World-renowned trumpeter Nathaniel Mayfield holds a baroque trumpet next to three alphorns backstage at Oktoberfest. The baroque master is drawn to the instrument's history, musicality and strength. See more photos. Photo by Phil Houseal
Nate Mayfield: From baroque to polka
by Phil Houseal
Sitting in the back pew of Zion Lutheran church one Sunday, I heard a glorious sound from above.
It was the pure, powerful tone of a trumpet.
Just to make sure Gabriel was not making a premature appearance, I climbed the balcony. For the remainder of the service, I enjoyed a back row seat to a remarkable performance on piccolo trumpet by Nathaniel Mayfield accompanied on organ by Mark Hierholzer.
It was not the place for an interview. But I was able to corner Mayfield later at a no less sacred venue - Oktoberfest. Somehow the Julliard graduate and "one of the most talented baroque trumpeters in the world" had gotten roped into performing with the Polkamatics, which is like cellist Yo Yo Ma playing with the Yo Mamas.
But maybe not. The first thing he wanted to talk about was how the delicate baroque trumpet was related to the alphorn, that long curved instrument used by Swiss farmers to call in their cows. Those opposing qualities are what drew Mayfield to the trumpet.
"My mother is a brilliant musician with a beautiful voice," he said. "I took my musicality from her, and from my father I took his rugged Texas strength. The trumpet has been a perfect fusion of those extremes."
The young man tried other instruments, but none spoke to him with the trumpet's voice. His battle with the trumpet is to play it as musically as possible, while honoring its power. "No other instrument gives me that type of sound quality and difficulty of merging musicality and strength. I am always trying to superimpose those two sides of my life."
So how does one of the world's foremost performers on baroque trumpet - an incredibly difficult instrument to master - rationalize playing Mein Hut er hat drei Ecken at a street festival?
He set down his beer.
"Each represents different parts of humanity. This," he said, gesturing at the revelers, "to me represents happiness and letting go. It is easily understood and approachable, and just fun. Playing baroque music is more serious. It explores man's relationship with God through the art of classical music."
Is one approach more vital?
"It is hard to say," he said. "I think this is in some sense even more vital. It is important for people to be happy and to enjoy their lives. Of course there is the responsibility we have to always push ourselves, to find the highest ideal."
Mayfield has pursued his higher ideals, with studies at The Juilliard School, Columbia University, Interlochen Arts Academy, Tanglewood Institute, and the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe, Germany. It shaped his belief that studying and performing the highest level of music ever written is a way to touch people's souls.
"I love hymns, four part harmony, descants," he said. "I feel they are a real celebration of man's ability - through reason - to have a relationship with God. You know, there is a saying that not every musician believes in God, but they all believe in Bach. I think there is some truth to that just because of what it sparks in our basic core of humanity. Reason is as much a component of faith as the emotional side."
Over the next few months, Mayfield will take his message and his music to Switzerland, Canada, New York, and Hawaii."I enjoy jetting around and playing baroque trumpet. But today," he said, picking up his beer and heading for his seat in the front row of the horn section, "it is Oktoberfest and polkas. Why not?"