Mr. Battenberg's Opus: The Columbus Symphony trumpeter says goodbye

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

After 50 years with the Columbus Symphony, Tom Battenberg is hanging up his trumpet-sort of. His son explains.

You can't just pick upa trumpet a couple times a week and play like my dad does. I'm not talking about the years he invested as a kid and young adult learning the instrument, or the hours he spends practicing whatever pieces he'll be performing at a given concert. I'm talking about the daily routine of keeping his "lip" in shape. Even if his next performance was weeks away-a theoretical situation when it comes to my always-busy dad-he'd still warm up almost every day.

Anyone who's been part of our family or has ever lived next door knows my dad's warmup routine. It lasts about 20 minutes and is exactly the same every time. It's been more than 30 years since I lived under his roof, and I can still hum most of it. It includes long notes, short flurries, high notes, low notes, notes that bend and notes that don't. If you've never heard it before, you might think it was a cool demo of what a trumpet can do. If you've heard it thousands of times, many of them early in the morning when you were still trying to sleep, you'd have a different opinion.

That dedication to keeping his lip in shape is part of what has made my dad such a successful player for so many years. Being a musician has always been his passion and No. 1 priority. So I was surprised a few years ago when he told me something I thought I'd never hear: He was planning to hang it up.

He had looked at the calendar and realized that the stars were going to align on July 30, 2016-his 75th birthday and the final Picnic with the Pops show for the summer, capping his 50th year with the Columbus Symphony. Retiring on the day those other milestones clicked into place sounded like a cool plan, he said.

When my dad started at the symphony in 1966, the musicians were all locals, and mostly music teachers at area elementary, middle or high schools. The orchestra only performed concerts once every three or four weeks. The pay scale was $10 for a rehearsal and $15 for a concert. Rehearsals were held at night because everyone had day jobs.

It's a long way from there to the symphony of today, with its 26-week season and 50 or so full-time musicians, many of whom came to Columbus from other cities after winning auditions. The pay is much higher-a minimum of $168 per rehearsal/concert-and so is the prestige, as evidenced by 2001's sold-out show at New York City's famed Carnegie Hall.

The symphony hasn't been my dad's only gig, of course. He also has been principal trumpet player for the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra since it debuted in 1978. He's led a jazz combo since the 1960s and the High Street Stompers Dixieland band since the '80s. As kids, my little brother, Kurt, and I pulled roadie duty for the jazz combo or Stompers, hauling microphones, music stands or anything else our preadolescent bodies could carry.

In those days, my dad was best-known for directing the OSU Jazz Ensemble, which he did from 1970 to 1990. The ensemble won national and international awards, toured both coasts and Europe multiple times, released a bunch of records and regularly played to full houses at Weigel Hall and Mershon Auditorium. Back then, it seemed like I couldn't tell anyone in Columbus that my last name was Battenberg without the reply being, "Are you related to Tom?"

As that July 30 Picnic with the Pops concert approached, I made plans to fly with my family from San Diego-our home for the last 10 years-to Columbus for the big birthday/retirement party. No way would I miss my dad's final performance, or the last chance for my 4-year-old daughter, Camille, to finally see "Tompa" on stage.

Then in late February, my dad mentioned that his retirement plan had … evolved. The thought of mothballing the horn in its velvet-lined case apparently was too final. Too abrupt. Too soon. He emailed and said the 50-year milestone still marked a good stopping point with the symphony. But ProMusica? He'd play a little longer. Same with an occasional Stompers gig. And what the heck-if the symphony called and asked him to fill in on occasion, well, the lip was still good. He'd make sure of it. "After giving it a lot of thought, I decided I just can't quit playing cold turkey," he said.

My family will still come to Columbus for the big birthday/semi-retirement party. It might actually be good to hear that daily warmup routine again.

Erik Battenberg is a former staff writer for Columbus Monthly.