Interview with Doug Burden: 50 Seasons with NACO

Fred cattroll doug burden
Douglas Burden and NACO © Fred Cattroll

In an alternate universe, he could have become a dentist. Instead, and lucky for us, Douglas Burden has been the Bass Trombonist of the National Arts Centre Orchestra since 1972. He recently retired in June 2022 – marking an incredible 50 season career with NACO. 

During his career, Burden also built an impressive resume of freelance work. A few highlights include his time with The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, The National Ballet Orchestra, performing in the pit orchestras for Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, and in the backup orchestras for singers and entertainers such as Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Holly Cole, and Rich Little. He was also a member of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra for seventeen years. 

Burden had an exceptional influence on aspiring musicians as a teacher at the University of Ottawa, the McGill Faculty of Music, and Queen's University, among others.  

We caught up with Doug shortly before his June 25, 2022 farewell concert to go “backstage” of his career as an accomplished musician.  

When you think of why you decided to make music your career, what comes to mind? 

As I look back on my decision, which took place in my late teens, to choose music as my career path (instead of dentistry which was #2). I am very happy I made that choice. As a dentist, I would have made more money and accumulated wealth inflicting pain on my patients. As an orchestral musician, I have accumulated a lifetime of wonderful musical memories and have been enriched by the lives of my colleagues to a degree I cannot fully comprehend or yet fully appreciate. I hope my trombone playing provided joy to the audiences who attended NACO concerts here in Ottawa and on our many national and international tours. 

You have been a member of NACO for a remarkable 50 seasons. Throughout your experience, how has the industry changed? What advice would you give to a young musician who aspires to a professional career in an orchestra? 

The technical level of young musicians graduating from universities and conservatories all over the world is astounding. Students today have access to sound and video recordings of world-renowned artists on platforms such as YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify, and dozens more. These resources ignite the imagination and spark creativity in young musicians. I wish I had those resources growing up as a young music student. 

There are not enough positions in professional orchestras to absorb the overqualified candidates auditioning for these chairs. Winning an orchestral audition has roughly the same odds as winning the 6/49 lottery. The difference is that each candidate taking the audition has studied on average more than 15 years and has earned a Master's or Doctoral degree in the process. Orchestras can be very demanding in who they choose to offer these rare positions. 

What music inspires you and what do you listen to for personal enjoyment? 

One definition of classical music is that it is music that has stood the test of time. I am inspired by great music from all eras of composition Renaissance, Baroque, Classical Era, Romantic, Modern, and Postmodern. As a brass player I am drawn to the Romantic composers such as Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and more. 

For personal pleasure in the classical sphere I listen to Bach, and intimate vocal music for solo voice or choir. My favourite current rock group is COLDPLAY. 

My motorcycle playlist consists of the bands and singers I grew up with as a teenager and university student; Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, America, The Carpenters, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Billy Joel. 

Which concert(s) that you have played stood out to you? Why? 

These concerts are not in any particular order of preference, each is a #1 memory. 

April 5, 2022, Carnegie Hall conducted by Alexander Shelley, the Korngold Violin Concerto with James Ehnes as soloist and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 9. 

Brahms Symphony No. 2 conducted by Pinchas Zukerman at Place des Arts in Montréal was, for me, the perfect performance of that piece.  And it’s one which NACO has performed all over the world. 

Mozart’s Requiem in Carnegie Hall on an Easter Saturday circa 1987, conducted by Helmut Rilling, with his Gächinger Kantorei from Stuttgart Germany.  We were on a tour which included the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.  Musical integrity, interpretation, pacing, purity of sound, musical commitment. 

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in a concert performance in Southam Hall, spring of 1989 conducted by Franco Mannino. Italian opera the way it should be interpreted and performed. 

NACO’s recording of Strauss’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite conducted by Eduardo Mata, for the RCA label. 

The film music of John Williams conducted by Jack Everly in many different Pops concerts  over the years. Great brass writing in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, ET, Harry Potter, Jaws, Schindler’s List, Superman, Jurassic Park. 

Do you have any routines leading up to a concert performance? How did you prepare for your farewell concert on June 25?  

I have found that I can bring consistency to my performances onstage if I have the time to follow a routine when at home. On tour you can forget this consistency and everyone in the orchestra has their own distinct routines which work for them. 

I like to get up early, have a light breakfast, make a smoothie for later in the morning, stretching exercises, free weights, push-ups, bench press, in rotation, buzz my mouthpiece as I read my emails and reply, warmup practice to include extended range long tones, scales, slow and fast lip slurs, high register endurance, always with a tuner and metronome, play over the tough licks in the program for that week and then head downtown for the morning rehearsal. 

I had to work very hard to treat my final concert on June 25th in the same manner as every other day, but I did my best to follow this routine. It helped me to stay focused and to stay “in the moment”. After all, I am a paid professional orchestral musician, not a member of the audience. Was it easy playing my final concert? No, the tears kept blurring my vision. 

We will look forward to seeing Doug Burden in our audiences in the coming seasons. To read more about his career, visit his biography. 

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