Allen Barnhill, principal trombone, heads into his 43rd year with the Houston Symphony. Since they haven’t seen each other at Jones Hall in a while, Chief Operating Officer Vicky Dominguez gave him a Zoom call to chat about his path to music, memories from his decades in the Houston Symphony, and a particular date that’s very special to both of them.
Vicky Dominguez: I’ll start out with some real softballs just to get you in the mode of talking about yourself, because you’re not a real talk-about-yourself kind of guy. How did you decide to play the trombone?
Allen Barnhill: I’ve always had a natural inclination and temperament that was suited for the trombone, but because my small-town school system had a great band director, Ray Haney, who identified that talent and that ability and encouraged me from a very young age to pursue it, I was able to progress quickly.
Vicky: Did your high school have an orchestra or was it just a band?
Allen: Just band. The only chance I had to play in an orchestra was at summer music camp. It was a revelation to me. My teacher also had his own little Dixieland band that played in that area, and so I got to play gigs with the dance band and become a professional musician while I was still in high school. He also got me a chance to play for the Ringling Brothers Circus, which was a really demanding week of playing two circuses a day and three on Saturday. That was a lot of playing, and a real test for a 17-year-old!
Vicky: That’s so cool! So, after high school, what happened?
Allen: Mr. Haney put me in touch with the head of the school of music at Appalachian State, who had a doctorate in trombone from Eastman. I had a couple of lessons with him, auditioned for the Eastman School of Music, and got accepted, which was still kind of a miracle to me at the time. At that time, in the early 1970s, it was the premiere trombone school in quality and tradition, so I was very lucky to get in. I graduated in May of 1977.
Vicky: And when was your audition for the Houston Symphony?
Allen: Five days later, on May 13, 1977.
Vicky: And then your start date, which I’ll never forget—September 4, 1977—because that’s also my birth date! I look forward to us celebrating our 43rd completed year in September.
Allen: Well, thank you for that! I look forward to it as well!
Vicky: Was that your first time to Houston after the audition?
Allen: Yes, I auditioned in May, and I drove down here in August. The city at that time was booming. Houston was growing very rapidly. There was a lot of traffic. But for me, I really embraced it and just enjoyed it so much. It was great!
Vicky: What was the Houston Symphony like when you first joined it?
Allen: I had a strong desire to play in an orchestra, so getting a job in the Houston Symphony was a dream come true. When I started, I had a lot of idealism but not much experience, so I had a chance to develop my voice as a trombone in this distinctive-sounding orchestra. The orchestra, even at that time, had a rich, resonant, luxurious sound in the lower voices—low strings, low winds, low brass. And on top of that, there was this intense singing lyricism in the orchestra. The sound reflected the influence of our former music directors, especially Leopold Stokowski and Sir John Barbirolli.
Now, we really have been able to embrace the priestly role of the trombones and tuba, the low brass. And it’s such a privilege to be involved in that. Our commodity is the sound we make, so we care deeply about it. I’m thankful for colleagues that I have.
Vicky: I like that you refer to it as the “priestly role.”
Allen: Well, Felix Mendelssohn said, “the trombone is too sacred for frequent use,” and then he proceeded to demonstrate by just sort of reserving the trombone sound for those special moments where the voice of God was finally delivered. And this is also true of Schumann and Brahms, who use the trombone sparingly, but when they are used, they’re very prominent and distinctive.
Vicky: That’s interesting. So, I guess you’re saying he meant that as a compliment?
Allen: Sure, I like to think of it that way!
Vicky: I like that. We’re going to take that as a compliment. Who have been some of your favorite conductors over the years?
Allen: Well, I could just go down the list of music directors. Lawrence Foster in the late 1970s is the guy that hired me. He was really good with Wagner operas, and also the music of Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Sergiu Comissiona in the 1980s reinforced this rich, lyrical style of playing, and he did it during a time of stress, when Houston was in somewhat of a recession. Then, of course, Christoph Eschenbach is very well known to all of us, a champion who recorded the orchestra and took us on tour all over the world. Hans Graf got us our Grammy for Wozzeck, and led big, romantic pieces like Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben and Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. And of course, all these traditions are carried on extremely well by Andrés.
Vicky: Do you have a favorite conductor experience or moment that you’ll never forget?
Allen: This is a bit on the serious side. It was a Christoph Eschenbach program, Mahler’s Third Symphony, the first subscription week in 1989. It has a prominent trombone solo in the first movement—one of those very priestly moments for the trombone. My daughter, my first child, was born right before we played that. And Christoph’s mother had just died. Afterward, Christoph comes up to me and says, “That was one of the most meaningful moments in my orchestral career.” He was very kind to say that to me at the time.
Vicky: We have a pretty versatile orchestra here. You guys are able to pick up all kinds of styles and music, which is not so common. Many conductors that come through are very complimentary of the orchestra’s ability to play so many different styles.
Allen: We take pride in that. We can swing!
Vicky: What other memorable Houston Symphony experiences have you had with your colleagues, on or off the stage?
Allen: Of course, they are innumerable! In the 1990s, when we did a good bit of touring, and just being in the hotel bar or the lobby with colleagues after a concert was so much fun. It was a great privilege to be the musical ambassadors for Houston in those places. We played in Europe and Japan quite a few times, and we spent a week in Singapore around 1990. I knew that Singapore was a good place to buy tailor-made clothing. I made friends with a tailor who ended up making tails and tuxedo formal dress for the whole low brass section. It was of the highest quality. I’m still wearing it, actually, and that was 30 years ago. And then after we gave her all that business, she took us out to the Banana Leaf Apollo Indian restaurant in Singapore for a feast. That was a lot of fun.
Vicky: What do you think you would be if you weren’t a trombonist?
Allen: I will always find a way to be an active participant in music of one kind or another. Aside from playing in an orchestra, I’m also a big fan of choral music and various kinds of popular music. Maybe I could even find time yet to have that second career as a rock star! Becoming a trombone player from the swamp of North Carolina was very impractical and unlikely. It was like, “You what?!”
Vicky: I can imagine! You have such a great history here. I hope that we’re back together soon so we can share all this wonderful music with people. I know a lot of people miss it. Thank you!