Two Metropolitan Opera Orchestra legends, former principal trumpet players Mel Broiles (L) and Mark Gould (R)
When I was at Juilliard, my trumpet teacher, the great MARK GOULD, would always inspire me and his other students with epic stories often describing a mythical sounding hero–a fearless, dedicated leader and trumpeter extraordinaire named MEL BROILES.
At long last, Mark Gould has put of these stories in writing! They were originally featured in the June, 2012 ITG (International Trumpet Guild) Journal.
Mark has graciously allowed me to re-share them here. UPDATE: Mark Gould has written a book! If you love the stories below, check out this excerpt from his newest book, Orchestra Confidential
Mel Broiles: Stories by Mark Gould
Mel Broiles was a great trumpet player. His playing was impeccable: accurate, exciting and dramatic. He was fearless. Under pressure, he always rose to the occasion. Mel would play an entire opera season and rarely miss a note.
Mel was principal trumpet of the Metropolitan Opera from 1958 until he retired in 2003. Prior to that, he served as principal trumpet of the Philadelphia Orchestra for one season in 1957. In 1961 he performed the U.S. premiere of the Jolivet Concertino for trumpet, piano and strings. Mel was a composer: 3 books of études and duets, many works for brass ensemble and a few tour de force solo pieces for trumpet. A master music calligrapher, he hand copied every opera part he ever played.
Later in his career when he began using the D trumpet frequently, he recopied many of these same parts for D trumpet. His opera parts must number in the 100s and the music of all kinds that Mel hand copied would fill a small library. His calligraphy was as beautiful as any I’ve ever seen. In his spare time, Mel was an avid aviator. He was a superb pilot; he owned his own airplane.
It doesn’t matter where I go throughout the world, whether it be at a concert performance, a teaching clinic, or conducting engagement or even when performing with my band, Pink Baby Monster, there is always someone who asks me about Mel Broiles: “Please tell a Mel Broiles story”, or “Did Mel really do….. “, though in recent years the number of times Mel’s name comes up has become more infrequent. New trumpet heroes have arisen and the feats of the old trumpet legends are often dimmed by the passage of time. For years, I have been promising to write about Mel and only now- mainly because Michael Sachs asked me to do so — do I offer a few of my favorite ‘Mel’ tales. These are merely a small sample of hundreds of amazing stories. Everyone who ever worked at the MET has a ‘Mel’ story. He is one of the most fascinating people I have ever been around, a character of operatic proportions. I hope that the trumpet community, especially the orchestral trumpet community will find these vignettes to be as entertaining and inspiring as I do. There will never be another Mel Broiles. Perhaps a doctoral trumpet student will be inspired embark upon a Mel Broiles project similar to the wonderfully informative project Brian Shook is presenting to brass players around the country about William Vacchiano, Mel’s teacher. My hope is that many more ‘Mel’ stories will surface and that as a result the legend of Mel Broiles will resound in the trumpet ‘collective unconscious’ for the next 10,000 years.
Men die to the sound of the trumpet
I joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in 1974 as co-principal trumpet. The other co-principal trumpet was Mel Broiles. I was the “new guy”, the kid fresh out of college who was going to ‘share’ quarterbacking duties with Peyton Manning or ‘share’ third base duties with “ironman”, Cal Ripken. Mel was not pleased that a snot nosed interloper had invaded his kingdom. He was not warm and welcoming to me and he didn’t have much to say to me my first year at the MET. In fact he addressed only one sentence to me my entire first season. At a break of a rehearsal for Verdi’s, “Vespri Siciliani”, while we were standing side by side at the urinals, Mel turned slightly to me and said, “Mark, men die in battle to the sound of the trumpet”. He left me standing there staring straight ahead at the tiles above the urinal holding my shrinking best friend. I was stunned, vaguely insulted and more than a little intimidated. I remember thinking, “What a great line!” It was a line straight out of a gladiator movie, or “Patton” or “300”. Of course I knew that trumpets and battle are inextricably linked; they have been for thousands of years. But when a trumpet legend like Mel Broiles felt the need to remind me, “the new guy”, of this relationship, my thinking about the trumpet was forever altered. It was a WTF moment before WTF entered the popular lexicon.
You’re either alive or you’re dead
Mel Broiles was born 4000 years too late. He was the reincarnation of Micenus, the mythical trumpeter immortalized in The Iliad, part of the personal retinue of the great Trojan warrior, Hector. After The Trojan War, Micenus challenged Triton, god of the sea, to a trumpet ‘toot off’ to see who could blow a trumpet louder. The result was a predictably unhappy one for Micenus, but his defeat was one worthy of a great warrior. Micenus kept his swagger right until he was literally blown away.
When Mel Broiles was in the West Point Band in the 1950s, he played alongside trumpet greats, Frank Kaderabek, Robert Nagel, Thomas Stevens, and Dave Zauder, who were also in the band. Mel would march around the parade ground for hours on end, while playing his trumpet, in order to build his strength and endurance. For the first 37 years of his career at the MET, Mel never missed a rehearsal or performance. This is a record at the MET; no one is within 25 years of equalling Mel’s attendance record. It’s a feat more incredible than hall of fame third baseman, Cal Ripken’s consecutive game streak. Ripken only played every game for 16 years compared to Mel’s 37 years. Once, when Mel was obviously sick with flu and fever at a routine performance (Traviata or Boheme) which could easily have been covered by one of the other 4 players in the section, he turned to second trumpeter, Harry Peers, and through a raspy cough whispered, “Yes, Harry, I’m sick but no one must know!”. James Levine (Music director of the MET from 1973-present), who has conducted more opera performances than any person who ever lived, was asked by a television interviewer about his brutal work schedule. The interviewer was marveling at Levine’s energy and dedication and asked how it was possible to rehearse, perform and practice 16 hours a day, 7 days a week? Levine smiled and responded by quoting Mel Broiles, “My first trumpet player, Mel Broiles, said something once that I’ve never forgotten and I guess you could say it applies to me, ‘You’re either alive or you’re dead!’’’.
Mel’s concentration was exceptional. While many other brass players would read books and magazines during long rests, or leave the pit to attend to personal business or get a cup of coffee, Mel would always stay in the pit, seated attentively in his chair counting bars rest. He would explain, “Someone’s got to mind the store”.
In the early 1950s, Mel spent time in Los Angeles playing in dance bands, pursuing his interest in jazz. Hanging in his locker was a picture from the early 50s of Mel standing next to Charlie Parker in what looks to be a jazz club. Listening to Mel play 1st trumpet, one could clearly hear the influence of his dance band experience as well as that of the great powerhouse lead trumpet players of his era, Doc Severinson, Conrad Gozzo and Maynard Ferguson. Mel was a large man, well over 6 feet tall and 200 pounds and he had forged every inch and ounce of his body into a well oiled machine that could unleash a trumpet sound the power of which could only be equaled by Triton or the archangel, Gabriel. In loud passages, he would sometimes play with such force that his body would shake until every milliliter of breath was out of his body. During my first week at the MET, I was sitting in the back of the orchestra room observing an orchestra reading of “Pagliacci”. This was a pre-season rehearsal of an often performed repertoire piece, a piece that the orchestra knew very well. The musicians were pretty much taking it easy, just rounding themselves back into shape, playing the rehearsal as a kind of warmup for the long opera season. Not Mel. At the very end of the opera, when the trumpet plays the big tune, “Vesti la Giubba”, Mel let loose. The paint on the walls of the rehearsal room turned from blue to purple and the entire viola section involuntarily doubled over, instinctually ducking their heads to avoid having them severed cleanly from their necks. The conductor, John Nelson, was blown backwards two steps, landing with one foot completely off the podium. When the music stopped, a stunned maestro Nelson cautiously and soothingly addressed Mel, “That’s great Mel, but down here on C level (site of the orchestra rehearsal room), I think we can take it a bit easy. I think mezzo forte should suffice”. To which Mel responded without missing a beat, “John, that was my mezzo forte!”.
“I LOVE THIS JOB!”
Mel Broiles was opera’s biggest fan. His enthusiasm was remarkable and was expressed in many different ways. Mel was the first person at the opera house in the morning before rehearsal and he was always the last musician to leave the pit after the evening’s opera performance.
The MET was Mel’s second home. All the other musicians in the orchestra, are assigned one locker for their instruments and clothing. Mel probably had ten, containing a wide array of trumpets, mouthpieces, clothing, music, music paper of all kinds, calligraphy materials, photographs, drawings, hundreds of magazines, and probably a bottle or two of schnapps stashed here and there. Most of the musicians in the MET orchestra are in a hurry to leave the pit after the curtain comes down, anxious to get home or to the pub after a three or four hour opera performance.
After all the musicians had fled the pit, there stood Mel, all alone, yelling, “Bravo cast” up to the stage to all of the opera singers as they came out for their curtain calls. All the singers knew Mel and loved his enthusiastic outpourings of appreciation. He would continue his “bravos” until the applause finally finished and the house lights came on, usually 5-10 minutes after the end of the performance.
Once on an opera tour of Spain in the early 90s, (not a MET tour, but a tour which carried an orchestra with many MET players), Mel became a self-appointed promoter for the tour. A short distance outside Barcelona, in the town of Higueras, Mel donned the costume of a Mexican toreador. He then marched to the center of the town square, stood next to the poster advertising that night’s performance and began playing a spirited version of the famous pasodoble, España Cañi. A rather large crowd gathered which was finally dispersed by the puzzled and incredulous local constabulary.
You win, baby!
Mel’s exuberance was not confined to cheering for the singers after the performance. There were times during rehearsals and performances when Mel simply could not contain his enthusiasm.
At a rehearsal of Gotterdammerung in the mid 70s, Mel had a memorable exchange with the legendary soprano, Birgit Nilsson, perhaps the most famous Brunhilde of all time. In Act 2, scene 4 of Gotterdammerung, the wedding scene, Brunhilde erupts in a rage because a drugged Siegfried, under the evil spell of the villainous Hagen, has renounced his love for her, married Gutrune and placed the coveted ring on the finger of his newly betrothed. At the height of Brunhilde’s rage, the music is punctuated by trumpet iterations of Siegfried’s horn call, a raging duet between soprano and 1st trumpet. Nilsson and Broiles tore into the passage: Nilsson singing at full throttle, unleashing her legendary power as Mel pointed his bell high over the music stand, directly into the opera house and matched Nilsson’s powerful outbursts phrase for phrase. At the end of the passage, Mel, overcome by the excitement of his duet with Nilsson, rose to his feet, craned his head over the lip of the stage and yelled up loudly at her, “You win, baby!”
The conductor, Sixten Ehrling, a dour, serious Swede who wore the furrowed brow and pained expression of a reluctant teetotaler, did not know what to do. After Mel’s ‘commentary’ on who got the better of this musical exchange, the music nearly came to a halt. The maestro looked over at Mel with a wide-eyed tormented ‘help me’ look on his face, not quite sure if he actually heard what he just heard, and probably wished he never quit drinking. Nilsson laughed and seemed very much to enjoy the moment. The orchestra was a bit surprised but thoroughly amused by the proceedings. They came to expect the unexpected from Mel and looked forward to these little respites from the rehearsal routine. (Don’t we all)
“GOD, I LOVE THIS JOB!”
At a television broadcast of Elektra in 1994, Mel was overcome by his love of the opera.
Near the end of the opera, Orestes murders Aegisthus and his retinue of courtiers. The mayhem takes place backstage, behind the set, accompanied by torrents of blood curdling screams from the murdered, (courtesy of the professional screamers hired specifically for the occasion).
Apparently inspired by the blood lust of the battle (in the pit and on the stage) Mel yelled out, loudly enough to be heard by members of the bass section clear across the pit, the conductor, James Levine, and probably the opera patrons in the first couple of rows, “GOD, I LOVE THIS JOB!”
Levine’s head snapped around toward Mel, a reflexive reaction to see what the hell was happening. A split second later, after he concluded that no one’s life was in danger, nor was anyone rushing the podium brandishing a weapon, he exhaled and coolly conducted the piece to its conclusion.
Louis Ranger recounts the story of a lesson he had with Mel on some opera excerpts Louis was preparing for an audition. Mel took Louis into the MET orchestra pit, turned on the stand light, opened the music folder and told Louis, “The chandeliers rise as the lights go down, the performance is about to begin, all the great maestros of the world are in the opera house… to hear you”. Then Mel gestured toward the music indicating Louis should begin playing.
Mel played 1st trumpet at the MET as if he were starring in his own movie. Spotlight on Mel. Everyone was there to hear him. The Strauss operas provided Mel with the perfect vehicle for his star turn. When the chandeliers rose to the top of the MET and the house lights went down for a performance of Salome, Elektra or Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mel felt the spotlight come up on him. All Mel’s characters: warrior, squadron commander, navigator, sentry, lead trumpet player, battlefield poet, were on full display in the Strauss operas, melded together into his signature role. If ever there was someone born to play first trumpet in a Strauss opera, it was Mel Broiles.
The first Strauss opera I heard Mel play was Der Rosenkavalier. This was in the spring of 1974 right after I won the MET audition and before I assumed my duties as co-principal trumpet. Mel was magnificent. I could not imagine the first trumpet part played any better than it was performed that night. He led the brass section through the famous Rosencavalier waltzes effortlessly. The passages requiring power and finesse were executed with just the right character, the lyrical solos were exquisite, smooth as silk with a beautiful burnished tone and the high D flat at the end of the famous trio in Act 3 was beautiful and hair raising. I thought to myself, ‘I won’t be playing any of these pieces any time soon’. In fact, the first Strauss opera I had a chance to play was almost 10 years later in 1983.
The trumpet parts in Strauss’ operas present difficulties unique to the operas. Playing Salome or Elektra is not like playing tone poems like Don Juan or Ein Heldenleben. While very difficult to play, the tone poems are considerably shorter than the operas. The tone poems have longer, more extended passages for the trumpet, while he operas have shorter bursts of playing and longer rests. The entrances are not as apparent in the operas as they are in the tone poems and the singers are not always reliable. It is very easy to make a wrong entrance in these pieces.
Playing the operas is like traversing a minefield: danger lurking everywhere, steep walls to scale, giant boulders to be moved, moments of tenderly nursing fallen comrades with a snippet of a soft battle hymn or lullaby, then immediately leaping back into the fray, dodging bullets, avoiding obstacles, seen and unseen. Many of these ‘battlefield’ events are separated by long rests, where the trumpet ‘combatants’ get cold, become “unwarmed up”, ‘iced’ like a field goal kicker in a football game. It is very easy to lose concentration, lose focus.
Not with Mel at the helm. Mel was the perfect battle commander. He relished the challenge, loved the passion and intensity of the battle. In the Strauss operas, Mel raised his chair higher than usual (all the chairs in the MET pit are adjustable), when he put the trumpet to his lips, it was like he was getting ready to fire a rifle: he would slowly move the mouthpiece down from under his nose until it was in exactly in the right spot and then he would ‘pull the trigger’ and let fly. In soft lyrical passages, Mel would lift the bell over the stand and play with a beautiful silvery toned legato, every pianissimo note clearly heard everywhere in the 4000 seat opera house.
When he finished a soft passage, he slowly and theatrically lifted his right arm high off the valves in a kind of bow to the beauty of the passage. He looked like a ballerina elegantly coming out of 5th position. It was a physical gesture that would accompany the sound of a slow exhale on the syllable, ‘AHHH…..’
In the fortissimo passages, Mel took no prisoners. In the ‘recognition scene’ in Elektra, the first trumpet ascends to a fortissimo high concert D.
Mel played this note with such power that he would temporarily blackout. This high D would need 3 cutoffs, one for the orchestra and the other two for Mel. He would hold over at least 2 full quarter notes! The third trumpeter, Harry Peers, would rub Mel’s shoulders to slowly bring him back to consciousness while counting down the rests in Mel’s ear…. “7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, last”, then Mel would miraculously come to, pick up the trumpet and play the next entrance. Mel was so strong that he once played this high D so loud, with his throttle so wide open that the note came out considerably flat, but amazingly, he was able, even at this incredible volume, to bend the note back up to pitch!
On a Saturday evening in 1995, I received a call from the orchestra manager telling me that Mel was sick and that I had to come in to play the Saturday night performance. I thought he was kidding. Mel had never called in sick in 37 years! But the call was not a prank; Mel had suffered a stroke during that afternoon’s performance of Der Rosencavalier. Jim Pandolfi, who played third trumpet that afternoon told me that during the third act, Mel was getting wobbly. He was listing in his chair. By the final trio, Mel was unable to sit upright in his chair and Pete Bond, the second trumpet player, had to hold onto Mel to keep him from falling on the ground. Mel was having a stroke. But like the character, Gunga Din, from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, who after being mortally wounded, still picked up his bugle to warn the British regiment, Mel was unbowed by a little annoyance like a stroke. Just as the famous presentation of the rose moment came, Mel picked up his trumpet and played this difficult solo, powerfully and clearly up to the high concert D flat! After that, Mel’s head was nodding onto his chest and he was clearly in serious distress. Pete Bond continued to hold onto Mel. At the end of the piece, there is a short trumpet fanfare. Mel, still undeterred, tried to play this fanfare! Immediately after the final note of Rosencavalier, the paramedics came into the pit, strapped Mel to a gurney and took him to the hospital. “Men die in battle to the sound of the trumpet” Indeed! Two months later, Mel was back at the MET. Though not quite as strong as before, he still managed to keep to his usual very full schedule.
There could never me another Mel Broiles.
The audition process in 2011 is unlikely to produce a Mel Broiles. Winning an orchestral job in 2011 is like winning an Olympic gymnastics competition. It requires technical and rhythmic perfection – every note in place, in tune, not too loud, not too soft, not too anything. Homogenized. The down side of this is that the subsequent aesthetic of orchestral music making (post-audition) is also deeply affected by its audition process.
Orchestras are almost indistinguishable from one another. Homogenized. Mel Broiles was the opposite of homogenized. Mel was operatic, excessive, intense, dramatic, melodramatic.
Mel was exciting. People go to concerts to hear exciting. Orchestras need less perfect, more exciting. I know I sound like an old geezer dreaming nostalgically for the good old days but the older I get the more I am convinced that the orchestra world desperately needs as many Mel Broiles as they can find. Maybe having Mel Broileses populating the orchestra world this wouldn’t save the orchestras from fading out of the culture from lack of interest, but it wouldn’t hurt.