Principal Trumpet Matthew Ernst Performs Hummel’s Trumpet Concerto

David Lewellen

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Even when he’s soloing in a repertory staple, Matthew Ernst has a lot of decisions to make.

Ernst, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal trumpet, will perform the Hummel Trumpet Concerto with the MSO on January 26-27. He has known the piece for decades, but the first question is a surprising one—what key would he play it in?

Usually, it’s a simple matter of what the composer wrote. But Hummel wrote the piece in 1803 for an instrument pitched in E. Today, E trumpets are uncommon, and Ernst’s plans to get a custom-made instrument fell through last summer. Performing in E on a trumpet pitched in another key would be unnecessarily difficult. However, Ernst said, “almost every trumpeter has an E-flat trumpet in their arsenal,” so he and the orchestra will play the piece in the key of E-flat major.

Hummel’s concerto is one of the first to be written for an instrument that could play every note of the scale—but the instruments the composer knew used keys, like a flute or clarinet, instead of the modern valves. (Years ago, Ernst got a chance to play a vintage keyed bugle of the type that Hummel wrote for, but it sounded primitive by today’s standards.)

Next, Ernst had to think about details of performance, such as trills—going up or down? Half step or whole step? Or, another option, trill on the same note but with different fingerings? He made his plans, but he is waiting to meet with guest conductor Bernard Labadie, who specializes in the Classical period. “He may make a case that I don’t know about,” he said. “I’m excited to talk to him, because there are a lot of discrepancies.”

He also had to consider his approach to the three movements. The slow, lyrical second movement may show the influence of Hummel’s wife, who was an opera singer, and sometimes Ernst will ask his students to write words to the melody. For him, it’s enough to think that “I’m a diva, and this is my moment.”

Particularly in the third movement, another decision will be how to handle nerves. “Even sitting in the back row, I’m nervous before every performance.” Ernst said. “It’s negotiating the nerves that’s the skill.” And standing in front of the orchestra as the soloist, the problem may be more acute. But instead of fearing the technical challenges that scare off many performers, Ernst will attach a positive idea to them. Looking at a video from one of his best performances of the piece, he noticed that “my eyes are closed and I’m dancing.” Thinking of it as a dance, and being excited for the opportunity to perform, are possible paths to successful performances.

“Getting nervous means that you care, that you’re alive,” he said. “I care deeply.”

And in the first movement, among other things, he has to be aware of what he’s doing during the long orchestral introduction, while he waits for his first entrance. “It’s awkward,” he said frankly. “You can’t look bored or distracted or stoic. I try to show that I’m interested and happy to be there. The best performances are an outgrowth of gratitude.”

Hummel, like Beethoven, was born into the Classical period and lived through the shift into the Romantic period, but aside from the trumpet concerto, his music has mostly fallen into obscurity. The difference, Ernst said, is that “Beethoven changed the world. Hummel tinkered around the edges.” But he thinks it’s unfortunate that “we hang onto only a couple pieces from some period, even though a lot of it is really good.”

The normal role of the trumpet in the orchestra is to provide emphasis, an extra shot of power in big passages, and Ernst said that can lead to the habit of exaggerating volume and articulation. But playing a whole concerto at the front of the stage is “an opportunity to explore all of the amazing colors of the instrument. I can play softly and beautifully.”