San Francisco Symphony's Mark Inouye Plays for Keeps

Last month the San Francisco Symphony announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen will become its next music director in September 2020.

Photo by Mark Terrence


Published: January, 2019


Last month the San Francisco Symphony announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen will become its next music director in September 2020. As the 12th music director in the symphony’s 107-year history, Salonen will succeed Michael Tilson Thomas, who concludes his 25-year tenure in July 2020.


One of the most influential and creative forces in music, Salonen has—through his many high-profile conducting roles, his work as a leading composer, and his advocacy for accessibility and diverse musical voices—shaped a unique vision for the present and future of the symphony orchestra.


Salonen’s selection was an arduous procedure, however, involving several key members of the orchestra. Chief among them was principal trumpet player Mark Inouye. Inouye is not a regular rider of our Bay Area ferries, although he has a special relationship with the sea, running on our beaches and surfing at classic breaks along our coastline. (A marvelous video on the San Francisco Symphony website tells more of that story.)


Meanwhile, Inouye graciously agreed to participate in an interview:


Bay Crossings: While you have always been a remarkable musician, we understand that you also aspired to become an engineer. What forces drove you down this career path?


Mark Inouye: Growing up in Davis, I was equally enthusiastic about three things: school, athletics and music. When it came to school, I was interested in sciences such as mathematics and physics. I was curious how things worked and didn’t work. This love and curiosity led me to begin a civil engineering degree at UC Davis. However, about halfway thru my undergraduate studies, I auditioned for the Juilliard School of Music in New York. I was accepted and transferred there the following year.


BC: Like many of our readers, you are a devoted Giants fan. How did your interest in baseball shape your personality and what values does it bring to your work ethic?


Inouye: As I mentioned before, sports were a big part of my life. As a kid I attended a ton of UC Davis athletics: basketball, football and baseball games as well as track and field events. I played many sports as well, and learning how to function as part of a team was really an important skill set to learn. Baseball was a big part of my life and it helped me to embrace meritocracy. Improving and learning to improve, so I could start on the team, has stuck with me ever since. During all those years playing ball, I embraced the invaluable lesson of hard work and hustle and how it can pay off. I have been a San Francisco Giants fan all my life so winning a job with the San Francisco Symphony was a dream come true. My favorite baseball player embodied this philosophy of hard work and hustle—Will “the Thrill” Clark. I love that guy. I want to bring that sort of energy, laser-beam focus and love of the game to Davies Hall every time I perform with the symphony.


BC: Finally, please describe how a team effort at the symphony is created and sustained by your colleagues and conductors. It must be an intoxicating experience.


Inouye: I often compare being a professional musician in an orchestra to being a professional athlete in a team sport. There are so many components that one must improve as an individual player. This takes a lot of time, discipline and humility. After all, if we truly want to hone our craft, we must be willing to put in the time to work on the fundamentals that are our weaknesses. Nobody wants to sound bad, but one must be humble enough to address it, alone in a practice room, so when it’s game time, you are ready to put yourself in a position to succeed. As an individual in the full symphony orchestra, we must know our musical roles. Ninety-nine percent of the time we are playing with other musicians, so a team mentality must rule in order to be successful. Am I melody or harmony or even just a simple rhythmic accompaniment? Am I playing any of these scenarios with other musicians? The answer is almost always yes; you’ve got to know how you fit into the musical fabric of any piece we are performing at any given time. When you come to symphony concerts, you are hearing a supreme level of a team effort from the musicians. These concerts are some of the most exhilarating experiences of my life and I hope just a sliver of that translates to the audience that comes to hear us.


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