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
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,
'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
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
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
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.
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