Mark Lawrence on the Rewards of Chamber Music, Concert Curation, and Teaching

Mark Lawrence, conductor and curator of Sunday’s Colburn Chamber Music Society concert, has enjoyed a decades-long career as a performer and educator.

I love seeing motivated students and helping them to achieve their goals. It helps keep me young and motivated, myself. Mark Lawrence

This Sunday, neighbors from across Grand Avenue will join forces with Colburn brass students in a special concert of brass music spanning ages, curated by Trombone Professor Mark Lawrence. The program, featuring members of the LA Phil brass section, will include arranged pieces from Baroque masters to new works written for brass ensemble.

Mark Lawrence has enjoyed a decades-long career as a performer and educator, serving as Principal Trombone of the San Francisco Symphony for 34 years. In a phone interview, he described the process of curating this concert, the rewards of performing chamber music, and his experience as a teacher.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

You are billed as the “conductor and curator.” What responsibilities has that entailed?
Many, many hours of trying to get the group together from the LA Phil, and trying to come up with an interesting, well-balanced program that’s not only interesting to the audience, but is also meaningful to the students performing.

I’ve been working off and on since May when [Artistic Administration Associate Kerry Smith] came to me and asked me to give an idea of composers and pieces. It’s been ruminating since then.

The program represents a wide range of eras and styles. How did you go about curating it?
One of the challenges you have with any brass group is finding quality original material written for the group. So, what we end up doing a lot of time is finding quality music that would transcribe well for brass instruments. With this vast repertoire, I try to include good arrangements as well as music written for the group.

I start with earlier music like Mouret, Bach, and Gabrieli, and then I morph into more contemporary composers, like Holst. I then go to composers who have actually written for brass, like Mike Forbes and Timo Andres to give a well-balanced sound to the program. I think it works well because the audience can hear the brass in a more classical setting, but also contemporary setting.

Timo Andres will be present for one rehearsal and the performance of his piece Land Lines. How did that come about, and what is special about working directly with the composer?
His piece is a rental, so when we approached him about renting the part, he said, “Oh I’d really like to come out to hear it,” because it was just written about a year ago. It was premiered, and then we performed it at Music Academy of the West, but he wasn’t there for that. What’s great about that is that the performers can hear from the horse’s mouth what he envisions for the piece.

You and all of the musicians on the program are well known as orchestral players, though I understand you’re also an avid chamber musician and soloist. How is playing chamber music different?
I think if you talk to most performing musicians, they’ll say that chamber music is very rewarding. Orchestral music is rewarding too, but you have a conductor who sets the musical style and you are there to realize that. They are basically leading the musical product. With chamber music, you all are involved in the musical product, what the final style is, the interpretation, and you are working with a much smaller group of people. The interaction is much more intense, and you, among yourselves, decide how you are going to play these pieces. As orchestral musicians, it’s a nice break from what we do on a day-to-day basis.

Colburn Chamber Music Society concerts, of course, involve Conservatory musicians performing with renowned guest artists. What does this mean to you, as a teacher and the curator of this concert?
It means a lot, because we did an event similar to this on CCMS with members of the New York Phil Brass. It was very successful, and the students derive so much benefit by sitting next to these professional musicians. It’s one thing to be out in the audience and hear your mentors play, but it’s another thing to be sitting right beside them and working with them. I always get feedback from students that this is one of the highlights of the year, and it really aids in their development as musicians.

What do you hope the Conservatory students participating gain from the experience?
I would say a couple things: First, the students see where they need to be as musicians, listening to people who are doing it professionally. Second, as a student you tend to put these people up on pedestals and think, “Oh I’ll never be that good.” When you are actually working with those musicians you see they are just human beings—they make mistakes, they’re not perfect—and it brings it to a level of a more human interaction so it’s not an unrealistic goal.

You commute from San Francisco to teach at the Conservatory of Music and you also teach at the San Francisco Conservatory. What makes the trip worth it?
The students at Colburn. I love my interaction with the students. I love seeing motivated students and helping them to achieve their goals. It helps keep me young and motivated, myself. And Colburn is elite, so we’re talking about very, very accomplished and talented musicians.

Anything other thoughts?
We’re very happy to be doing this concert. I’m honored and grateful that we have been given this opportunity, and that there are sponsors willing to support concerts like this. I’m honored to show the audience what’s going on in the brass department at Colburn.

Hear members of the LA Phil Brass alongside Colburn students on Sunday, December 3 at 7:30 pm. Get your tickets.