Joseph Alessi is a trombonist and a principal for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He will be a guest performer in the upcoming PSO concert on November 10. Alessi will be the first guest trombonist for the PSO since its inception. This trombone wonder likes to play golf, although he admits he could use some lessons. iMeet this amazingly talented musician who will change your tune about trombones.
Welcome to iMeet, Joseph. Tell us about yourself…
I’m from San Rafael, California, and that’s where I grew up. I won’t list every detail, but I come from a musical family. My father had a big career in New York City as a trumpet player and he played in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. He met my mother there, who was a singer… she was one of the principal singers at the MET. And my brother was a jazz trumpet player. So music was very much a part of my life.
Tell us about your family…
We have two cats, Chester and Sammy. I met my wife Katherine in the Montreal Symphony when we played there together - she’s a violist. My son went to Yale and graduated as a history and theatre major, and now works in Manhattan as an SAT tutor. My daughter graduated from the Boston Conservatory, she’s a singer and songwriter, and currently a social media manager.
Tell us about your journey as a trombonist…
Well, my father began to teach me to be a trumpet player, on the cornet, when I was about five. But when I was about eight years old, he thought that the trombone would fit me better - the mouthpiece is a little larger on a trombone. He was right - it was a much better fit and so I continued to play trombone from age eight.
I won a competition when I was about 14 years old that was sponsored by Pepsi-Cola, and that was a big turning point for me. That’s when I decided I would be a professional trombonist.
You are going to be a guest performer in an upcoming PSO concert. How did this come about?
Well, Reese King, the Orchestra’s Director, is a trombonist himself, so I think it was his idea. He also knew a friend of mine in Alabama and I think they talked, and so the idea was probably born between the two of them. This friend, the professor of trombone at the University of Alabama, is a very good friend of mine and I believe Mr. King was his student.
You will be the first guest trombonist for the PSO. That’s exciting! What are some common misconceptions about trombones?
People don’t think it’s a musical instrument! I think people associate the trombone with a marching band, or a military band. It’s known as a comical instrument… you hear it in cartoons and that type of thing. Not many people know that it can play beautiful musical lines and melodies as well.
We don’t tend to hear the trombone in the melodic fashion unless you know something about jazz. In the jazz world, trombones have really made their mark. For instance, Tommy Dorsey was probably the most famous big band trombone leader, but he played the trombone in a beautiful way. If you look back in history, a lot of the great trombone players that existed were known in the jazz world.
You’re a principal in the New York Philharmonic. Tell us about your experience with that…
Well, this is my 34th year. I’ve experienced five different music directors. Zubin Mehta hired me, and then I worked under Kurt Masur, and then Lorin Maazel, followed by Alan Gilbert, and then the new music director who just started: Jaap van Zweden.
It’s been the greatest thing to be paid to blow warm air through brass tubing! But my job is certainly so much more than that. There’s also a great camaraderie with all the fantastic musicians, all the touring and traveling we’ve done all over the world, and performing new music that the orchestra has premiered.
I’ve been fortunate to have been one of their frequent soloists over the years, and I’ve premiered a lot of wonderful solo works with the orchestra. So it’s a dream come true. Every classical trombonist for sure has aspirations to play in an orchestra, and there are only a handful of people of people in the world that’s able to do that… so I’m very fortunate.
Tell us about your Alessi seminars…
I was going all over the place doing master classes many times throughout the year. Then my wife suggested “Rather than go all over the place, why don’t you just have everybody come to you?” So in my hometown of Nyack we started the first “Alessi Seminar”, and that was 20 years ago. I’ve done one every year.
It’s just a chance for anybody who’s interested in what I do. We’ve held the seminar in my hometown, in University of New Mexico, the University of Alabama, and the last one was at the University of Oregon. We have about 100 trombone players come, and it’s very intensive because there are a lot of lectures, classwork and performing.
Now I’ve begun sort of a new branding: “Alessi Seminar Asia”. I’m going to go to Asia and do these seminars, which lasts about a week. I enjoy teaching so much I feel like I have to pass on what I know.
Do you think it’s important for children to play a musical instrument?
Well, if you look at people who are not professional musicians, who are adults, and have studied music, they always are very appreciative that they were able to study music. To them, at least when they described it to me, they said how it’s helped them so much in their professional life in business, sports, etc.
There’s a lot of gratification and experience you get from being disciplined as a musician and it rubs off in other fields, I think. Also, when you think about what the brain can do, music is probably among one of the most amazing things. People latch onto music right away through rhythms and melody, and to be able to actually create those rhythms and melodies yourself… there’s nothing like it.
When you’re not playing the trombone, what else do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a horrible golfer, but I do enjoy the game. I’m hoping to play some golf in Arizona; that’s where I’ll be before I come to Kentucky. I’m also a runner; I like to run 3-4 miles every day or so. Another one of my passions is mono-skiing. We have a place in Canada on a lake and so every summer I’m determined to get up one ski and have fun.
And most importantly, just spending time with my wife and kids. There’s not a lot of free time when you’re a musician that is active… you’re constantly having to practice. There’s never a time that you won’t have to practice.
Describe a typical day for you…
I’ll say good morning to my wife, and she goes off to work. I’ll go out running, come back, and warm up on my instrument. Then I’ll go to the New York Philharmonic, and do a two and a half hour rehearsal, and then have lunch. After that I’ll teach four to five hours at Juilliard… I’ve been a professor there for about 30 years. And then I’ll perform in the concert that night. That’s describing my busiest days.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Probably to have twice as much lung capacity as I have right now! Because you know, your lung capacity decreases as you get older. So, if I could just have just one wish where a genie would come down and say, “What would you wish for?” I’d say, hey, I’d like twice as much lung capacity.