by Barbara Jöstlein Currie, hornist
Joseph Alessi, the distinguished principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, is renowned throughout the world as one of the preeminent orchestral musicians of our time. What is less well-known, however, is that his parents first met when they were both performers at the Met - his father, also named Joseph Alessi, a trumpet player; his mother, Maria Leone Alessi, a soprano. Eventually, they fell in love with California and moved to San Francisco, but their story until then is a fascinating look at the traditions and love of music-making that can span generations.
Barbara Jöstlein Currie: Your father was principal trumpet of the Met for almost 15 seasons. What were some of his favorite stories?
Joseph Alessi: I think the funniest story he ever told was about a violist, Gabriel Pear. Mr. Pear had been a member of the orchestra for many years. On the occasion of his 50th year in the orchestra, the Met celebrated the event by bringing Mr. Pear on stage between acts, and he was presented with a plaque celebrating the occasion. Until that point, nobody had ever reached this milestone. After the celebration, Mr. Pear continued playing in the orchestra for several more years, but one day, a fellow musician looked up a key paragraph in the collective bargaining agreement at that time. It stated, if you were fired for any reason, you could collect severance pay. The amount was not much, but his colleague pointed out to Mr. Pear that the payment was multiplied by the number of years of service. In Mr. Pear’s case that was over 50 years, so it was now a very sizable amount of money! Mr. Pear asked some of his fellow musicians how he could get fired and proceeded to try a number of things. My father remembered Mr. Pear bringing some nuts into a performance opening them during quiet moments, making a very loud crackly sound. I believe Cleva was conducting and he was furious, but Mr. Pear wasn’t fired. He tried doing bowings that were opposite of everyone else - my father remembered seeing from across the pit one lone bow acting independently. This also did not seem to do the trick to get fired. His most outrageous attempt was when the orchestra was playing Parsifal in Cleveland. Apparently there was no pit in the hall, so the audience could see the orchestra very clearly. During one of the very quiet moments, Mr. Pear got up and walked out. The conductor gave him a very dirty look and the musicians could not figure out why or where he was going. About 30 minutes later in the act, he returned with a tray of hot dogs. He tried to pass them out to his colleagues but everyone just kept on playing and ignoring him. Unbelievably, he still wasn’t fired. Apparently the management knew what he was up to and refused to pay Mr. Pear severance pay. He eventually just gave up.
BJC: How did he feel about his time at the Met?
JA: If you look back at that period, the pay was really not that much and many musicians had to do other things to make ends meet. I think he enjoyed his time there very much and, of course, he met my mother there. He talked about playing poker during long rests in performances - I believe that still exists today. He never stopped practicing - he really loved the music - but I think he enjoyed the camaraderie most of all.
BJC: As a child, did you hear your mother sing often?
JA: My mother was very involved with her local church choir where I grew up in San Rafael, California. Many times, she would be the featured soloist. While she did not have a professional career after the Met, her love of singing continued. I remember on many Christmas Eves hearing her sing Ave Maria beautifully. I would often hear her vocalize and go over her exercises. She had a wonderful sense of phrasing from the heart. I am so happy to have a recording of her preserved on my website so that everyone can hear what an amazing voice she had.
BJC: Did this have a strong impact on your concept of sound and musical phrasing?
JA: She would listen to me practice and occasionally offer me some advice. When she sensed frustration on my part, she would interrupt me and tell me, “Keep it singing!” This always helped - it made things considerably easier for a teenage brass player. To this day, I model my phrasing after hers.
BJC: Did she ever sing opera again?
JA: She did some recitals and even appeared on local television but her opera days were finished. I think she knew that it didn’t get any better than being onstage at the Met with Zinka Milanov and Richard Tucker. She made the choice to raise a family. I know she missed her Met days, but she never looked back and devoted her life to her family and her church.
BJC: What about your father? Did you hear him practicing at home, or did you and your brother hear him play professionally- and how did this impact your musical life?
JA: Dad was a real brass player. He faithfully warmed up every day and, like so many other brass players, he liked to warm up in front of the TV watching his favorite sports event (usually the Giants or the 49ers). He had a big, fat sound and enjoyed teaching almost more than playing. My father had this way of teaching where you felt like it was the way to play. This included the formation of the embouchure, how to practice, and an incredible feel for basic rhythms.
I was fascinated to read that your grandfather, also named Joseph Alessi, was also principal trumpet from 1920-1927 at the Met. Do you have any stories from or about him?
I’m very sad to say that I actually do not remember him. Of course I met him when I was about two or three years old, but he tragically died traveling home after teaching all day at Manhattan School of Music. He got off the bus in Norwood, New Jersey, and was struck by a car. He was probably 80 years old. I was told by my father that he was a great cornet virtuoso in his hometown in Sicily. I met several of his old students who resided here in New York. They all told me that he was a very caring teacher and that he went out of his way to help them all. Steve Dillon (the owner of Dillon Music) looked up some information about him when he was cornet soloist at the old Rialto Theater. There were many New York Times reviews about his performances that I have saved. One in particular that mentioned in the same paragraph about a young violin soloist across the street at the Capitol Theater. His name was Eugene Ormandy.
Tell me about your father’s involvement in developing the straight and Jo-Ral mutes[, which quiet brass instruments and change their tone color].
Another interesting story from my father. [Longtime New York Philharmonic Principal Trumpet] Bill Vachianno was my father’s teacher and close friend. Bill would often complain about mutes that never played well in the low register. Well, he found himself faced with playing the American premiere of the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1, which has a very prominent, and occasionally low, solo trumpet part. At the time my father was living pretty close to Bill, so on the weekends, they experimented with making mutes from scratch. Frustratingly, they never could make one that played consistently across all registers. They had all of these mutes on a shelf, and one day, after many, many failed attempts, the shelf became dislodged and all the mutes fell to the floor. One landed in such a way that it created a flat spot on the bottom of the mute. The picked it up and tried it and, voila, it worked! The mute became one of the best-selling trumpet and trombone mutes in the world. During their playing career, it was very difficult for them to keep up with demand and they ended up selling their designs to the Selmer Leblanc company. My father always regretted his decision to sell and decided to develop another line of mutes. He asked one day what he should call these new line of mutes. I joked, “Name it Jo-Ral, after your sons!” He liked it and went with that!
Thanks so much for your time, Joe! Is there somewhere we can find out more about your parents’ stories and careers?
JA: My website has a whole section dedicated to recordings and other media of my mother from her Met days, including radio broadcasts, studio recordings, and pictures. Thanks so much for doing this!