Sometimes you meet someone for the first time but get the feeling that you might have met him earlier. Steve Charpié, 66, is such a person to me.
At KCI airport recently, I happened to sit near a tall, slender gentleman wearing a baseball cap, a gray T-shirt, blue jeans and a pair of sneakers and holding a backpack on his lap. I thought he might be a baseball coach somewhere. As if he noticed my hat with Beethoven’s image embroidered on, he asked me, “Are you a musician?”
I told him that I played the cello with the Kansas City Philharmonic and the Symphony, altogether 30 years, before retiring in 1997.
He smiled. “I’m a trumpeter, Steve Charpié.”
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We shook hands. In the next few minutes, I learned much about him. He was our neighbor when my family lived in the Ruskin area in the early 1970s and he played in the Kansas City Youth Symphony under the baton of Jack Harriman, associate conductor of the Philharmonic at the time. And during his junior year at Ruskin High School in 1964, the orchestra made its debut at World Fair in New York with such a demanding repertoire as “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Moussorgsky and “Pavane” by Maurice Ravel, and received raving reviews.
We talked about Philharmonic’s good days and bad, before it died in February 1982 and was resurrected that fall as the Symphony. We talked about Maestro Hans Schwieger, whom I met in Germany during his conducting tour of Europe in early 1966 while I was a starving music student in Paris, played an audition for him and entered the United States that fall with a special visa given to only professionals. We talked about the Philharmonic’s principal trumpeter Charles Schleuter, who later played in the Boston Symphony under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, and Richard Smith, who had played in the Cleveland Symphony as the principal trumpeter for many years under George Szell, before joining the Philharmonic in his middle age.
Our conversation was interrupted by the announcement that we were boarding, and a few minutes later, to our surprise, we sat side-by-side on the small plane, Row 21. Our talk continued 36,000 feet in the air.
After his high school graduation Charpié studied at University of Kansas School of Music, where he met Dave Clark, another local trumpeter who also played with the KC Symphony and served as the personnel manager while I was in the cello section. He talked fondly about his long friendship with Dave and Dave’s superb musicality.
Charpié left KU in his second year to study at the Manhattan School of Music in New York and after graduation, he joined the Navy and played in the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, D.C., for the following four years. Before moving to California — first in Disneyland and then in Hollywood — he played in the Louisville Symphony for one year.
Was it easy to make living as a musician in Hollywood?
“There were plenty of opportunities for musicians,” he said, adding that he played with several orchestras near Los Angeles, including South Coast Symphony, Mozart Classical Orchestra and Long Beach Symphony, where he played more than 30 years, before retiring a year ago.
He didn’t only play trumpet all those years, he said. He has been conducting orchestras, too.
“Nowadays I conduct more often than I play the trumpet,” he said, hinting at his growing reputation as a conductor. He told me he conducted a Chinese orchestra in Beijing twice in the past and that he’ll be returning there in September. “I’m heading for California now to conduct in Hollywood and then to Toronto for another conducting job, then back to KC to visit my family and then back to LA again for another gig, before heading to China for the third time.”
I admired his stamina and passion about music-making, both as a trumpeter and a conductor. To play one instrument as a professional is challenging enough, but he’s a conductor, too, not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. “Music must mean so much to you,” I said vaguely.
He paused for a moment. “Of all the creatures on earth, only we humans are given the gift of music,” he said. “Music is beautiful to listen to and makes you joyous or sorrowful or philosophical, because it affects the very essence of our being. We must use this gift and savor every minute of it either by listening or by music-making.”
Coming home after my vacation in Wyoming, I Googled and found many online articles about Steve K. Charpié. One of them, about Felix Vinatieri, Gen. George Custer’s bandmaster, taught me that he’s also a music editor.
“Steve Charpié is a renowned trumpet player who, among other things, works with Los Angeles-based professional musicians who specialize in performing 19th-century brass band music on original instruments of the period,” says the website of the National Music Museum in South Dakota. “… Charpié recently learned about the Vinatieri archives and volunteered the necessary leadership to bring his music to life once again, using eight professional musicians (six brass and two percussion).”
I feel privileged to have chatted with such a celebrity who grew up in Kansas City with whom I could have encountered years ago. He’ll remain in my mind as a successful trumpeter, conductor and a music editor who, at first sight, fooled me as a humble baseball coach.
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.