Gene Young ’60, Former Oberlin Trumpet Professor, Dies at 79

Conservatory alum remembered for his enthusiasm and love of new music.

September 16, 2020

Erich Burnett

Gene Young.
Photo credit: courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Six years after graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, Gene Young ’60 returned to his alma mater to teach trumpet. By the time he moved on from Oberlin 13 years later, his impact on students had spread beyond the brass section.

Young left to indulge his passion for conducting—first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then at the Peabody Institute, where his love of new music found a vehicle in the Peabody Camerata, the ensemble he founded in 1987 and directed for many years.

Young died June 19, 2018, in Coventry, Connecticut. He is remembered by former students and colleagues as an exacting and intense conductor, who prepared his scores with great precision—often memorizing them—and who nurtured his musicians with consistent waves of encouragement and praise. He was revered for his broad knowledge of orchestral repertoire, whether it was 200 years old or two.

“Gene was way beyond comparison when it came to his talents as a conductor,” longtime friend Charlie Schlueter, retired principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, wrote of Young in 2020. “His knowledge of repertoire was astounding, not only of standard orchestral literature, but particularly 20th- and 21st-century composers. His understanding and ability to convey the essence of those works not only to his trumpet students at Oberlin, but to all the young musicians he conducted…was beyond measure.”

Born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, Young studied trumpet, piano, and conducting at Oberlin, including a junior year at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, as part of the conservatory’s study-abroad program. While still a student, he took part in the American Wind Symphony Orchestra’s inaugural season in 1957, and he continued to perform in its trumpet section—on tours along Pennsylvania’s Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers—for several years afterward.

Young married Elizabeth Esterquest ’60 in October 1960, and together they raised three sons. He served in the U.S. Army from 1962 to ’65, performing in the West Point Band while taking lessons with New York Philharmonic principal trumpet William Vacchiano, a legendary performer and a key influence in Young’s decision to turn to teaching.

Returning to Oberlin to join the faculty in 1966, Young directed the Oberlin Wind Ensemble and was principal conductor of the conservatory’s New Directions program, through which he brought a long list of acclaimed composers to campus, among them Milton Babbitt, Morton Feldman, Olivier Messiaen, and Iannis Xenakis.

His trumpet pedagogy emphasized mastery of fundamentals—and especially proper embouchure, or lip placement, which is essential for preventing injury and for hitting the instrument’s highest notes. He authored a well-respected book on the subject, Embouchure Enlightenment (Tromba Publications), in addition to a tome titled The Trumpets of Edgard Varése (E.C. Kerby).

After Oberlin, Young joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founded its Contemporary Chamber Orchestra soon after. He returned to the American Wind Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor for its 1983 tour of maritime performances from the Texas-Mexico border to the East Coast to the Great Lakes.

Young transitioned once again in 1984, to the faculty of Peabody, where he formed the Peabody Camerata and the Peabody Institute Chamber Orchestra, and also directed the Peabody Youth Orchestra for many years.

“I remember Gene Young as an intelligent, gifted musician and conductor,” Joseph Schwartz, a former longtime piano professor at Oberlin, wrote in 2019. “We were sorry to see him leave, but were glad that he found a wonderful position at Peabody.”

From 1988 to 1997, Young conducted New York City’s historic Goldman Memorial Band at Lincoln Center. He also taught at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, the University of Connecticut, New England Conservatory, Manhattan School of Music, the Eastman School of Music, and the Tanglewood Festival. His trumpet students secured positions in major orchestras across the U.S. and around the world, including the symphonies of Boston, Seattle, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Sydney, Australia.

“Gene Young was that true rarity amongst musicians...someone with an authentic passion and gift for the music of his time,” pianist and Peabody professor Leon Fleisher once said of his colleague in Baltimore.

As a performer, Young began his career with the New Orleans Philharmonic, later serving as principal trumpet of the St. Louis Sinfonietta, the Mobile (Alabama) Symphony Orchestra, and the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, and performing with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra.

He appeared as a performer or conductor on numerous recordings, including those of two Oberlin composers: jazz studies professor Wendell Logan (Proportions, on the Orion label) and former composition professor Olly Wilson (Piece for Four, on CRI). He also wrote several works of his own, including the song cycle "Herb Songs" and two commissioned theater pieces, Banish Evil from this Place and Englespiel. Some of his works were premiered by the Peabody Camerata.

Young returned to Oberlin as the Edgar Distinguished Visiting Artist in Conducting during the 1996-97 academic year, during which he conducted the Contemporary Music Ensemble and the Oberlin Wind Ensemble, and guest-conducted the Oberlin Orchestra. During that time, he also guided the development of Eighth Blackbird, the sextet made up of Oberlin students that went on to win multiple Grammy Awards.

“Gene was an important force in the very early days of Eighth Blackbird, at a time when most of the group were still undergraduates at Oberlin, and our future was entirely uncertain,” Eighth Blackbird founding cellist Nicholas Photinos ’96 wrote in 2019. “We were working on Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony, and Gene was our coach, guide, and general encourager on that journey. It has been many years since then, and many years since we have seen Gene, but we remember him and his mentorship fondly.”

Young is survived by his second wife, Linda Surridge, and his children.

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