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Charlotte Symphony’s Alex Wilborn Traces Path to Principal Trumpet Seat

Wilborn makes solo Charlotte debut in Wagner & Strauss shows

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This custom content article is supported by the Charlotte Symphony. Learn more about the organization’s Wagner & Strauss shows below and get tickets to their upcoming performances happening March 22 & 23 at Knight Theater.

When Alex Wilborn, principal trumpet player with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO), steps onstage at Knight Theater on March 22 and 23 to lead his first concertos for the organization he has been with since 2018, his mind will be on the team behind him and the sense of camaraderie that comes with such a performance. 

“I think the thing I’m most looking forward to is walking on stage both nights and shaking [Concertmaster] Calin [Lupanu]’s hand and shaking Maestra [Conductor JoAnn] Falletta’s hand and then turning around and looking at all my friends and colleagues right behind me getting ready to do the job with me in that moment,” Wilborn told Queen City Nerve. 

Having seen two previously scheduled concertos that he was set to lead get canceled during the pandemic, one in 2020 and another 2021, this month Wilborn will lead Oskar Böhme’s Concerto in F Minor during CSO’s Wagner & Strauss shows scheduled to take place at Knight Theater on March 22 and 23.

Alex Wilborn playing trumpet for the Charlotte Symphony
Alex Wilborn, principal trumpet player with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony)

While Wilborn has led other trumpet concertos during competitions and other events over his years of schooling, this will be his solo debut with Charlotte Symphony Orchestra — a show that one could say has been in the making since Wilborn stepped into the band classroom at Cornerstone Elementary School near Cookeville, Tennessee, in fifth grade. 

Wilborn was three weeks behind the rest of the band class in selecting instruments to play that year. He and another new student had to choose between the last two remaining instruments: a trumpet and a euphonium. The other student got first dibs and chose the euphonium. 

Cornerstone band director Kyle Netherton handed Wilborn a trumpet and showed him how to make an aperture, the term for the parting between the lips that air passes through while playing the trumpet. 

“He said, ‘See if you can make a note,’ and immediately sound came out,” Wilborn recalled. “And he said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a trumpet player. Go sit at the bottom of the section.’ I didn’t choose it, it was just like, ‘Here you go, this is your instrument,’ and so I started playing.” 

Read More: Charlotte Symphony’s Christopher James Lees Prepares Another Concert in Film For The Force Awakens

Today, Wilborn considers Netherton, along with his first trumpet instructor Charlie Decker, with whom he worked for nine years, as his biggest musical influences and believes them both to be the reason he was able to achieve what he has thus far in his career. 

Living in the small, working-class town of Cookeville with not much else to do, Wilborn took to his new instrument with fervor. During his first year of playing, he decided he could play with the band at the local Upperman High School if he were given the chance. 

Alex Wilborn playing trumpet for the Charlotte Symphony
Alex Wilborn, principal trumpet player with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony)

His band director disagreed, so he set out to prove himself, learning the entire Upperman High spring concert by ear from a CD recording he had gotten possession of. 

“I listened to the recording over and over ad nauseum throughout that summer and learned every piece that I could by ear, just to prove the point of, ‘Yes, I am good enough to do this,’” Wilborn said. “So that was an act of defiance … and that was kind of the crux of me being able to develop the ear that I have now.”

How Alex Wilborn pursued his career through education

Wilborn attended Tennessee Tech University for his undergrad degree, during which he decided he wanted to pursue a career in performing trumpet music rather than teaching it as he had originally planned. 

From there, he went to The Juilliard School in New York City. As he was wrapping his first year there, in March 2018, a friend convinced him to take an open audition with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. He was named runner-up behind Rich Harris, who shortly thereafter joined the Houston Symphony. 

That’s how Wilborn started off the 2018-19 CSO season as acting principal trumpet, and by February 2019, he had secured the Principal Title.  

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in action. (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony)

Now 30, Wilborn said taking the lead for Böhme’s Concerto carries special meaning for him; he first performed Böhme in a solo competition during a trumpet festival at the University of Kentucky as a junior in high school. 

“I think when a lot of people think of trumpet concertos, they think of [Joseph] Haydn and [Johann] Hummel,” he said. “There’s no issue with those two pieces, they’re very important pieces in terms of the history of the trumpet, but the piece that I’m ultimately doing, the Böhme’s Concerto in F Minor, it’s special for me.” 

The trumpet leads in the Romantic concerto

Böhme’s Concerto is the only concerto known to be written for trumpet in the Romantic period. Wilborn said he’s excited for all the opportunities the work provides for his colleagues. 

“It’s a really wonderful accompaniment. It’s a lot of great melodies,” he said. “I’m thinking of our principal horn, Byron Johns, playing some of the isolated solos in the second movement. I’m thinking of our Principal Clarinet Sam Sparrow, Principal Flute player Amy Orsinger Whitehead. 

He added that Erica Cice, playing Principal Oboe, “also has some lovely moments to look forward to.” 

“There are a lot of these really beautiful moments that, it’s not just there backing up whoever’s in front, but every section in the orchestra at some point gets to engage with and be a part of.” 

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Symphony)

With such a prolific career blossoming out of a prodigious beginning that appears to have been the result of a haphazard but fortuitous series of events as a child, one can’t help but wonder: What would have happened if Wilborn had been assigned the euphonium on that fateful day in third grade? 

We posed the question to Wilborn. 

“I think it’d be harder because most orchestras actually don’t have a designated euphonium chair,” Wilborn speculated in response, adding that he may have focused on education or tried to find a spot in a premier military band. 

“It could have happened, but I just so happened to end up being given the brass instrument that I feel in a lot of ways has probably the most versatility in terms of playing various styles and playing in the orchestra,” he continued. “So I think it ended up working out in my favor for what piques my interest.” 

And we’re all better for it. 

Alex Wilborn will lead the performance of Böhme’s Concerto in F Minor during Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Wagner & Strauss shows, scheduled for March 22-23 at Knight Theater.

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