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CLASSICAL  August 2008

CLASSICAL August 2008

Subject:

French Horn Playing

From:

Roger Hecht <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 15 Aug 2008 12:58:20 -0700

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text/plain

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Don Smithers was a friend from my college days.  He was indeed a great
baroque trumpet player. He usually played on a modern baroque instrument
and had this beautifully silvery tone.  I think he played natural trumpet,
too.  I know he played the cornetto and may have been the best in the
world at the time.  He played it in tune most of the time, too.

   August 13, 2008
   The French Horn, That Wild Card of the Orchestra
   By ALLAN KOZINN
   
   Orchestral instruments don't come more treacherous than the
   French horn, either for the musicians who play it, or, when
   the going gets rough, for the listeners who find themselves
   within earshot. Sometimes you wonder how the instrument
   found its way from the hunting lodge to the orchestra.
   
   At the Mostly Mozart Festival in recent weeks, the intractable
   early version of the horn has made its way into the Rose
   Theater as a series of period-instrument bands from Germany,
   England and Italy performed music ranging from Italian
   Baroque choral works to Mozart opera. When these groups
   were at their best, a listener whose fondness for period
   instruments dates to the 1960s could reflect on how far the
   performance standard has risen since.
   
   In those days period ensembles that sounded vigorous on
   disc often proved anemic in concert, and the instruments'
   antique technology was regularly blamed for mediocre
   performances.  Nowadays, the performances are more typically
   extroverted and expressive, and although period instruments,
   by definition, have not been modernized to make them easier
   to play, listeners are no longer asked to consider their
   difficulty when a performance goes= awry.
   
   Except, that is, when the horn notes crack and slither. The
   horn remains the wild card in period-instrument orchestras,
   and in modern ones too. And if you find yourself cringing
   when horn players falter badly - as I did on Aug. 5, when
   Concerto Italiano played three Vivaldi concertos with
   prominent horn parts - caveats about the instrument's
   intransigence come quickly to mind.
   
   It's worth understanding the challenges hornists face. In
   its 17th- and 18th-century form, the horn is basically just
   a long, flared pipe wound into two or three coils, with a
   mouthpiece on the end. What it lacks, compared with today's
   horn, is the valve mechanism: the complex tubing and finger
   keys at the center of a modern horn that let hornists play
   chromatically and in different keys.
   
   Without recourse to valves, hornists are most at home in
   the relatively few notes in the overtone series that come
   naturally to a bit of coiled metal: mainly, the notes you
   hear in hunting and military calls. As the music grows more
   complex, the technical demands escalate. One resource
   hornists have is hand-stopping: by putting a hand inside
   the instrument's bell, they can flatten the pitch to produce
   chromatic notes.
   
   When everything goes right, hornists can work miracles. You
   need only have heard James Sommerville, the Boston Symphony's
   principal hornist, play Elliott Carter's Horn Concerto at
   Tanglewood a few weeks ago to know how chromatic (and
   lyrical) a horn line can be. But you can see the potential
   for pitch problems. And a bit of condensation from a player's
   breath adhering to the inside of a coil can lead to cracked
   notes, or 'clams.'
   
   As is often the case, when Concerto Italiano's hornists
   were good, they were great. Their sound had a fascinatingly
   gritty texture, much closer to the horn's hunting-party
   origins than to the mellow, warm sound of a modern instrument.
   But when they were off - oh, dear, what a mess!
   
   Strangely, some believe that period horn playing is meant
   to sound thus. When I was in music school, I had a job in
   a record store and would sometimes stay after hours to
   listen to new releases. One was a period-instrument recording
   of Handel's 'Water Music' on which the horns were consistently
   flat. When I crinkled my nose, the store's manager said,
   dismissively:
   
   'Oh, you don't understand. It's only because of showoffs
   like Don Smithers' - a brilliant Baroque trumpeter who was
   also my music history teacher at the time - 'that people
   think these instruments can be played in tune. But they
   aren't meant to be.'
   
   I didn't buy that argument then, and having heard many
   superb Baroque hornists, I find it less tenable now.
   
   For some reason - maybe it's a little-documented, mouth-drying
   effect of global warming - the last season was particularly
   rough for hornists. In a concert of Brahms and Schumann
   works at the 92nd Street Y in December, the usually reliable
   David Jolley became ensnared in every tangle a hornist can
   encounter (or create), including serious balance issues in
   ensemble pieces. And visiting orchestras seemed more prone
   than usual to horn flaws.
   
   But surely the most catastrophic horn performance of the
   season - of many seasons, for that matter - was at the New
   York Philharmonic in March, when Alan Gilbert, conducting
   his first concert with the orchestra since having been
   appointed its next music director, opened his program with
   Haydn's Symphony No. 48, a work with two prominent and
   perilous horn= parts.
   
   The Philharmonic has long been action central for horn
   troubles; its principal player, Philip Myers, is wildly
   inconsistent, and the rest of the section is also accident-prone.
   Much of the time Mr. Myers's playing is squarely on pitch,
   shapely and warm, and when it is, it's everything you want
   in a French horn line. But he cracks, misses or slides into
   pitches often enough that when the Philharmonic plays a
   work with a prominent horn line, you brace yourself and
   wonder if he'll make it.
   
   The Haydn symphony was a real clambake.
   
   Mentioning hornists' failings in reviews invariably brings
   plenty of e-mail messages, often from people who did not
   hear the performances but feel moved to defend a player's
   reputation.  Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these
   correspondents have variations on the word horn ('corno'
   or 'horncall,' for example) in their e-mail addresses, and
   they usually identify themselves as hornists, as if their
   addresses didn't make that clear.
   
   In the case of the Haydn, some offered amazing conspiracy
   theories. The most interesting was that Mr. Gilbert had
   programmed the work knowing that it would be botched, so
   that he would later have reason to replace Mr. Myers. (Mr.
   Gilbert doesn't seem that Machiavellian.) Another blamed
   the orchestra's management for allowing Mr. Gilbert to
   program it.
   
   Still others offered technical excuses: that the work
   requires a variety of horn that Mr. Myers doesn't play, for
   instance. (That an orchestra's programming is announced
   months in advance  - ample time to deal with such technical
   problems or lobby to have the work replaced - seems not to
   have troubled anyone.)
   
   Of about a dozen e-mail messages, all but one correspondent
   found someone other than the players to blame for the
   performance. A few blamed me: I am supposedly a raging
   cornophobe with some deep-seated resentment of horns and
   hornists.
   
   To the contrary. I played the horn briefly as a teenager,
   somewhere between the violin and the trombone (which had a
   nicer bite), and I gave up brass instruments only when I
   realized that continuing would mean spending weekends
   marching around at football games in a dopey band uniform.
   It was the late 1960s; that kind of thing just wasn't done.
   
   Nearly a decade later, as a composition student, I revisited
   the instrument and what it could (ideally) do when I wrote
   an unaccompanied horn piece and a quartet for horn, violin,
   bassoon and percussion (what was I thinking?) for a hornist
   friend.
   
   I like the horn, honest. And I know how difficult it is to
   get a good, centered, well-tuned sound out of it.
   
   But here's the thing about musical performance: It's all
   difficult. It's meant to be. Composers write, and have
   always written, music that pushes the limits of technique.
   And if you're onstage in a professional capacity, you're
   expected to be able to negotiate it. That's the least
   audiences expect, and it's a precondition for what they buy
   tickets for: to be moved by an interpretation; to savor its
   nuances and to hear something revelatory, whether the work
   is new or familiar.
   
   If, instead, they end up wincing at mistuned notes and
   reminding themselves how tough the instruments are, they've
   been pushed out of the zone. And at that point, no amount
   of rationalization will make the performance anything but
   a sow's ear.

Roger Hecht

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