Meet a Young Professional: Zac Hammond of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra

Zac Hammond, Principal Oboe of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of Zac Hammond.)
Zac Hammond, Principal Oboe of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Robin P. Gould/courtesy of Zac Hammond.)

While still in his senior year of college, oboist Zac Hammond was already a professional, serving as Acting Principal Oboe of the Syracuse Symphoria.  Now the principal oboist of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, Hammond was kind enough to talk with Classical Conditioning about his experiences as a young orchestral professional, advice for young people embarking on professional auditions, and what young musicians can contribute to the changes facing the classical music world.

CC: Tell us about yourself!

ZH: I  grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and began playing the oboe when I was in fifth grade with my elementary school’s music program.  I began lessons with a local musician when I was in seventh grade, but I didn’t really become serious about it until around my sophomore year of high school, when I began studying with Robert Morgan, the solo English horn and assistant principal oboist of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  After high school, I did my undergrad at the Eastman School of Music, studying under Richard Killmer.  I also studied Baroque oboe with Geoffrey Burgess and was a part of Eastman’s Arts Leadership Program.

I was very lucky during my senior year at Eastman to be asked to play Acting Principal Oboe with Symphoria (formerly the Syracuse Symphony).  I was also a regular substitute with the Rochester Philharmonic and a few other groups in upstate New York.  I was later offered an official contract with Symphoria and decided after I was done at Eastman that I would remain in upstate New York and continue playing with them.  However, I also decided to begin taking more professional orchestra auditions, and I actually ended up winning the Principal Oboe spot with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra last fall.  So, in January of 2015 I moved to South Carolina to begin my new job in Charleston, and I have been there ever since.

Some notable performances for me include playing part of the Corigliano Oboe Concerto at the Banff Centre in Canada while John Corigliano was in the audience.  Also, in high school I played a side-by-side concert with the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela in Chicago with Gustavo Dudamel conducting.  And there are probably so many more that I am not thinking of right now.

Fun facts: I have an intense love for pickles (and I love that fried pickles are really common in Charleston), and I played football (center, specifically) for many years growing up and into high school.

CC: How, if at all, has being a young professional affected your experience in the orchestra?

ZH: Being one of the youngest members of the professional groups that I play with has actually proven to be a pretty positive thing most of the time.  I think with orchestras so eager to find ways to attract younger audiences, they are generally very receptive to working with younger musicians.  Of course, being young and new in a group with musicians who have been playing together for decades requires you to be aware of the traditions and personalities of the specific members of the group.  I find that a huge part of my job is related to getting along with people.

CC: There’s a lot of dialogue in the classical music world about making the genre accessible to younger audiences.  What do you think young professionals can contribute to this dialogue?

ZH: I think young classical musicians are pretty crucial when it comes to increasing the accessibility of classical music.  Because music is so easily accessed now via things like YouTube and Spotify, we need to start to shift the way that people listen to and experience classical music.  It is our job to remind people that the music industry is drastically changing and we need to make sure that classical music changes with it and doesn’t remain stuck in the past.  We also can help to make sure that the classical concert experience adapts to the times.  I think the idea of getting dressed up and going to the symphony on a Saturday night to listen to a traditional program of classical music is quickly becoming outdated.  Young musicians can help to push administrations to tailor classical music to things that actually appeal to younger audiences (current artists, mixing genres, allowing drinking/socializing/dancing, etc.).

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Meet a Young Professional: Nikki LaBonte of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra

Nikki LaBonte, Acting Assistant Principal Horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Nadine Photography, courtesy Nikki LaBonte.
Nikki LaBonte, Acting Assistant Principal Horn of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Nadine Photography, courtesy of Nikki LaBonte.)

Nikki LaBonte is an accomplished French horn player with loads of accolades and opportunities under her belt, from an upcoming stint with the New York Philharmonic to her recent appointment as Acting Assistant Principal of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.  But LaBonte takes on these opportunities from a unique perspective: she only just finished her sophomore year of college this past spring.  LaBonte also happens to count among my favorite humans and closest friends, and kindly took time out of her burgeoning career to talk with Classical Conditioning about the challenges and advantages of navigating the classical music world as a young professional.

CC: Tell us about yourself!

NL: I’m originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and I started playing the horn in the fourth grade at my elementary school.  Now, I’m serving as the Acting Assistant Principal of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra based in Honolulu.  Because of that, I’m currently on a leave of absence from the Eastman School of Music, where I just finished my sophomore year of undergrad studying with W. Peter Kurau.  Additionally, I’ve subbed as an extra player with orchestras including the Rochester Philharmonic, Buffalo Philharmonic, New World Symphony, and Syracuse Symphoria.  In January, I’ll be participating in a fellowship program with the New York Philharmonic and will be playing side-by-side with members of the Philharmonic in a set of regular subscription concerts.  Fun facts: I’m a certified scuba diver, and I could watch episodes of Law and Order for the rest of my life and never become discontented.

CC: What are the challenges and/or advantages of being so young in the professional music world?

NL: I want to start by saying that I love the way this question is phrased.  So often, musicians can feel like there are so many challenges as a young player that we fail to see the many benefits of being a “newbie.”  I think sometimes we can let these disadvantages overwhelm us and don’t push ourselves to the level we ought to expect.

I’m not denying that there aren’t challenges.  It can be tough to balance your lack of experience with that of your colleagues who have sometimes been in the orchestra longer than you’ve been alive.  You have to do more homework to make up for not having played the pieces before.  Score study, rehearsing with a recording, mental practice.  And as tedious as this can seem when put into writing, the time spent doing this research is NEVER wasted.  You too will almost certainly these pieces many times in the future and thus, this work is more of an investment than a tax.

But, the advantages can far outweigh any of these “challenges.”  I think that with the benefits of the aforementioned experience, there can also come a side effect of disillusionment.  And we don’t have to be old to experience this.  Many a high school horn player has already grown accustomed to letting out an obligatory groan every time a Sousa march is put on their stand.  But, the first time we played this march, there certainly were no outbursts of passive objection.  So it is when you’re a young player in an orchestra.  Each piece is new and fresh and even the small victories of advancing in an audition or even making it through all the excerpts in a round before hearing the dreaded “thank you” are accomplishments worth a great deal of celebration.  As we get older, we can quickly lose the excitement and thrill that this music and these events can offer.  I think consciously, we have to reject that as we grow older and accumulate experience.  We must always remember that music is something far too spectacular to become boring.  Continue reading

The Dream Unfinished: An interview with Eun Lee

The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights is an event taking place July 17 — the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death — in New York City.  Part concert, part rally, part all-around art-meets-society awesomeness, the event will benefit some incredible social justice organizations while bringing the classical music community to the forefront of activism in a social arena in which it has largely remained silent.

This event is a big deal.  Illustrious guest speakers and featured musicians complement a guaranteed powerful program of music by Leonard Bernstein, famously an activist and advocate for music and social change; William Grant Still, one of the most significant African-American figures in classical music; and Jessie Montgomery, a contemporary composer and violinist with a fresh perspective and too many accolades to name.

The project is the brainchild of musician and educator Eun Lee, who was kind enough to answer some questions about her work with The Dream Unfinished, the importance of this event in the classical music and global communities, and how others can get involved.


CC: How did The Dream Unfinished get started?  How did you first get involved?

EL: I first had the idea for organizing this event last year, when I, like many of my peers, began to pay close attention to the news as the string of deaths of unarmed African-American men and teenagers were getting publicized.  As more and more articles kept popping up, it became clear that this wasn’t an isolated set of instances but part of a much bigger, larger problem.  I knew that, like others, I could share and disseminate information; march in protest; and donate modestly to activist efforts; but I wondered if there was anything I could do uniquely as a classical musician to respond to these issues.

I also observed that while prominent musicians of other genres (hip hop, folk, jazz) were engaging with the Black Lives Matter movement, the classical music community at large remained silent.  Even when the protest was brought to the concert hall, orchestra administrations and musicians have by and large refused to comment or address these issues (the lone exception being the #OneBaltimore concert, which was a joint production between Soulful Symphony and the Baltimore Symphony).  And, to be frank, I know exactly why none of these institutions are speaking out; they have donors and audiences they may be afraid of offending, and they may not necessarily have anything to gain from getting involved.  But, while these institutions may be silent, as I did more asking around, I realized there were a great number of individuals within the classical music community who cared passionately about what was going on in the news and in their own cities, but they had no platform on which to speak out.

So, after a few months of allowing these ideas to percolate, doing some initial research, and conferring with others, last December I reached out to James Blachly, our artistic director, who is known for having curated similar concerts for a cause, and it was from that initial email exchange that the idea grew into the production that is taking shape today.

CC: In your own words, what is The Dream Unfinished?  Why is it important?

EL: The Dream Unfinished is a symphonic benefit for civil rights.  Proceeds from the concert will support the ongoing work of social justice organizations like the Center for Constitutional Rights, Justice League NYC, and the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice.  More important than the financial outcome of this concert is the goal of using music to bring together people from all walks of life, both on stage and in the audience, to express solidarity with this movement.

CC: This project is such an amazing and vital intersection of art and society.  What does the interplay between the art and society mean to you?  How can the arts enact change?

EL: As a music educator, I am part of an international movement called El Sistema, which began in Venezuela 40 years ago.  Its basic premise is that through the model of an orchestra, we can instill in under served students the skills and attitudes they will need for future success, and bing about meaningful change to their communities.  It is through my involvement with this movement, as well as my observations of the work being done in organizations like Community MusicWorks, which inspire me to continue finding my own path of using music as a means of public service.

CC: Tell us a little bit about what your own role is in this project as founder and producer.  What have you been up to?

EL: Basically, I have been wrangling a lot of the individuals involved.  I would say, in equal parts, that James (the conductor) and I were the ones who curated the musical program, and I have also been programming the speeches that will be included in the event.  In recent weeks, I’ve been supervising many of the logistical tasks involved to produce this event, which included contracting the orchestra, securing sponsorship, and directing our staff in our marketing efforts and social media presence.

CC: There are some very notable musicians and public figures who have joined in this project.  What was the process of recruiting their involvement?  Did you find that many were interested in the cause?

EL: Being that the organizers of The Dream Unfinished are by and large an “unknown commodity” as one adviser put it, personal connections have been the most effective for getting access to these notable figures.  Once we have been vetted by these contacts and introductions were made, it was a matter of telling our story of why we felt passionate about this cause, and our vision for the implications and possible outcomes of involving classical music with the issues being addressed.  I would say that for every email we sent that was unanswered or rejected, there was another that was an enthusiastic and resounding yes!  There is so much energy around these issues right now, and I think our event is a way for people to channel their interests into something bigger than themselves.

CC: How can others get involved and help this project succeed?

EL: DONATE, DONATE, DONATE.  Even donations as little as $5 or $10 are welcome, as this concert will not happen if we don’t reach our fundraising goals.  We also have a number of smaller-scale events leading up to the headline event in July, so if you’re in town, attend those and encourage others to do the same.  Most importantly, as I know donating is not always an option for everyone, help promote!  Follow us on our social media platforms, share our content, talk about the event with your friends and family, and help us make some noise so we have a full house in July.


The Dream Unfinished: A Symphonic Benefit for Civil Rights

July 17 | 7:30 pm | Centennial Memorial Temple, New York City, USA

Classical music still has something to say: An interview with Stefano Semprini

Italian violinist and composer Stefano Semprini has undertaken a project that he hopes will redefine how classical music is perceived in Italy, and in a larger sense, how classical music fits into a global artistic culture that favors popular media over creative substance.  His upcoming album Essere (“To Be”), a collection of his works for violin and piano, explores various styles and creative outlets, classical as well as contemporary, with the goal of building a classical genre for a new generation.  Mr. Semprini was kind enough to answer a few questions about this project, his compositions, and the state of classical music.

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