Grand Rapids Symphony’s new principal trumpeter isn’t new to the orchestra.
In fact, Charley Lea Jr. last season celebrated his 25th anniversary season as the orchestra’s assistant principal trumpet.
Lea becomes the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first, new principal trumpet in more than 40 years as well as the first principal player named since appointment of new Music Director Marcelo Lehninger in June.
A native of Charlotte, Lea isn’t completely new to the position. Over the years, he’s filled in as principal trumpet a number of times, sometimes on short notice.
“It feels very comfortable and familiar,” Lea said.
After former principal trumpet Michael Bowman retired at the end of the 2014-15 season, Lea has served as interim principal trumpet on a regular basis.
“I really loved doing it,” he said.
Though Lea has been a member of the Grand Rapids Symphony since the 1991-92 season, his appointment to the principal chair wasn’t automatic. Candidates must audition successfully before the music director and a committee of orchestra members in order to win a position. Newly named principal players also are subject to a probationary period before receiving the position permanently with tenure.
Symphony orchestra auditions typically involve performing a series of the most difficult passages for that instrument from the standard symphonic repertoire as well as playing a prepared solo.
One of the excerpts, from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” Lea will perform publicly with the Grand Rapids Symphony in March. Another from J.S. Bach’s B minor Mass, served to test his skill with the piccolo trumpet.
One of the toughest was from Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major.
“It’s very challenging,” Lea said. “I’ve spent years working on that.”
But Lea was pleased with his audition, which involved some 45 minutes of actual playing.
“I was playing well, and my head was on just right,” he said. “I felt really good about it.
Lea, who began playing the trumpet at age 10, was appointed assistant principal trumpet under former Music Director Catherine Comet. His solo appearances with the Grand Rapids Symphony include playing the early 19th century Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel in St. Cecilia Music Center in the fall of 1993.
In 2009, Lea premiered “La Grande Vitesse Trio Concerto” for solo trumpet, French horn and trombone by James Stephenson. The Grand Rapids Symphony commissioned the piece that was premiered with Associate Conductor John Varineau on the podium. Lea was joined by Grand Rapids Symphony colleagues Erich Peterson on French horn and Dan Mattson on trombone as soloists.
“What was nice about that was that all three of us were the assistant principal players,” Lea said.
He has served on the music department faculties of Grand Valley State University, Hope College and Aquinas College. One of his former trumpet students, Muskegon native Hunter Eberly was appointed principal trumpet of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in February 2013.
“He’s brilliant,” Lea said. “One of the most determined guys I’ve ever known.”
Prior to joining the Grand Rapids Symphony, Lea served as principal trumpet of Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra in Detroit and has appeared many times with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Lea also has held a position with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra since 1994 and has been a featured soloist with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and has participated in the Festival of Two Worlds in both Charleston, South Carolina, and in Spoleto, Italy.
After Bowman announced his plans to step down, the Grand Rapids Symphony held a national audition in May 2015 to fill the vacancy. At the time, Lea chose not to participate, and the committee made no selection at the time.
One year later, after serving as interim principal trumpet, Lea decided to take the audition. Beginning in June, he worked intently on his audition material the next five months while also performing with the orchestra.
“I’m prioritizing my practice better than ever,” he said.
But he didn’t mind the months of hard work.
“I’m a trumpet geek,” he said with a laugh.