Two orchestras, 31 years, 11 colleagues

Two orchestras, 31 years, 11 colleagues

I’ve written many articles for many journals and magazines, but I’ve written the most for the International Trombone Association Journal. I joined the Association in 1973 during its first year of existence—the ITA was incorporated in September, 1972—while I was still in high school. I honestly don’t recall how many articles I’ve written for the ITA Journal; dozens, for sure, as well as many reviews. These articles have included tributes to great players and teachers (click on the links highlighted below and you can read the articles) including Edward Kleinhammer (bass trombonist of the Chicago Symphony, 1940-1985, and my teacher during my years as a student at Wheaton College, Illinois), Keith Brown (long time trombone teacher at Indiana University, former member of the Philadelphia and Metropolitan Opera Orchestras, and my teacher during my freshman year when I was at IU), and Russell “Big Chief” Moore (an outstanding Native American jazz trombonist who played with Louis Armstrong’s “All Stars” and many other great jazz artists). Other articles have been historical in nature, such as my photo essay about trombone players in the Boston Symphony from 1887-1986, and my article about the history of the double-valve bass trombone. I’ve also done interviews with well known players such as bass trombonists David Taylor and Denson Paul Pollard.

There have also been occasions when I’ve been interviewed for articles that others have written. A few weeks ago, my friend, Megumi Kanda, principal trombonist of the Milwaukee Symphony who, along with Matt Walley, edits the ITA Journal’s Orchestral Sectional column, asked if I would join with four other low brass players in answering some questions about what it is like to work day in and day out in a symphony orchestra low brass section. Megumi asked some good questions that got me thinking about the colleagues with whom I’ve worked over the years. At this season of life, looking back at those relationships and friendships and collaborations brings back a lot of memories of the times we shared together. After I hit “send” and the answers to Megumi’s questions were on the way to her (I don’t know when they will be published in the ITA Journal but I expect it will be sometime in 2021), I decided to write this article, a tribute to the players with whom I spent so much time making music over the years.  While I no longer play full time in a major symphony orchestra—something I did for over 31 years in two orchestras—I continue to enjoy envigorating  artistic collaborations with many people. I’m not done yet! But working with these eleven players in two orchestras changed and shaped me and helped bring me to where I am today. 

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (1981-1985)

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Baltimore Symphony Orchestra trombone section, Harborplace, Baltimore, summer 1981. Left to right: James Olin, co-principal trombone; David Fetter, co-principal trombone; Eric Carlson, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone. 

I joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in May, 1981, after two years as the band director at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Edison, New Jersey. When I joined the BSO—as it was and is still called, although a few years later, I would join another BSO, the Boston Symphony Orchestra—the low brass section consisted of David Fetter and James Olin, co-principal trombone, Eric Carlson, second trombone, and Daniel Brown, tuba. Dan left at the end of my second season and David Fedderly come on as our tubist. While just a few weeks after I joined the orchestra we were locked out in a labor dispute with the orchestra’s management—we settled our contract in January 1982; that was a very long lockout—I enjoyed a very special four years in Baltimore. David Fetter was a name I knew well from his many arrangements with Ensemble Publications. Before coming to Baltimore, he had been assistant principal trombonist in the Cleveland Orchestra. Jim Olin and I were the same age, and he had studied with Frank Crisafulli at Northwestern University at the same time I was studying with Edward Kleinhammer. Eric Carlson and I had been classmates at Wheaton College together where we played together in the orchestra, band, and a trombone quartet. When I graduated from Wheaton in 1976, Eric went on to play second trombone with the North Carolina Symphony. He joined the Baltimore Symphony in 1980 and a year later, I was sitting next to him again.

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Overture Magazine (program of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra), October 23-November 12, 1982. Clockwise from top: Phillip Kolker, principal bassoon; W. Daniel Brown, tuba; Paula Sisson Francis, first violin, Douglas Yeo, bass trombone.

It was in Baltimore that I made my first recording with a symphony orchestra (the Concerto for the Left Hand of Maurice Ravel, with Leon Fleischer, piano soloist); it was where I first played a solo in front of a symphony orchestra (Patrick McCarty’s Sonata); and our second daughter was born there. During my second season, the orchestra opened its new concert hall, Meyerhoff Hall. Those were four very good years, but in May of my fourth season, after a concert in Carnegie Hall, I left Baltimore and headed up Interstate 95 to join the other BSO – the Boston Symphony Orchestra. And, as an aside, a year later, Eric Carlson left the Baltimore Symphony for the Philadelphia Orchestra from which he has just announced his retirement earlier this month.

Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985-2001)

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Boston Symphony brass section, Tanglewood, summer 1987. From center, left to right: Seiji Ozawa, music director; Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone. (Not pictured: Chester Schmitz, tuba)

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Boston Symphony low brass section, Symphony Hall, Boston, 2001. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone;  Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Chester Schmitz, tuba.

I joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in May 1985, in the middle of that year’s spring Boston Pops season. The Boston Pops Orchestra is drawn from members of the Boston Symphony, so the Pops was just part of my job as bass trombonist of the BSO. I recall that my first service—a concert—was recorded for television broadcast, the PBS show, “Evening at Pops.” I had no rehearsal. Before the concert, I introduced myself to the conductor of the Boston Pops, John Williams, and within the first minute of talking he asked me, “Have you heard from Spanky?” I right away knew who he was taking about. He was asking about George Roberts, the great Los Angeles based bass trombonist, known to generations of players as “Mr. Bass Trombone.” George and I had been friends for a long time and John had worked with George on many of his film sessions.

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George Roberts and Douglas Yeo, International Trombone Festival, Ithaca College, New York, 2004. That was George, always hugging and smiling.

As things were, I had recently talked with George—”Spanky” as John called him—and I could give John a report on how he was doing. But I made a note to myself: Whenever John Williams was coming to Boston for a run of concerts, I always made sure I called George first so I’d have something to pass on to John. And George always ended our conversations with, “And give John a kiss, and tell him I love him.” If you knew George Roberts, you’ll be smiling right now. George always said something like that. He was always about hugging and loving and caring about people. George died in 2014. I miss him.

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Douglas Yeo performing John Williams’ Tuba Concerto, Symphony Hall, Boston, May 24, 1991. Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams Conductor. Photo by Chester Schmitz.

At that time (1985), principal players of the Boston Symphony didn’t play in the Boston Pops Orchestra. Instead, they formed the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and assistant principal or second players in the BSO moved up to play principal during the Pops season. Norman Bolter, second trombonist of the BSO, played principal in Pops and we had several players work with us over the year to fill the second trombone chair, including Larry Isaacson, Douglas Wright, Darren Acosta, John Faieta, Hans Bohn, Alexi Doohovskoy, and Jim Nova. Oh, wow, we had fun. We made so many recordings with John Williams, and also with Keith Lockhart (and one with Leonard Bernstein), we recorded countless television shows, and we toured Japan twice with John Williams conducting. I performed several concertos with the Boston Pops during my years including the first performances of John Williams’ Tuba Concerto on bass trombone (the piece had been written in 1985 on a commission from the Boston Symphony and it was dedicated to the orchestra’s tuba player, Chester Schmitz), many performances of Chris Brubeck’s Concerto for Bass Trombone conducted by Keith Lockhart, performances of Chris’ second bass trombone concerto, the Prague Concerto, Gerald Steichen, conducting, and also performances of Simon Proctor’s Serpent Concerto with John conducting. Fun times.

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Douglas Yeo (left) after performing Simon Proctor’s Serpent Concerto, Symphony Hall, Boston, May 29, 1997. Boston Pops Orchestra, John Williams, conductor (right) with Simon Proctor (center). 

From 1985 to 2001, our Boston Symphony low brass section was Ronald Barron, principal, Norman Bolter, second, Chester Schmitz, tuba, and me on bass trombone. That’s 17 years we spent together and we did it all. For 17 years, I was the new guy in the section. We recorded all of the Mahler Symphonies with Seiji Ozawa and all of the Brahms Symphonies with Bernard Haitink. And dozens of other recordings of music from Bach to Gubaidulina. We took an international tour during most seasons, traveling across the United States, to South America, all over Europe, the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and to Japan and Hong Kong many times. Unforgettable experiences. Working together with the same people for so long allowed us to develop understandings among us. After several years, we didn’t have to talk much about how we were going to approach certain pieces; we just knew. I knew exactly how Norman would breath in, say, a Schumann symphony, or when Chester was going to circular breathe in a Bruckner symphony. Ours was a collaboration of understanding. I learned so much from Ron, Norman, and Chester. So much. Little did I imagine that an event in 2001 would set off a chain reaction of change in the BSO low brass section that would take over a decade to settle. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2001-2003)

A career in a symphony orchestra is not a straight line.

Following a September 2001 performance of Brahms Symphony No. 2 in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw conducted by Bernard Haitink (just a few days before the 9/11 attacks), Chester Schmitz retired. He had joined the BSO in 1966, fresh out of the United States Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”) in Washington D.C. It was the end of an era for the BSO low brass section. After being together for 17 years, our low brass section was changing. We held two auditions for Chester’s position but did not hire anyone. I know how frustrating it is for people to prepare for and come to an audition and have it end without someone being hired. “They don’t know what they want!” is a familiar cry. But the truth is we DID know what we wanted; we just didn’t hear it at those auditions. We knew that replacing Chester Schmitz was impossible. But Chester was the standard for tuba playing we all had in our mind. From 2001-2003, we had a succession of substitute tuba players that worked alongside Ron, Norman, and me. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2003-2008)

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Boston Symphony Low Brass Section, Symphony Hall, Boston, 2007. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; James Levine, music director; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Mike Roylance, tuba.

After a third tuba audition, Mike Roylance joined the BSO 2003. He was the first new member of the low brass section in 19 years. Mike arrived during an interim period between two music directors, Seiji Ozawa (1973-2002) and James Levine (2004-2011). Our section was complete once again. But not for long.

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2008-2010)

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Boston Symphony Orchestra Trombone Section, 2008. Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo; bass trombone.

Ron Barron joined the Boston Symphony in 1970 as second trombonist, and then won the principal trombone position in 1975 upon the retirement of William Gibson. In that same year, 1975, Norman Bolter won the second trombone position that Ron had just vacated. Incredibly, both Norman and Ron decided to retire from the BSO in the same year, 2008. Their final season was bittersweet for me. Suddenly, the trombone section that I had known for the previous 23 years was gone. With two vacancies in the section, the decision was made to hold an audition for a new principal trombonist and after that player received tenure, then schedule an audition for a new second trombonist. That way, the new principal player could serve on the audition committee for the new second player. It made sense but it set up two years when we did not have a full section. For two years, we had substitute players fill the second trombone chair.

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Toby Oft and Douglas Yeo, Symphony Hall, Boston, December 24, 2008.

Toby Oft, former principal trombonist of the San Diego Symphony, was hired as our new principal trombonist and he began with the BSO at the start of the 2008 season. I went on sabbatical from the orchestra for six months beginning in January 2009—something that had been planned two years earlier, before Norman and Ron announced their retirement—Toby received tenure in the summer of 2009, and we then held an audition for a new second trombonist. 

Boston Symphony Orchestra (2010-2012)

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Boston Symphony Orchestra Trombone Section, basement of Symphony Hall, Boston, 2012. Left to right: Stephen Lange, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Toby Oft; principal trombone. Photo by Randall Hawes.

In 2010, we hired Stephen Lange as second trombonist. Steve, who had played for the previous 10 years with the Saint Louis Symphony, completed our low brass section that had been in flux since Norman and Ron’s retirement in 2008. But yet another change was on the horizon. I decided to retire from the BSO in 2012, after over 27 years of occupying the bass trombone chair. But my final two seasons were very special to me as the oldest, most experienced member of my new section, and a carrier of the flame of the BSO’s long performance traditions.

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My final bow on stage at Symphony Hall, Boston, May 2012. Behind me are BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and conductor Bernard Haitink.

During my last season with the BSO (click HERE to read an interview I gave for the Boston Symphony Program Book in 2011 where I looked back on my long career in the orchestra)—my final concert in Symphony Hall in May 2012 was Beethoven Symphony No. 9 conducted by Bernard Haitink.

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My final bow on stage at Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO—my last concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra—August 5, 2012. 

When I played my final concert with the orchestra at Tanglewood in August 2012—Berlioz Symphonie fantastique conducted by Loren Maazel—a page was turned in the history of BSO low brass playing. The last vestige of the Boston Symphony trombone section that came together when I joined the orchestra in 1985 was no more. When James Markey began as the BSO’s bass trombonist the day after I retired, a new tradition with an entirely new section was born. Toby Oft, Steve Lange, Jim Markey, and Mike Roylance are making their own mark as the BSO’s low brass section. Already they have been at it for eight years. Will the four of them play together for 17 years as Ron, Norman, Chester, and I did? Will the trombone section stay together for 23 years as Ron, Norman, and I did? Time will tell.

But there is this: All of us—Ron, Norman, Chester; Toby, Steve, Jim, Mike, and I—are part of a long stream of low brass players that goes back to the Boston Symphony’s founding in 1881. From George Stewart to Leroy Kenfield to Joannès Rochut to Eugene Adam to Kilton Vinal Smith to Jacob Raichman to Kauko Kahila to William Gibson, all of us were touched by those who came before us. And the same can be said for my colleagues in the Baltimore Symphony; David, Jim, Eric, Dan, David, and I  were part of a long stream of low brass players that came through that orchestra, including John Melick Jr., Ted Griffith, Philip Donatelli, John Marcellus, Douglas Edelman, Charles Vernon, and John Engelkes. Touched, influenced, inspired, changed. I’m glad that Megumi Kanda asked me those questions about working in an orchestral trombone section. It gave me the opportunity to dig out some old photos, recall some old memories, and offer gratitude to God for the life in music that He has given me, a life shared with many others. Thirty one years in two orchestras, sitting amidst 11 colleagues. Thank you, all of you.

[Header photo: Boston Symphony Low Brass Section, Symphony Hall, Boston, February 1992 (performance of Dvorak Symphony No. 9, “From the New World”). Left to right: Ronald Barron, principal trombone; Norman Bolter, second trombone; Douglas Yeo, bass trombone; Chester Schmitz, tuba.]