An Ex-Marine and a Former Basketball Referee Walk Into Disney Hall...

Tom Hooten, left, and Andrew BainEXPAND
Tom Hooten, left, and Andrew Bain
Photo by CK Dexter Haven

No, that headline is not the opening line in a bad stand-up comedy routine. It actually happens whenever Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians Andrew Bain (principal horn) and Thomas Hooten (principal trumpet) go to work.

Both are orchestral stars: Bain is a regular guest with the Berlin Philharmonic and a professor at the Colburn School’s Conservatory of Music, while Hooten does master classes on multiple continents. Together, they have spearheaded a more distinctive, assertive brass sound than the L.A. Phil has had in recent memory.

So it isn’t surprising that the orchestra chose to feature them as soloists for concerts running tonight through Sunday: Hooten will play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto while Bain tackles the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4. It’s a coup for each of them, especially considering that both arrived at this point via somewhat unconventional career paths.

Hooten’s first paying gig was actually as a pianist in a wine bar while still in high school. “I got paid five dollars an hour, and I played for eight hours at a time,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was brutal.”

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The Florida native dropped the piano and concentrated on trumpet in college, but in graduate school, he changed his embouchure (i.e., the way a wind player shapes his lips, tongue and facial muscles to make music). It’s a move akin to a baseball pitcher revamping his throwing mechanics right before he’s expecting to get called up to the Major Leagues. Hooten needed to make the change to improve his playing, but it slowed his development, forcing him to delay an orchestral career and to pursue a position with the U.S. Marine Corps Band instead.

“It’s an elite-level band, you have to audition, and if you get in, they make you a staff sergeant right away,” he remembers. “But people still thought I was crazy to join the Marines.”

John Hagstrom, a trumpeter in the Chicago Symphony and a former member of Marine Band, encouraged him. “He said, ‘This is good for you. You’ll play a lot of different repertoire in different situations. It will make you more seasoned and further your skills.’

“He was right. And it put things in proper perspective. One day you’re playing the Tomasi concerto and the next day you’re playing a funeral for someone who just died in Afghanistan,” Hooten says.

An Ex-Marine and a Former Basketball Referee Walk Into Disney Hall...
Photo by CK Dexter Haven

After leaving the Marines, he became a terror on the audition circuit, quickly winning positions in Richmond, then Indianapolis and eventually principal trumpet of both Houston and Atlanta Symphonies in very short succession. He spent five years in Atlanta before he won the L.A. job in fall 2012.

Bain, an Australian, had an even unlikelier path. As a teenager, he excelled as both a horn player and a basketball referee, calling games in the country's Women’s National Basketball League as well pre-season games in its men’s National Junior Championships.

Even after Bain had decided to focus on being a musician, he and a fellow referee struck a deal with one of the minor leagues so that he could work some games around his schedule as a member of the Adelaide Symphony. “We were like the top two guys in the state, and we told the league, ‘We’ll work for you, but only on Thursdays, and only during these hours.’”

Eventually he rose to his dream job as an Australian — principal horn of the Melbourne Symphony. But there were a small handful of jobs he'd leave to do, and the L.A. Phil was one of them. When he auditioned in 2011, he blew away the audition committee so much that he was offered the position immediately without having to go through the typical trial week. “The orchestra took a big risk when they hired me for various reasons: I came from a different country, my training was different, my sound was different than the typical horns played here.”

Despite their very different backgrounds, they have like-minded approaches to making music.

“Whether it’s talking about a certain phrase or a tendency that one of us goes towards, there’s a dialogue that is genuinely open and isn’t based on ego,” says Hooten. “I’ve grown as a musician because of him.”

“We talk a lot, but we don’t talk about how we’re going to sound,” Bain adds. “We both recognize good playing and we both feed off of each other’s playing.”

An Ex-Marine and a Former Basketball Referee Walk Into Disney Hall...
Photo by CK Dexter Haven

Beyond music, they are at about the same life stage (both are in their 30s and married), have a similarly modest build and stature and share similar personalities, pairing an easy-going temperament with a mischievous sense of humor. Midway through their 8 a.m. interview in Disney Hall’s cushy if sparse green room, the coffee has barely kicked in, but they’re already scheming: Hooten suggests that his colleague wear pianist Yuja Wang’s infamous tiny dress and stilettos for their upcoming concerto appearance. Bain recalls a recital at the Colburn School last October where he and his students played an all-horn arrangement of the song “I’m So Ronery” that Kim Jong-il sings in the film Team America: World Police, and mentions that they should work the irreverent yet strangely beautiful piece into an L.A. Phil concert. Soon, the two are laughing at the prospect and devising ways to make it happen.

As it turns out, the ex-marine and former hoops referee walking into a concert hall are funnier together than one would have thought.

Los Angeles Philharmonic (Andrew Manze, conductor; Thomas Hooten, trumpet; Andrew Bain, horn) performs music of Haydn and Mozart at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., dwntwn.; Friday and Saturday, Feb. 6-7, 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 8, 2 p.m. (323) 850-2000,

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