because of the pandemic, I was able to fill in as a full-time trumpet player in the opera orchestra.
Do you incorporate other aspects into your playing? The freeform aspects of jazz or the bouncy feeling of ska (and that’s the last time I’ll ask about ska)?
My artistic freedom comes from interpreting what’s on the page and making the music exciting. How softly the trumpet can play? How delicately? There are a lot of colors on the palette, but people associate it with too-loud and too-bright. There’s so much more that it has to offer. Vivian’s piece is extraordinary because she gets into dance elements; there’s a hip-hop section, a lot of rhythmic patterns. And contrasting that, I’ll be playing a Haydn concerto, which is a very old piece, so we’re showing the old and the new.
What does it feel like to have a piece written specifically for you?
It’s important to have new works created and to have them celebrated and performed. I’m really hoping it becomes part of the standard repertoire. We’re working on a piano reduction so more people can have it if they want it, and I definitely want it to outlive me. There’s a lot out there for trumpet, but not as much as for violin, piano and strings, so adding more to the repertoire is really important to me. I want to showcase women composers and composers from different backgrounds. My next album, which will be out in 2024, will also include new works for trumpet.
Horn players can also be incredible singers. Do you sing as well?
No. Singing is important when I practice, but I don’t think anyone would want to hear me sing in public beyond karaoke.
Do you have a piece of advice for budding horn players or something you wish you knew when you were first courting the idea of heading to the majors?
I teach at a conservatory as well and have a lot of students, so I think about young students and what benefits them in a music program. Regardless of whether people go into music as a career, I think having that work ethic is really helpful. When you play an instrument as a kid, you have to practice and create a routine and become a creative thinker, so you learn problem solving skills that are easily transferred into other parts of life. There are a lot of hours spent in practice rooms, and that process of learning never ends. It’s daily, and there are always more things to uncover and discover about improving and developing your skills. This is why I’m drawn to practicing the trumpet. There’s no endgame.
I heard you once got injured by a Frisbee in Santa Fe?
I did. That was about 10 years ago, and it hit my upper lip, which was all black and blue. So, my solo path started in late 20s, which is too old for most competitions, but I made finals for this one competition, spent the summer practicing and really getting ready for that, and then Fhe frisbee thing happened, it was a month or so before the competition. It was really difficult at the time and heartbreaking, but I learned how to get through it and did some tweaks and overcame it. I believe I became a lot stronger because of that, I feel I’m a much better teacher because of that experience. Again, it’s all about problem solving. I don’t think you need a competition win to have a solo career. I will say that whenever I’m at the beach and someone is throwing a Frisbee around, I walk away.
Mozart, Haydn, Glinka Fung: 4 pm Sunday, Jan. 16. $22-$80. Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W San Francisco St., (505) 988-1234