My Retirement from Orchestra Playing (and Career Retrospective)

A few months ago I made the decision to retire from full time orchestra playing and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. While many people in Hong Kong and elsewhere are aware of my decision, this is my first public announcement of this decision.

The timing of my departure is still being worked out and will not be immediate as I have offered to stay on while the orchestra seeks my replacement. Interested trumpeters please apply, it's a great gig in a great city with great colleagues! I will stay on until July at least and maybe some portion of the 2018-19 season. I plan to stay in Hong Kong and work on all my other existing projects so it's easy for me to help provide my colleagues some flexibility during the transition period.

I've been playing in orchestras now for 30 years, and this is my 21st season playing as a full time professional. That's a career! Now it is time for me to move on and follow my callings in the direction of musical healing, sound therapy, conflict resolution and spiritual technology.

In this terrific career I have been so lucky to have accomplished almost all I could have hoped to accomplish and then some in this rewarding and meaningful career field. Also I have made great friends and musical partnerships with so many colleagues over the years and I treasure those relationships.

And there was the music, so much amazing music in the last 30 years. I love orchestral music and the experience of playing it. And playing trumpet (especially principal trumpet) is one of the most fun jobs in the world. It's so cool, coming in at a big moment of the piece in a big brass chorale, or leading the orchestra in a pops setting (living out my life fantasy of playing lead trumpet, a gig I never had the chops for). There's heroic melodies, sweet and soulful lyric solos, gnarly technical and articulation challenges, listening challenges, and the feeling of being in the orchestra is like none other. I love the moment when the whole orchestra breathes together and a glorious tutti sound rises like a great wave.

Mainly for my own memory I have compiled a little timeline of some of the highlights of my orchestral career, which follow below:

1988, Charlottesville, Virginia- My first orchestral experience was in the Evans Orchestra, the lower orchestra of the Charlottesville Youth Orchestra system, conducted by Dan Lind. I enjoyed it a lot, and thought to myself "This is cool, I get to sit in the back and keep my eye on everybody, and I'm much louder than they are!"

1989: At the end of my Evans Orchestra season, I got a call up to play Chabrier Espana with the upper orchestra, which was a huge thrill for me. This was courtesy of Ray Fowler, who was the music director that one year only in Charlottesville, and was the first person to predict my future in music.

At my first ever audition in 1988, Ray Fowler stopped me in the middle of my audition to go outside and talk to my mother. According to her he said, "I listen to a lot of auditions, and this kid is really special. You should support his musical career however you can."

So I don't know what Ray heard in me that day, but it was a big moment, and my mom took that advice to heart and has been a 110% supporter of music career ever since. Thanks Mom! And thanks Ray!

1989, Sewanee, Tennessee: Largely at the advice of Ray Fowler, my mom sent me to Sewanee Summer Music Festival in Tennessee. This was a super eye opening experience for a 13 year old kid, and I was last chair trumpet in the lower orchestra, the Cumberland Orchestra, conducted by Bruce Dinkins, who was a tough disciplinarian who gave many first timers their first orchestral boot camp. I learned a lot there and especially from the star trumpet student at the festival, the first really good trumpet player I ever heard, and I was so blown away. That was the awesome trumpeter Jose Sibaja, who still blows me away when I hear him play today.

1990-1994 Charlottesville, Virginia: in high school I played regularly with the Charlottesville/Albermarle Youth Orchestra and the CHS Orchestra and all that experience was really valuable. In the summers I continued to go to summer festivals, which were the highlight of my years musically I went a couple more times to Sewanee, attended the Eastern Music Festival, played in Virginia All State Orchestra a couple times and in 1992 had the experience that made me want to make orchestra playing my career.

1992, Brevard North Carolina: This festival was filled with students that would go on to become big time pros, and it was my first experience in that environment of that level of player. But I worked hard and by the end of the summer had snuck into the top student orchestra on 4th trumpet for the summer ending performance of Mahler 1. It was in a rehearsal of Mahler 1, where the big first climax of the first movement, that I got a feeling up my spine that was just amazing, and I thought to myself, "I want to do this for my life." So from then I worked with that goal. Incidentally, sitting next to me on 3rd trumpet for that performance was Chris Martin, the best orchestral trumpet player of our generation and my counterpart in Jaap's other Philharmonic in new York.

1994, Oberlin Conservatory: As a first year trumpet major, I got into the Oberlin Orchestra on 2nd trumpet, with Peter Jaffe conducting. I remember our first performance of Brahms 1 mostly for Amy Oshiro's violin solo; I had never heard violin playing that good before. We also had a memorable performance of the Rite of Spring at Severance Hall at the end of the year which I also just managed to sneak in on 5th trumpet for.

1995, Oberlin: The first big concert of the year was a big one for me; my first on 1st trumpet with the orchestra and the school's first performance with their new maestro, Louis Lane. Dubbed "The Emperor" because of his resemblance to the Star Wars character, Louis Lane was very tough and demanding, sometimes mean, and got the orchestra up to a higher level. This performance of Tchaikovsky 5 stands out in memory for me as does one thing Lane said to me in a rehearsal after I played the little trumpet solo in the 2nd movement not loudly enough for him: "Mr. MacCluer, right here you should play as if your heart is breaking. Right now it just sounds as if your trumpet is broken." We loved playing for him and I was sad to hear of his passing a few years back.

1996, Western Pennsylvania: My first paid orchestral gig was playing 2nd trumpet in the Lyric Mountain Festival summer orchestra for two seasons. Hooray, my professional career had begun! In addition to playing trumpet in this small orchestra that played outdoor concerts for small audiences mainly comprised of neighborhood Mennonites I also worked as stage manager, and had one moment of panic when I had to make emergency piano repairs after breaking off the pedals of the Steinway while moving it for a chamber music recital. They really should have known better than putting me in charge there.

1996, Canton, Ohio: the first time I ever got to play with a "real orchestra" was on 3rd trumpet on El Salon Mexico with the Canton, Ohio Symphony, conducted by Gerhardt Zimmerman. This experience was huge for me, as it was and still is a pretty good orchestra and filled with professionals. I think I learned more in this week than I had in a year of university orchestra.

1996-1997: The rest of that year my freelance career started in earnest, and I was doing a lot of regular gigging with Canton and other local freelance orchestras, including the Columbus Symphony where I got to be involved in my only lifetime performance of Mahler 8.

I also started auditioning that year, beginning a audition career that would span literally 100 auditions. My first audition was for 1st trumpet of the Youngstown, Ohio, Symphony, where I was cut in the prelims. My first audition for a big orchestra was shortly thereafter, in Cincinatti, where I had a big eye opening experience waiting to to go on and listening to the guy play before me, who turned out to be Craig Morris, later principal of the Chicago Symphony and good friend. At the time I was really worried because I thought that that was everyone else played like.

1997, Erie Pennsylvania: I won my first audition! The highly coveted post of 3rd trumpet on the Erie, Pennsylvania Philharmonic was mine! The next few months I added a few more audition wins, for 3rd trumpet in the Akron, Ohio Symphony, 2nd trumpet in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and my first principal job, in the Ann Arbor Symphony. There were some real highlights with that group; I got to play a lot of great repertoire and people really seemed to like my playing. Memorable was the first performance we had, with music director Sam Wong and Bruckner 8, and also playing the Messiah in the annual Hill Auditorium concerts.

So by the fall of 1997 I had gigs every week with one of my four orchestras and was playing full time! I had done it! Sure I lived in a cheap apartment in the hood of Cleveland and drove 50,000 miles that year, but I was making my living playing music and learning tons.

1998-1999, Grand Rapids, Michigan: I moved up a little to the 3rd trumpet job in this almost "full time" gig, it wasn't quite a core position but there was a lot of work and I didn't have to drive around so much. This was a great learning situation in a higher level group to prepare for the next level. I also in particular enjoyed working with and having friendship with trumpet colleague Charley Lea.

1999-2000, Sarasota, Florida: I won my first full time audition for The Florida West Coast Symphony (now Sarasota Symphony" as co-principal trumpet. The gig was really fun back then, not too much orchestral playing and a ton of brass quintet playing. I learned a lot about good trumpet playing that year with my friend and colleague Todd Craven. It was a year of comraderie and fun, with a core group of young musicians on our first gig, we hung out all the time, played a ton of basketball and loved life down in sunny Florida. I also got a summer gig playing in the faculty orchestra of the Eastern Music Festival and learned a lot from my trumpet colleague Mark Niehaus that would serve me well as I moved to the next level up.

2000, Washington, DC: I couldn't quite win the full time job there, but I played well enough in the 2nd trumpet audition for the Kennedy Center Opera House audition to get a one year position there. So I left Florida and a long term position to go try out "The big time". There were some memorable moments here, especially getting to do Parsifal with Placido Domingo in the title role (and having a good seat and being able to see the whole thing."

2000, Baltimore, Maryland: I almost canceled my auditon in Baltimore because I was so sick a few days before, but it was just a short drive, so I dragged myself up there and was prelim candidate #1 for their principal trumpet audition. I didn't even think I played well in that first round; in fact I sort stormed out afterwards without waiting for results and promised myself as I drove home from the prelims that I wouldn't be so unprepared again for an audition. But when I got home, there was a message from them, "Where did you go? The committee liked you and wants you back for semifinals next week." So I really practiced hard for a week and went back, kept advancing and was playing better and better until I found myself onstage for finals playing for the new maestro of the the orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov. For some reason he liked me a lot and I almost got the gig! It didn't work out for me in the end to win the position, but I got to play most of the rest of the season as acting principal trumpet and that was a gigantic step forward for me. Here I was, not even 25 and playing first trumpet with a big orchestra. We went on tour that year and every concert began with Lieutenant Kije by Prokofieff which begins and ends with offstage cornet solos and has a huge part for solo cornet. I was so terrified before starting the concert at Carnegie Hall, but thanks to some backstage encouragement from a young Lang Lang, it went great. Walking out to the center of the stage to take a bow with Temirkanov at Carnegie Hall is one of the top highlights of my career. I also continued to play with them from time to time and benefited greatly from a mentorship with BSO principal trumpeter Andrew Balio.

2001, Singapore: Around this time I started going out to Singapore occasionally to play as guest principal trumpet on concerts and recordings. This relationship went on for many years here and there and I am grateful to maestro Lan Shui for bringing me out and introducing me to Asia. I was planning on moving out there in 2001 to accept the principal trumpet position, but then I won the same position in Colorado and decided to go there.

2001-3: Denver, Colorado: next I played two seasons as first trumpet in the Colorado Symphony, with Marin Alsop conducting. This was good experience playing lead every week, going through a lot of good repertoire, and being introduced to the mountains. The mountains woke up my spirit in a special way that continues to develop today. My experience in Colorado was not all positive, as here I was introduced to the nasty side of orchestra politics and it was largely out of disgust at the treatment of a friend and colleague that I decided to move on from the otherwise great situation I had living in Denver.

2003-12: Saint Louis: I moved next to the second trumpet position of the Saint Louis Symphony, where I stayed for nine years which was much longer than I expected. These were pivotal years in my personal development, and the most important thing for me about the experience was my relationship with the legendary principal trumpet player and my dear friend and colleague Susan Slaughter.

Susan was the best colleague I ever had and a fundamental influence on who I have become as a person, colleague, and musician. Her unfailing integrity, compassion, kindness, musicianship, and professionalism were a big influence on me that continues to this day. If I find myself faced with a difficult choice, especially in an orchestral situation, I just ask myself, "What would Susan do here?" and I know what that right answer is right away. When I came to Saint Louis I was a cocky young trumpet jerk and from Susan I learned how to put the music, personal integrity and relationships first. Thank you so much Susan.

Over these years we played lots of terrific music together and looking back at the immense quantity of quality musical experiences we had I am very grateful. Some memorable moments include a legendary Turangalila in Carnegie hall with amazing maestro Davis Robertson, a great recording of Doctor Atomic, tours to Europe, California, yearly trips to New York, fun bus runouts, beautiful summer evening in Webster with St Louis Opera Theater and many big finishes where we gave it all we had from the back row.

During these years I continued to do some outside orchestra playing, playing guest principal here and there. I played well enough at a couple auditions in San Fransisco to get some guest principal weeks there, a little playing in Los Angeles also, and I continued to play in Asia, in Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.

July 2012: I retire the first time (for 5 days): In 2012 I decided to leave the orchestra in Saint Louis and move to Asia. At the time I had been getting interested in audio production and wanted to move to a cheap place in Asia and work on that full time, with some freelance trumpet gigs in the region. So I had just begun my retirement when I got a email from Ambrose at the Hong Kong Philharmonic, who I had auditioned for a few months before. "We are delighted to offer you the principal trumpet position in Hong Kong, can you start in September?" So I went back to work.

2012-2018: Hong Kong: The final stop on my full time orchestral career has been the highlight of my career and a great artistic achievement. Together with the demanding maestro Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra made huge artistic strides and developed during the time I was there into a top group. Personally also I learned so much and developed so much as an orchestral player in my tenure in Hong Kong, especially in my development as a listener, dynamics, sound, blend, leadership and so much more.

In Hong Kong there were many terrific achievements and exciting projects. There were big artistic projects, tours to the great halls is Europe, Asia, and Australia, performances with great maestros and soloists, and the crowing achievement of my career, the huge 4 year recording project of Wagner's Ring Cycle which we just finished yesterday.

We have grown very close as an orchestra over these years. It's such a tense and demanding atmosphere with such a tough boss, and as a result we have all learned to stick together. In particular I feel very close now to my colleagues in the brass section, several of who I have known for a long time. I'm sure that after 20 more years I will still have beers with my Hong Kong colleagues and we will feel almost like old war buddies. Thanks so much to my good friends and colleagues of the HK Phil for all we have accomplished and learned together.

There are so many people to thank at the end of this long journey. In addition to those I already mentioned, I'd like to thank my many teachers, especially Terry Detwiler, Bill Lucas and George Vosburgh. I'd like to thank the maestros that gave me a chance, like Gerhardt Zimmerman, Sam Wong, Yuri Temirkanov and of course Jaap van Zweden. Also often underappreciated in orchestras are the people working behind the scenes, and I have a lot of stage managers, librarians, personnel managers, board members, CEOs and etc to thank. Running orchestras is a big job!

A special shout out goes to my trumpet audition friends- there were many of us who always showed up to the same auditions and we developed great friendships and rivalries that made us all better in the end. Several of my most influential colleagues I never shared an orchestra with! Special thanks to Jon Dante, Justin Bartels, Dave Gordon, Craig Morris, Chris Still, Adam Luftman, Liam Day and Billy Hunter for all their friendship, nemesisship and fun times on the road.

And most of all I'd like tho thank the huge mass of colleagues I've had over the years in all of these orchestras. It may have been a long time, but the bonds are still there somehow, and we will always share some sort of connection after making music together. And thanks to the music, that was the best part.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required