SALT LAKE CITY — For Travis Peterson, the phrase “third time’s the charm” is true — if you multiply it by 11.
It took 33 auditions for the Minnesota trumpeter to land a full-time orchestra job, and the Utah Symphony was lucky No. 33. Peterson, the symphony's principal trumpet player since 2013, is one of four soloists performing J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. The concerts, which take place Nov. 16 and 17 at Abravanel Hall, kick off the symphony's goal to perform all six Brandenburg concertos this season.
We spoke with Peterson and the other featured soloists about their journey to the symphony and their hobbies outside of music — ranging from fervent baking to high-risk mountain biking.
Cows, doughnuts and trumpets
Long before reaching the Utah Symphony, Peterson grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Milaca, Minnesota. As a child, he did the usual tasks of hauling hay and replenishing water, but his list of household chores got longer when he was a teenager. The new task? Milking 250 cows.
The job came in three shifts: 3 a.m., 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Peterson’s turn came every other weekend at 3 a.m. But the unreasonable hour wasn't all bad when he had his dad working by his side.
“Looking back, I see the value in it. I appreciate having gone through that as a kid. But in the moment, when you’re a teenager, it seems like the worst thing in the world,” said Peterson, now in his mid-30s. “Now I value that time I was able to have with (my dad). It was a special time and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Growing up on a dairy farm and playing the trumpet may seem an odd pairing, but for Peterson, the two went hand in hand. After all, it was in the utility room above the milking parlor where a young Peterson got his hands on some rubber hoses — hoses he could turn into makeshift trumpets when he buzzed his lips into them.
“Far before I ever tried the cornet at my grandma’s house, I found those hoses,” he said with a laugh.
The musician eventually upgraded to a trumpet. Often practicing on the farm’s back deck, he found nature to be his best audience, and he’d let each brassy note ring out for all cattle to hear.
After high school, Peterson left the farm for Indiana University, and later, Boston's New England Conservatory, where he studied trumpet performance.
After four years in Boston — where he split his time between freelance music gigs and making sandwiches at Panera Bread — the musician moved to Miami Beach, Florida, where he won a three-year fellowship at the New World Symphony before eventually joining the Utah Symphony in January 2013.
These days, he’s proudly supporting his wife of nearly 12 years, Andrea, who recently relocated to New York to pursue an acting career. And while he does enjoy Utah’s great outdoors, when he’s not practicing or rehearsing, Peterson’s biggest hobby is baking.
“It all spawned out of me loving doughnuts, and I wanted to try making my own doughnuts,” he said. “I found this really amazing brioche raised doughnut that is my go-to doughnut recipe. I like exploring different recipes on blogs — I find it cathartic."
He isn’t planning on a “Great British Baking Show” appearance anytime soon, but because of his wife’s encouragement, he does have a baking Instagram page so friends and family can see his creations.
"I'll turn on some nice music, depending on what kind of mood I'm in, and lose myself in baking,” he said. “I'll let that distract me from any stresses I'm feeling about life or a concert, and I love that.”
From Arkansas to Manhattan
On Valentine’s Day, there’s a four-letter L-word that comes to Mercedes Smith’s mind — and no, it’s not “love.”
Rather, the day of flowers and chocolates is a day of luck for the flutist. It’s the day she won her audition for Houston Grand Opera — when she was a 20-year-old senior at the Manhattan School of Music. It’s also the day she won the Utah Symphony’s principal flute position nine years later in 2012.
“It’s a very good time of year for me,” she said with a laugh.
Her success is all the more impressive when she thinks back to her childhood. Although she was born outside of Dallas in Plano, Texas, Smith’s family moved to rural Arkansas — they lived on the outskirts of a town with 400 people — when she was 12. Just one year before that move, Smith began playing flute in her public school band. In Arkansas, she was homeschooled and took private lessons, making a one-hour drive (one way) each week to study with a University of Arkansas music professor.
“I was lucky that I found a teacher that was willing to take a 12 or 13-year-old student,” Smith said. “She … (was) only teaching college students, but my mom convinced her to take me.”
Smith credits her teacher with helping her get in to the Manhattan School of Music — she was just 16 years old when the school accepted her. She’d applied to college as soon as she could, taking and passing the GED at 16.
“I was so ready to be in a big city,” she said. “(My) first year in college … I was fully immersed — not just with playing the flute all day long — but all the classes, everything we were reading was about music. … It was the sort of thing I had been really hungry for all those years I was in Arkansas.”
During her senior year, Smith’s teacher, Michael Parloff, then the principal flutist of the Metropolitan Opera, encouraged her to audition for Houston Grand Opera. But Smith said they rejected her resume because she “was 20 years old and had no experience.”
When Parloff learned this a few weeks later, Smith said he made a call and demanded the company give her a chance. That ended up being her saving grace, as she won the audition and moved to Houston with just six weeks left of school — she mailed in her exams so she could still graduate.
After nine years with the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras, Smith made the move to Utah, where she’s happily been since 2012. The flutist recently became engaged to Utah Symphony violinist David Porter, but when she’s not rehearsing or preparing for a wedding, you’ll likely find the self-described “ballet junkie” attending Ballet West performances, doing home renovations or enjoying Utah’s great outdoors — a love that's only grown since that February morning she auditioned for the Utah Symphony.
“I opened the (hotel) curtains, and the window was east-facing,” she recalled. “I was quite literally gasping for breath when I saw the snow on the mountains. It was so breathtaking.”
A devoted husband
Claude Halter didn’t move to Utah because he got a job — he moved here for his wife.
The violinist from Vincennes, France, met his wife, cellist Anne Lee, while at the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida. After the three-year fellowship, Lee won a position with the Utah Symphony. Halter didn’t even think to hesitate.
“I decided right away to move to Utah to be with her and support her in this new exciting chapter of her life,” Halter wrote in an email. “It is such an accomplishment for any musician to win a tenure-track position in a 52-week orchestra.”
So in 2011, the pair traded the beach for snow and moved out West. Halter had one goal in mind: join the Utah Symphony so he could spend more time with his wife. He lucked out when the symphony had a violin opening six months after Lee won her position.
“With the extra motivation of having the chance to work with my wife and falling in love with the beauty of Utah, I worked extra hard and luckily got rewarded!” wrote Halter, the symphony’s principal second violinist.
Halter’s love for the violin goes back about 30 years, when he was a 6-year-old living in a suburb on the eastern edge of Paris. Violin lessons at his local conservatory were covered by the municipality, so practices were fairly casual. But his parents kept him busy, enrolling him in Maitrise de Paris — one of the top boys’ choirs in France. Even as a boy, Halter enjoyed the opportunity to perform in venues throughout France and Europe. But after a voice change, Halter decided to take his violin studies more seriously.
His love of the violin took him all the way from France to Appleton, Wisconsin, where he studied at Lawrence University. He’d met a violin teacher from the school at a music festival in France, and he was quick to take the opportunity to study violin in the United States.
“I was very excited not only to study with him but also by the challenges of learning a new language, discovering a new country and making decisions for my own future,” wrote Halter, who moved to Wisconsin in the fall of 2001.
Halter’s been in the United States for 17 years now — seven of them in Utah. When he’s not rehearsing or practicing, he enjoys skiing down Alta’s Baldy Chutes, riding his mountain bike on the spine of the Wasatch Crest trail and “fighting his way through the nine holes of the friendly Nibley golf course.”
A world traveler
Having a naval officer for a father meant James Hall called a lot of places home.
Born in Corpus Christi, Texas, Hall spent his childhood in places near and far — the West and East coasts of the U.S. all the way to Rota, Spain, Iceland and the Greek island of Crete.
That’s why nearing 30 years with the Utah Symphony is an especially big feat for Hall — Salt Lake City marks the place he’s lived the longest.
“It’s funny, because we moved around so much when I was a kid that after I’d lived (in Utah) for about four years or so, I (thought), ‘Wow, I’ve been here a long time,’” said Hall, the symphony’s principal oboist. “Now it’s been over 20 years.”
Before Salt Lake City, the longest place Hall ever lived was Fairfax, Virginia, where he lived for most of his middle school and high school years. To the surprise of his nonmusical parents, Hall enjoyed sifting through the local record store’s many treasures, especially eyeing a collection of orchestra recordings.
“The sound of dozens of musicians playing these great works just really kind of stuck with me and got me really excited and inspired,” he recalled. “I just knew that was really what I wanted to do.”
When middle school band rolled around, Hall wanted to try the bassoon. But with none available for rent or purchase, the aspiring musician had to settle for his second choice: the oboe. He lucked out when the private teacher his family selected from the community directory ended up being the principal oboist for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
“I was very eager to really jump in head-first into learning the Mozart concerto and all these sonatas,” Hall recalled. “And (my teacher) was always very much like, ‘We’ll do that later, but (first) I want to hear all of your scales and arpeggios.'”
Hall went on to study oboe performance at the Juilliard School and the Cleveland Institute of Music. While finishing up his studies in Cleveland, the oboist took the plunge and began auditioning for symphonies mainly on the East Coast in places including North Carolina, Atlanta and Detroit. But in the end, it was the West calling his name as he won a position with the Utah Symphony in 1989.
In his nearly 30 years with the symphony, Hall looks forward to the break in between seasons, typically in June, to follow his other passion — traveling. Hall might not know where his next big trip will be — maybe Antarctica since that’s the one continent he has yet to visit — but one thing he does know for certain: He’ll likely call Utah's scenic setting home for many more years to come.
“I had never been to Utah before; I didn’t know anything about it (before joining the Utah Symphony),” he said. “I had no idea Salt Lake City was in such a gorgeous setting. I was just blown away by its beauty.”
If you go …
What: Utah Symphony presents Bach's Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
When: Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16 and 17, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$68