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February 17, 2014IM -
Larry Zalkind’s performing career takes him, and the trombone he helped develop, all over the West Coast and beyond.
A popular trombone joke asks (all in fun, of course!): “What kind of calendar does a trombonist use for his gigs?” with the punch line: “Year-at-a-glance.” Far from the truth for Larry Zalkind of Local 104 (Salt Lake City, UT), who performs almost daily, not only with the Utah Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, but also in chamber music and solo settings.
“How do you recognize the child of a trombonist on a playground?” another joke teases. Stumped? “He doesn’t know how to use the slide and he can’t swing.” A bit ironic in Larry Zalkind’s case, considering his youngest son, Aaron, a high school junior, is also a talented trombone player—and there’s no question that both father and son have their slides and their swing perfected.
Then there’s the classic, “How many trombonists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” The answer? “Just one, but he’ll do it too loudly.”
Well, maybe there’s a little truth to that one.
“The whole time, all I was hearing was, ‘You’re too loud, you’re too loud!'” Larry laughs, recalling a recording session with his wife, Roberta Zalkind—who is associate principal viola with the Utah Symphony and also a member of Local 104—and their second son, Matt, a cellist studying at The Juilliard School. (The Zalkinds’ oldest son, Ben, is the only one of their three children who went into a field other than music; he finished a master’s degree at the University of Chicago last year, and is now considering law school.) The family trio was recording Vincent Persichetti’s Serenade No. 6 for Larry’s upcoming third album, a compilation of 20th century music.
As you might imagine, there’s usually lots of noise coming from the Zalkind home in Salt Lake City. In fact, when Aaron first talked about following in his father’s footsteps and taking up the trombone, his parents were a bit reluctant to let him, for that very reason. “We tried to convince him otherwise, but we couldn’t,” Zalkind says. “Most people in my neighborhood think that one trombone in the house is enough!”
Zalkind’s house is now full of music and musicians, but that wasn’t the case when he was growing up. His parents, though they quickly became staunch supporters of his musical pursuits, didn’t have a background in music, and Zalkind remembers hearing nothing but Top 40 on the radio. Still, he managed to pick out and latch on to the one group that prominently used brass instruments: Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. He especially loved the sound of the trumpet, and when it came time to choose instruments in third grade, that was the one he had his heart set on. But his teacher had a different idea.
“She pushed me to play the trombone, and I was thinking, this thing is bigger than I am!” Zalkind remembers. “I couldn’t quite reach sixth and seventh position, so I would just put my foot out there and use it to hold the slide for those notes.”
But if there was any doubt in his teacher’s mind that she had picked the right instrument for him, it was erased when she showed up at a recent Los Angeles Philharmonic concert and saw her former student in the principal trombone seat.
Zalkind was asked to fill in as acting assistant principal trombone for the Los Angeles Philharmonic after the sudden and tragic death of trombonist Steve Witser, but his primary focus is still the Utah Symphony. He’s been a member of that orchestra for 29 years and will return to it full-time next season. “I’m really committed to the idea of orchestras in smaller areas because they become the focal point of the entire community,” Zalkind explains. “The Utah Symphony has the smallest population base for an orchestra of its stature—a 52-week orchestra—and the impact that it has on the community is huge.”
Similarly, he recognizes the positive impact that the AFM has on the music community. “First of all, I love how the AFM promotes the importance of music and the scope it has,” he says. “And second, being a musician is very unique. There’s nothing quite like it, and sometimes it’s hard to explain what your needs are. But being a member of the AFM, those needs are provided for; it’s just a given.”
With Zalkind’s extraordinary commitment to Salt Lake City and the orchestra it encompasses, it’s hard to imagine that he was once a stranger to the area. He grew up in North Hollywood and earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Southern California. “When I finished my master’s I thought, boy, I’m not ready to go to work yet!” he recalls. Instead, he and Roberta traveled across the country to the University of Michigan, where they both worked toward their doctoral degrees.
In 1981, the young couple attended the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and during that same time, the Utah Symphony happened to be holding orchestra auditions. Being a reasonable distance from Salt Lake City, the Zalkinds decided on a whim to make the drive and take their chances. It turned out to be a good instinct—both Larry and Roberta won their auditions.
“We didn’t know much about Utah, but we knew that we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have jobs with the same orchestra. So we moved to Utah, but left our stuff in storage in Michigan—we planned to go back to finish our degrees,” Zalkind remembers. “We just figured we’d stay a year and get really good at skiing!”
But eventually, Larry and his wife had to have their friends in Michigan ship their left-behind belongings to Salt Lake City. “We just fell in love with the area, and the Utah Symphony is such a high-quality orchestra,” he says. “I feel like I play in a brass section that’s as good as it gets.”
Part of what makes that brass section so special is all of the outside experience that Zalkind brings—from playing as an extra with orchestras all over the country, to participating in chamber music and music festivals, to performing as an orchestral soloist and giving recitals. “I’m able to mix those different aspects and I feel like it makes me a more complete player,” he says.
One of Zalkind’s favorite “gigs” is the Summit Brass, a group made up of more than a dozen of the world’s top brass players. The group has made numerous recordings, tours extensively, and teaches and performs at the Rafael Mendez Brass Institute each summer. Larry and his wife also continue to attend the Grand Teton Music Festival every year.
Unlike his ensemble playing, which he’s always pursued tirelessly, Zalkind says that his solo career began somewhat by accident. “I was playing a solo part with the Utah Symphony, and somebody who heard it asked me to come and play with their orchestra, and then through word of mouth, it just built,” he says. Now, he often premieres new orchestral works for solo trombone and also performs as a soloist with the New Sousa Band.
It isn’t just Zalkind’s exceptional playing that’s earned him a reputation; he was recently involved in the design of an orchestral trombone for Yamaha, which he now plays exclusively. “It’s been a major part of my life these past five years, and now the trombone has become quite popular,” he says. “The process of designing a horn, and then seeing how others like it, has changed my playing so much.”
It seems that Larry Zalkind’s career really couldn’t be much more well-rounded—and that’s nothing to joke about.