Hard Work, a Hand on His Shoulder and a Lifelong Dream: Chicago Symphony Orchestra Principal Trumpet Esteban Batallán

Intermezzo December 2022 Vol. 82 No. 7
Chicago Federation of Musicians
By Sharon Jones/Todd Rosenberg Photography

Anyone who hears the Chicago Symphony Orchestra knows they’ll be treated to an exciting performance, particularly from its renowned brass section. That section is brought to life in no small part by principal trumpet Esteban Batallán. He brings a shine to his craft, informed not only by a sparkling sound and stellar technique, but also a strong work ethic and a reverence for the orchestra itself. His commitment to his work is equally matched by his genial personality. And, there is a joy to his performance, which comes naturally from having the job that he’s dreamed of since childhood.

Esteban’s musical journey began at the age of six when his father, a music lover, took his son to a newly created school of music in their town of Barro in Galicia, Spain. “My father made two attempts with my other brothers to get them interested in music. It didn’t work on them,” he recalls, “but I spent six months at the school on music theory, solfege. And after six months I said, everybody is playing an instrument and I’m just doing solfege and that’s not fun! So we went to a music shop and I tried a bunch of instruments. I don’t know why, but I wanted to play the trumpet. ”

A year later, Esteban continued his training at the Conservatory of Music in Pontevedra and the Conservatory of Music of Vigo and the Galicia School of Musical Studies, finding a mentor in his teacher, Javier Viceiro. “He was 18 and had just won his first job playing in the navy military band in Spain. He offered the perfect guidance. He is so smart, he’s a good conductor and he knows everything about trumpet, music history and music in general.” Esteban advanced quickly, becoming a member of the Municipal Band of Pontevedra at the age of 11, and then, at 18, winning his first job as the assistant principal trumpet with the City of Granada Orchestra, with whom he would become principal trumpet in 2002. While Esteban officially held that chair for the next 16 years, he took leave several times to serve as principal trumpet with the Royal Orchestra of Seville Orchestra, and as guest principal trumpet with the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala and the Filarmonica della Scala from 2015 to 2018. He also performed with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Esteban’s career was flourishing, but he had his heart set on his dream job: principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He had been enamored of the CSO and particularly of Adolph “Bud” Herseth, its longtime principal trumpet. “I’ve been listening exclusively to Chicago Symphony recordings since I was 15 years old,” he says. “I used to say I have the same CD collection as the CSO has, because I own every single commercial recording of theirs that I can find.”

His winning audition in 2017 actually wasn’t his first attempt to join the CSO. “I came to Chicago the first time in 2003, when Bud Herseth retired. I was thinking that I could be principal trumpet of the Chicago Symphony at 19 years old!” He taps his head. “Such a crazy guy! You really have to be mature for that job.”

When asked about how he prepared for his audition in 2017, Esteban leaves the room and returns with a spiral-bound booklet, with the CSO logo in color on the front page. “This is my audition book. Everything is here, including the numbers that I got,” he proclaims proudly, producing the numbered squares of paper indicating what number he was in the audition order. “And these are the last couple of dollars I had when I came to the audition,” he says, holding up a few singles. “In between the days of the first and second rounds, I went to a lesson with (principal trombone) Jay (Friedman) and he signed my book for me,” he recalls, pointing to an autograph on the cover page. “I prepared everything really well. Every single day, no matter what, I was in my practice room for at least three hours. Not just the excerpts, but listening, reading scores and preparing whole parts. If you look at the list, they didn’t really ask for a specific excerpt, so I prepared the full parts of every piece on the list. That was for two and a half months.”

Esteban’s preparation for the CSO audition included getting into the right mindset for the job as well. “The CSO was the orchestra that I always adored since I was a kid, but I had to prepare myself for what my life would be like in Chicago. I thought about the long winters, the hard seasons, the pressure I would have to deal with. I thought about all of those things at the same time I worked on practicing the music.

“If you want to be a musician, you have to be a hard worker, and commit to nonstop learning every single day. Try to define your own way of playing. Create your own style. Not everyone is going to like what you do, but if you’re clear with your musical idea, that’s going to work. Try to always get the best advice from the greatest professionals no matter what instrument they play. They have some advice to tell and their own experiences to relate. Be open to everything.”

He still remembers the thrill of being told he was going to play with the CSO. “After the audition, the personnel manager came and said I was being advanced. It wasn’t the final decision; I had to play a trial with the orchestra first. As I was talking to him, the members of the committee – Dan Gingrich, Robert Chen, John Hagstrom, Mark Ridenour, Michael Mulcahy, Gene Pokorny – came out to congratulate me. Everybody was so excited and I said, well, I’m used to seeing you all on TV and now I have you in front of me! It was a pretty cool moment.”

Unfortunately, red tape and bureaucracy interfered with Esteban’s CSO debut. “I was invited to play the West Coast tour in 2017, but my visa petition was refused. I had to wait A WHOLE YEAR until I could play with the CSO. I finally came to Chicago in June 2018. I played under Maestro Muti for a couple of weeks. We played the Shostakovich Festive Overture, the Shostakovich Cello Concert with Yo-Yo Ma and Prokofiev 3. That first week was not an easy week for a new guy! But the minute I went on stage, I sat in the chair, and I looked around me… I had dreamed of this so many times, and this was real!” Beyond the thrill of being in the chair of his idol, Bud Herseth, Esteban also has the pleasure of playing the same instruments that Herseth played. “We have four trumpets that were bought in 1955 by Fritz Reiner. I play the one that Bud was playing until 1982, and then from 1994 until his retirement in 2005. I have been using that instrument since my second official week.”

Esteban received tenure in 2020, and has settled happily into life in Chicago. He lives close to Symphony Center with his wife Marina, a clarinetist. “We really love being in Chicago. We love this city, especially during the summertime.

“I have so much respect for the institution, for the tradition, for the name,” he smiles, “and sometimes that puts pressure on me. My chair is warm, because it’s such an exposed position in the orchestra, and I sometimes can feel a hand on my shoulder, as if Bud is saying “Young man! Do the right things!” But I know that the one who’s putting on the most pressure is myself. The best weapon is to be ready, and to feel the support of your colleagues. Every time I leave the stage and I see the people and how they react, it’s exciting. Always.”