Esteban Batallán lives his dream of being in the CSO

December 06, 2021 Nancy Malitz ,

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Young or old, student or pro, nearly all trumpet players have a story to tell about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, so renowned is its powerful brass sound. Backstage at Orchestra Hall, the CSO’s celebrated Principal Trumpet Esteban Batallán shares his own memories about an accidental encounter with a living legend back in 2003.

The Spanish-born virtuoso, who was appointed to the CSO in 2019 by Music Director Riccardo Muti, was back then a young player with the City of Granada Orchestra, in town with dreams of playing in the CSO some day. Walking along a Symphony Center corridor, Batallán looked up, astonished to see none other than Adolph Herseth, the CSO’s then principal trumpet

emeritus, coming toward him from the other direction. Herseth passed a discreet glance at Batallán’s trumpet case and kept on going.

“I was speechless,” Batallán said, pointing out that his idols since boyhood had been Herseth, French trumpeter Maurice André and Latin jazz instrumentalist Arturo Sandoval. “I grew up deciding to be a trumpet player because of them. Herseth was the musician that influenced me the most particularly in the sound. That I am playing in his orchestra now — that is still a dream that I wake up to every day.”

In the years after 2003, Batallán would steadily gain experience. He became principal trumpet with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, permormed with the CSO as an occasional guest player at Orchestra Hall and even traveled with the Cso on tour before his appoiment. 

Now 37, Batallán is entrenched as the CSO’s trumpet leader, and he has been busy organizing music for the annual CSO Brass concert, scheduled this year on Dec. 15, with some help from trumpet colleague John Hagstrom. The popular all-brass concert — featuring a full contingent of trumpets, horns, trombones, bass trombone and tuba — has become a mid-December fixture on the CSO calendar.

The CSO Brass will perform an arrangement of Batallán’s called Sacrae Suite, from solemn music of the Russian liturgy by late 19th-century composers such as Pavel Chesnokov, Aleksandr Sheremetev and Mikhail Shukh. “These are not the famous Russian composers like Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, but the Russian colors are very rich, and there are some wonderful antiphonal effects, like Gabrieli, in it,” Batallán said. “And Shukh, who adored Shostakovich, created something like a silent prayer.”

There will be sparkle and ferocity, too: Batallán intends to perform a dazzling set piece from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, originally written for the tempestuous Queen of the Night. Her stratospherically high coloratura soprano aria “Der Hölle Rache” (Hell’s Vengeance) will be transcribed for a high piccolo trumpet. (This arrangement was a favorite encore piece of Batallán’s idol Maurice André.)

For majesty, the CSO brass players will delve into “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” from Holst’s The Planets. A glorious Romantic masterwork arranged for brass ensemble also is planned: the resounding “Auferstehen” finale of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. And the musicians intend to offer some contemporary tunes, too.

“I love music of all kinds,” Batallán said. Several years ago, he himself composed “Nightfall” for flügelhorn, inspired by the famous Sandoval song “To Diz With Love” and dedicated to Herseth. Now Sandoval has responded with a piece of his own for flügelhorn called “Mr. Batallán.” He and Batallán recently read through it together at Sandoval’s home.

Batallán’s instrument is one that Herseth himself used, and it’s part of a matched set of large-bore Vincent Bach C trumpets that Fritz Reiner, then CSO music director, arranged for the orchestra to acquire in 1955. “They picked the best of the lot,” Batallán said. He plays one, and so does Hagstrom.

Along the way, the CSO brass acquired a reputation for its quintessentially bright, thrilling sonority with a precise frontal attack and rich resonance that people have come to call “Chicago Brass” or “Chicago Sound.”

Batallán revels in it: “The fact that I am in this orchestra today, it is still a dream.” 

Nancy Malitz, a founding music critic at USA Today, developed Classical Voice North America for the Music Critics Association of North America and founded the theater and arts website Chicago On the Aisle. She has written about music for the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications.