Exploring a Force of Nature

18 Oct

Two weeks ago I had the incredible privilege of sitting in on a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra rehearsal. On Thursday, October 4th and Saturday, October 6th the orchestra performed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (henceforth referred to as Mahler 3). This is an incredible undertaking, as it involves coordinating a massive orchestra along with a women’s chorus, boys’ choir, mezzo soprano soloist, and offstage post horn solo (performed by a trumpet player).

A word about Mahler 3: if you sit down with the intention of hearing this incredible work all the way through, you are in it for the long haul. On average, performances run about an hour and forty minutes. But consider the length of a Peter Jackson movie and this is short by comparison! In fact, I have said many times that Mahler 3 is the Lord of the Rings of symphonies. It is an epic work. (Cincinnati billed it as a “Force of Nature” on their website, with appropriately placed lightning bolts in the background.) It explores every emotion from rapturous joy to utter despair, one extreme often chasing another. It is by turns a glorious battle march and a plaintive lament. Musical characters come and go, and if you take the time to meet these characters you may find yourself loving them as much as Frodo or Aragorn.

Tolkien analogies aside, the fact is that any Mahler symphony is difficult to take in all at once. I will readily admit that Mahler 3 and I are still getting acquainted, and I am much more familiar with some movements than others. So in order to get to know this symphony, I have a few recommendations. 

Break the work into bite-sized pieces. Listen to one movement at a time (if you’re not dying to hear what comes next after just one). Play it in the background of your car trip or your cleaning spree (I find myself scrubbing dishes harder while listening to the more emphatic parts of the first movement). This will help you recognize the overall structure of the piece. Sometimes it’s helpful to know what comes next. 

After all this, settle in sometime and take a few hours to hear how this work unfolds. Each of the six movements is completely unique, but every movement comes together to make an incredible whole. And please enrich your life by hearing a Mahler symphony performed live. The most expensive, state-of-the-art speakers cannot do justice to the dense layers of sound Mahler creates, not to mention the incomparable energy of over a hundred human beings uniting to make music together. Where else can you find that?

A few other horn players and myself arrived at the rehearsal shortly before it began and found seats in the empty hall. We remarked at the unusual sight of these world-class musicians wearing regular street clothes in the hall. This really shouldn’t surprise me by now, (these are normal people) but it still does. World-renowned Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos led the orchestra, and his incredibly nuanced conducting brought out the full extent of the emotions of the piece. He and the orchestra made a wonderful team.

Image

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos
Image credit: http://www.spac.org/buildingofaseason/rafael.php

It was a unique pleasure to hear Mahler live and in a silent hall. With so few bodies in the audience absorbing the sound, the acoustics were much more live, and it was easier to hear the subtle layers of the music. The orchestra tuned briefly and then dove straight into a run-through of the piece. 

Eight horns open the work in unison, and I defy you not to be stopped dead in your tracks by this introduction. The first movement takes its time. It develops slowly. There are unashamed long pauses. But there is a slow, grinding intensity that gives the piece a heady, driving energy. Several soloists are featured in this movement; there is a famous trombone solo that is, for lack of a better word, delicious. Cristian Ganicenco, of course, played it outstandingly well, with power and consistency of sound throughout the register of the instrument. Timothy Lees, the concertmaster, played with stunning clarity and musicality. The basses played with such ferocity at times that I thought their instruments might catch on fire. No description can do live Mahler justice – I cannot emphasize this enough. To me the dirges and military marches of this movement reflect a struggle, both inward and outward. The first movement is a battle.

The second movement could not be more contrasting. It is light and simple-sounding, remaining in a major key. It reflects tranquility and happiness – the things worth fighting for. If we’re sticking with the Lord of the Rings metaphor, the second movement is about the Shire. It also contains a number of percussion sound effects that only Mahler could create (we’re talking about the man who told a percussionist to hit a giant box with a hammer in his sixth symphony). Most of the low brass gets a break for this delicate movement (No break for the horns, though. Mahler is a notorious face-buster but we love him nonetheless). There is a descending half-step motive from the first movement that makes a subtle return near the end of the second. Perhaps this is a half-remembered dream of the struggle.

The third movement always reminds me of walking through a mysterious, enchanted forest (Dare I say Lothlorien? Sorry, I can’t help myself). This lilting melody eventually becomes more dark and aggressive. This movement also features the famous offstage post horn solo.  It’s played on one of these:

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If you saw this instrument and said to yourself, “Baby French horn!” you are not alone.
http://www.robbstewart.com/Museum/19thCentury/GermanPostHorn.html

This little instrument is a bit of a devil to play and intonation is quite a challenge to say the least, especially from offstage. In the end, it pays off because the solo is incredibly beautiful. Robert Sullivan performed this challenging solo with a sweet, clear sound – really singing through the instrument.

The fourth movement featured mezzo soprano soloist Stephanie Blythe, who sang with arresting emotional depth. The text of the movement is taken from Nietzche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra:

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.
Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!

 

The fifth movement features the soloist, boys’ choir, and women’s chorus. After the dark, mysterious fourth movement, the entire vocal ensemble (seated behind the orchestra) suddenly rises, erupting in a joyous carol. Imitating church bells and a choir of angles, the following text is taken from an old German song:

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!
And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”
“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”
“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”
The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

Image

A famous caricature of Mahler
Image credit: http://www.8notes.com/biographies/mahler.asp

The last movement begins with the strings playing a heartbreaking melody. I have a hard time discerning what role the last movement fulfills in this story. It is laden with complex emotions. At one moment it seems nostalgic and reflective, the next, hopeful, and the next, resigned to some bitter fate. I encourage you to listen to it and draw your own conclusions. When discussing this movement with Professor Gardner, who subbed with the orchestra for the performances, he noted that this movement is a great litmus test for a conductor’s musical interpretation. If the movement is conducted too quickly, the deep emotional layers cannot be properly portrayed. If it is too slow, the audience is likely to nod off. Maestro Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos achieved an ideal tempo. I know I was on the edge of my seat, sensing the passion of both the performers and the Mahler himself. 

 

The Cincinnati Symphony horn section was augmented for the performance by Randy Gardner, Jeff Nelson, and Bruce Henniss. Like most Mahler symphonies, the work is very taxing, but the musicians were definitely up to the challenge. The entire section demonstrated impressive versatility, shifting seamlessly from producing a powerful wall of sound to delicate lyrical playing.

I hope my description has given you a general idea of how this piece works. If you haven’t heard it yet, I hope this encourages you to go listen to it now! I know writing about it makes me want to hear it again. Each time I listen, I uncover some new facet of the work. Getting to know Mahler is an endless musical discovery. 

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Minnesota Adventures: Part 2

22 Aug

Happy summer, everyone!  I think it’s safe to say it’s been a pretty eventful one across the board so far, what with the land hurricanes and sweltering heat and such.  I hope everyone is staying safe and cool! 

I mentioned in my last entry that I was lucky enough to have lunch with several members of the Minnesota Orchestra horn section – present and retired.  They are a wonderful group of people.  The lunch was very informative and it was a real treat to see this sort of friendship between professionals. 

Here’s the cast of characters!

ImageEllen Dinwiddie Smith

Currently playing third horn in the section, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith has been a member of the Minnesota Orchestra since 1993.  Prior to joining the Minnesota Orchestra, she graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and was a member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra as well as the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.  An active chamber musician, she founded the Colonial Chamber Series in 2006, which offers several chamber concerts per year at the Colonial Church Edina, Minnesota. 

 

ImageHerbert Winslow

Herbert Winslow joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 2005 as associate principal horn.  Prior to this, he graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music, played principal horn with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra from 1981 to 2006 and assistant principal horn with the New Mexico Symphony.   He is currently an adjunct horn professor at St. Olaf College and performs as a soloist and chamber musician.

 

 

ImageMichael Gast

Micheal Gast plays principal horn in the Minnesota Orchestra and has been a member since 1990.  During his tenure with the orchestra, he has performed numerous concertos and other major works for horn with the orchestra.  He graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music and was a member of the Jacksonville and San Antonio Symphonies.  He is currently an adjunct horn professor at the University of Minnesota. 

 

ImageBruce Rardin 

Bruce Rardin began playing with the Minnesota Orchestra in 1948 (it was called the Minneapolis Symphony at the time).  He performed as Assistant Principal in the orchestra.  Prior to this, Rardin attended the McPhail Music School in Minneapolis and served as musician in the armed forces.

 

 

ImageDavid Kamminga

David Kamminga joined the Minnesota Orchestra in 1967 as fourth horn.  Prior to this, he attended Calvin College and Michigan State University, as well as performing in the New Orleans Philharmonic and Opera Orchestras, the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, and the American Wind Symphony.

 

 

These sound bites do not even begin to capture the rich and varied careers of these outstanding musicians.  Please do yourself a favor and check out some of their recordings!  Their recent set of Beethoven symphonies was lauded by The New York Times writer Anne Midgette as perhaps “the definitive one of our time.”

After attending the rehearsal I described in a previous entry the group of us went out for lunch.  We settled in and began the interview discussing equipment.  Rardin said that the entire section played on Geyer style horns when he joined the orchestra in 1948.  The section gravitated more toward the Kruspe style wrap later when Charles McDonald and Phil Meyers joined the section playing Conn 8D horns.  (I will go more in depth to describe the Geyer and Kruspe styles of horns in a future entry.)  When Kendall Betts joined the orchestra in the early 80s, the section shifted equipment once more.  Betts preferred the rich, dark sound of the Lawson horn.  Gast was not playing a Lawson at the time he joined the orchestra in 1990, and soon switched instruments to match the rest of the section.

“You had a beat-up Paxman, didn’t you?” Rardin asked Gast.

“There was a hole in it,” Smith recalled, laughing.

“You know, a hole was in it and I had black tape on the holes…electrical tape…and one of the stipulations of my contract was that I would purchase one of these horns that the section was playing, the Lawsons,” said Gast.  At the time, the Lawson horns were made of a special alloy called Ambronze, which Lawson developed for its acoustical properties.  Despite the beautiful sound of the Lawson horns, they were very heavy; Gast recalled that the players had to be “very physically fit and in shape…It put out a lot of sound, but there was so much metal in it that you have to be very physical to play the instrument.” Later, however, Lawson developed a lighter model called the Fourier.  “Most of us kind of switched to Fouriers at one point.  And then [Lawson] came out with what’s called the V2 lead pipe, which is a lead pipe inside of a lead pipe.”  He and Smith performed experiments in the music hall comparing the two lead pipes.  “You played the standard FB210 lead pipe and the horn was very directional in the hall, and you could hear where the horn players were sitting.  And then when we put the V2 pipe on, all of a sudden the sound was coming from all around you.” 

Smith had originally begun playing a Lawson to blend with the horn section in the Fort Worth.  She played on the older Ambronze Lawson, then switched to the Fourier when it was developed.  Having previously played on a Conn 8D, similar to the Fourier, Smith described the change as “Coming back home…I was very comfortable right away on the Fourier.”

“That’s fortunately the experience I had,” Winslow chimed in.  “I played on an 8D from high school until 1989.”  As a friend of Walter Lawson, Winslow tried out several horns at Lawson’s own facility.  None of these heavier horns suited him.  “I had known Walter since I was in high school, so when I walked back in I felt horrible because I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t like these horns!  And he said, ‘Well that’s alright, I knew you wouldn’t, so go take this one and see how that feels.’  And it was the Fourier!”  He immediately connected with the horn and explained that “It was not any influence from Kendall or anything that led me there, it was just that that was the horn that I also felt fit me and gave me the timbres and the tones that I was after.”

The section was augmented for the Mahler performance by several substitute horn players, and every performer played on a Lawson or some combination of  Lawson and a Conn 8D equipment.  The shared equipment created a highly unified sound to the section.

Despite our thorough discussion of the section’s equipment, Winslow emphasized the importance of sound, style, and musicality over gear.  “I think there are a lot of players who modify their equipment so they can do their best to guarantee themselves 100% accuracy all the time, even though their sound might not be great all the time.  And I think we’re all comfortable taking the risk of letting the sound be the most important thing, and strive for the accuracy.  But If I had my druthers, I’d rather have the sound [be the primary goal, and] miss a note once in a while.”

“And we’re lucky we have a music director that lets the occasional note go by,” Gast added with regards the current music director, Osmo Vänksä.  “If it becomes a habit, yeah, you’re going to get called on, but he wants us to take chances…He wants extremes and he’s willing to take the risk.  That’s a rare thing in most conductors.”

Shifting away from the topic of equipment, I asked the section about influences on their concept of sound, specifically early recordings they listened to or players they admired. 

For some, recordings had been highly influential.  “I know immediately,” said Kamminga.  “There was an old archived recording of the Haydn second horn concerto, and the player was named Rolf Lind…he had a sound that just spoke to me…after that it was Chambers and Bloom.”

Smith was similarly influenced by a specific recording.  “When I was growing up, my parents bought a new car, and they had an 8-track with it…and one of the things on [the tape] was Alan Civil playing the Mozart horn concertos.  And I was crazy about that recording.  I was bananas for it.  And somebody asked me later like, ‘How’d you learn to trill?’ and I said, ‘From listening to Alan Civil.”’

“She’s a trilling fool, too, let me tell you!” Kamminga exclaimed.  “She can trill at the drop of a hat.  It’s just awful!”

“But you know, you just listen to him and you can’t not do it!” said Smith.

“Yeah, uh-huh.  I listen to him and I can’t trill!  Must be me, huh?”  Kamminga joked.

Smith laughed as she recalled another influential recording.  “When I first started, my mom knew right away that I really liked [horn playing] so she bought me these Funk and Wagnall recordings from Safeway.  The first one was Copland; it was American music but it was fun.  The second one was Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2.  And I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  It was my favorite thing that I had ever gotten.”  Years later, she listened to the record again.  “I put it on, and I’m telling you, that is like some German community orchestra out in the middle of nowhere.  It’s a terrible recording – and I loved it!  I loved it because it was just, you know, the music!”  Still, she believes “It was…those first Alan Civil things that mean the most because I was the youngest…So maybe what people listen to is really important when they’re young.”

“It wasn’t so much that I wanted a particular sound in the beginning,” said Winslow, “but the very first recording I ever had of a horn player playing a solo was [Dennis] Brain doing the Hindemith concerto…That’s certainly a great foundation of sound.”  Later, he purchased a recording of Schumann’s Konzertstuck for four horns and orchestra.  “[It was] an entirely different sound!  And yet, what amazed me was the way a section could work and blend together.  And they all didn’t have the same sound…You could hear each different player as they did the arpeggios and their different sound, and then you hear them all together and you hear this mass; it was amazing.” 

Gast also recalled his interest in section playing.  At first, he mostly listened to soloists’ performances.  Having played cornet until late in high school, he enjoyed the recordings of Dennis Brain, admiring his dexterity and light, trumpet-like sound.  Later, he listened to the recordings of renowned soloist Hermann Baumann.  “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool, I don’t like the vibrato, but it’s kind of a husky sound.”  Hearing soloist Barry Tuckwell perform, he decided “That’s what I want to sound like – Tuckwell.”  Later, he heard more section playing.  “I hadn’t heard an orchestra until I got into [Curtis],” Gast recalled.  “And then I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra do Brahms 2 the first week I was there…and hearing Mason play, just glorious sound…a great section together.”

While discussing sound concepts, the topic of contrast between the Chicago sound and the Minnesota sound arose a few times.  This was particularly interesting, since Chicago was the last orchestra I visited.

Having listened to the two orchestras perform both live and in recordings, I have found that the horn sections possess vastly different sound concepts.  In stronger dynamics, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra horns produce an incredibly powerful, brassy sound, and the Minnesota Orchestra horn sound, while powerful, maintains what Gast described as “the old American school – a sonorous, big East Coast sound…I heard someone say that in the Chicago Symphony, the sound of the horns comes through the orchestra, and with a big East Coast sound it comes over the top of the orchestra.”  I found this to be an apt description.  When I listened to the Minnesota Orchestra’s recordings and live performances, the horn sound possessed a haunting, far-away quality, and seemed to come from all directions in the hall.  It was a unique and beautiful sound quality I had not heard often.  Both Chicago and Minnesota, however, have outstanding horn sections that are incredibly musical.  The stylistic differences between the two merely highlight the wide variety of sounds that horn players can produce based on equipment, experience, and personal style.

From there, the conversation wandered to auditioning.  I asked about the dilemma of auditioning a technically sound and musical player who played with a sound that differed from the section. 

“I would say, here’s the thing,” Smith responded, “When we put someone into the finals, we have to know that that person can sit in the section and play with us….If they’re going to get into the finals, they have to be someone who we think can fit in.”

Winslow added that if an audition candidate believes he/she played well but does not advance in the audition, it may not be because of poor playing.  “It’s just that, you know, we play with different styles.  And don’t try to psych out what it is [the committee is] looking for or try to play on equipment you’re not used to…I thought I played some pretty good auditions and didn’t make it past the first round, and I played some auditions where I knew I was walking out the door and they called my number to stay for the next round!  You never know.  But that’s the whole idea of sound concept, the way you would do a phrase or something, you can’t know what the people on the other side of that screen are looking for.  You just put it out there, and if it works, it works.”

“One of the other questions I wanted to address is what qualities you look for in an audition candidate.  And you would say the biggest thing is…musicality and an ability to blend with the section?” I asked.

“No, I think the very biggest thing is rhythm and pitch!” Smith said. 

“We’ve heard people play flawless auditions but they can’t count in the rests,” Gast added. (Hello, metronome.)

“I was kind of hoping you were gonna ask me why I took up the horn,” said Kamminga.

“Why?” Rardin and I asked in unison.

“Somebody told me that I’d end up getting all the girls!” he replied.

“And look – we’re right here!” said Smith, gesturing to herself and me.

“And here I am!  It worked!”

Image

As our conversation came to a close, Gast made a final comment.  “The section plays very well together, I have to brag on it…this is one of the few horn sections that gets along with each other and we hang out and party together and have luncheons – and it’s a rare thing.”  I thoroughly agreed with him.  I had a wonderful time with the section.  It was encouraging to see the easygoing rapport and mutual respect shared by these world class musicians.  I hope someday to find myself in a similar professional situation.

Turning Corners and Firming Corners: Adventures in Embouchure Formation

12 May

We are half-way through the fifth month of 2012 and still it feels as if the year has just begun.  Time has made this a strange year – the events of January feel at once vividly recent and vaguely distant.  This has been a year of upheaval in my playing.

Around January of this year I came close to an injury in my embouchure (the muscular mechanism around the mouth with which brass players play).  For those unfamiliar with the mechanics of brass playing, injury is a great risk.  Overuse and poor technique can quickly overtax the muscles and nerves of the embouchure, leading to pain, muscle tearing, nerve damage, and conditions called embouchure overuse (familiarly, “Satchmo’s Syndrome”) and focal dystonia (a neurological condition leading to lack of muscle control).  (Note: brass players should be aware of these conditions but not overly familiar unless it is necessary.  You will become a hypochondriac.) 

The orbicularis oris – the main muscle in embouchure formation.
Image credit: http://www.fpnotebook.com/ENT/Anatomy/OrbclrsOrs.htm

 

A few months ago I unfortunately found myself in a condition in which I was overusing my embouchure with poor technique.  I was stretching my muscles too thin and placing a disproportionate amount of my upper lip in the mouthpiece (the upper lip is much thinner and more fragile than the bottom lip).  With this inefficient setting, I was spreading myself too thin, practicing on a tired face and adding too much additional practice onto long rehearsal days of three or four hours.  With all of the wonderful performing opportunities available through CCM, it is crucial for students to learn when to say “no” to extra unnecessary rehearsals, to lay back in ensembles, and not to practice too much or too strenuously on heavy days.  In my enthusiasm, I was doing none of these things.  At some point in January I started to feel a strange, tingling feeling in my lips after playing, and on certain days even looking at my instrument made my facial muscles feel tired.  I took an entire day off, but it seemed to have no effect.  Halfway through a three-hour rehearsal during tech week for the winter opera, I felt a sharp pain in my upper lip – a strong warning sign and often an indicator of injury. 

How can I describe the immense psychological trauma of experiencing an embouchure injury?  Every brass player eventually hears horror stories about players who felt the telltale “sharp pain” and found themselves with a career-ending injury.  I have heard of players undergoing surgery and relearning how to play on scar tissue.  Injury is a major risk, particularly for horn and trumpet players, who play with a great deal of back-pressure from their instruments.  The thought of losing my ability to play horn, my passion and my outlet for performance, cost me many hours of sleep.  I immediately called my horn professor after getting out of rehearsal that night (I didn’t play another note).  Fortunately, based on the symptoms I described, he told me that I probably had not injured myself, but had come very close.  It was time for a break, and we decided it was time for a change.  

I took a week off of the horn entirely (having no idea what to do with all of my free time), nursing my face with ice and Advil.  I was removed from all of my major ensembles – a difficult but necessary step.  I watched others fill in for me and perform the music I had spent hours rehearsing.  After the break I slowly, carefully returned to the horn with a brand new embouchure.  My focus now was moving the mouthpiece down so that the bottom of the rim touched the bottom of the red of my lower lip.  I also focused on bringing the corners of my mouth inward on higher notes to create more of a cushion between the mouthpiece and the teeth, rather than stretching the corners back and making the muscle thinner and more vulnerable.  I started practicing by alternating five minutes of playing with five minutes of rest.  My practice schedules starting out looked something like this:

5 min buzzing

5 min rest

5 min long tones

5 min rest

5 min work with a pressure training device

5 min rest

5 min long tones

It was quite a step back for someone accustomed to practicing 2-3 hours a day.  The whole experience was very humbling.

Starting out with a new embouchure was a little bit like relearning how to ride a bike.  Perhaps a better analogy would be switching from a bike to a unicycle – a similar mechanism, but with an entirely different feel.  Not surprisingly, my sound was extremely unclear and weak at first.  Since my tone has always been a point of pride for me, this was a difficult loss to face.  I wondered sometimes if I would ever get my old sound back.  (Another note: Crises like this force one to think about backup plans.  I now know that if horn falls through for any reason I’m switching to neuroscience or history.  My roommate witnessed many a frustrated breakdown of mine.  She is a saint.)  

Eventually I moved these fractions of time up to ten minutes, then to fifteen, then to twenty.  I kept breaks in between playing, but gradually decreased them in proportion to the amount of playing I was doing.  Writing about this so summarily makes it seem as if it were a short, linear, simple process.  It was anything but that.  I would make astonishing progress one day, then feel discomfort and play with poor tone quality the next.  At times I wondered if my sound would ever be the same, if this embouchure would ever feel comfortable, if I was cut out for this.  What if my muscles were just not capable of doing what they needed to do to play properly?  

I am happy to say that my muscles are proving quite capable of doing what they need to do properly.  My range has been increasing slowly but surely.  I am performing the Beethoven  Sonata for Horn and Piano, Op. 17 for my solo board in just a few weeks.  This means that I have attained a G above the staff!  When I started this whole process a C in the staff felt like playing in the stratosphere.  Just recently I hit an A above the staff, and I did it efficiently – with firm corners and fast air, rather than mouthpiece pressure, stretched muscles, and constricted air.  

Expanding my range has been like slowly climbing a ladder (a greased ladder, at times).  Each half step I gain is like grabbing another rung.  At first I have a tenuous grasp on the next rung, and my hand keeps slipping off, but eventually I gain a firm grasp on it once I learn how to reach it properly.  Every once in I while I may slip down a few steps, but I have learned to be more patient as I gain these footholds again. 

Although I would not wish this experience on anyone, it has been incredibly valuable to me.  I have learned an entirely new side of my own perseverance, and I am more determined than ever to perform, and to do it the right way.  I am lucky to have an incredible support system through Professor Gardner, my friends, and my wonderful family.  I still have a way to go, and occasionally I fall back on old habits, but it only pushes me to be more vigilant. 

Needless to say, the Horns Across America Project has been a rather low priority for me.  My confidence in my own playing is only slowly returning, and had you asked me to play in a lesson with one of the finest horn players in the country a month ago, I probably would have laughed in your face and subsequently run screaming.  Since the lessons are an incredibly important part of learning about each orchestra, I would not want to sacrifice them, and I wanted to wait until things were a little more solidified before taking that risk.  I eagerly look forward to resuming the project, and I may have some plans for this summer.  Thanks for continuing to follow the blog, and thank you to all of the people who have supported me throughout this.  I’ll probably get back to you in the summer, but maybe some miracle will happen and I will write sooner.  In the mean time, I hope everyone is enjoying warmer weather and longer days.

Good Old Technology

23 Dec

Sorry to everyone who got multiple email notifications about the last post.  I was having some problems with formatting and had to resubmit the entry a few times.  Please read only the most recent post of the Minnesota entry – the other links probably won’t work!

Hope everyone is having a great holiday season!

-JP

Minnesota Adventures: Part 1

22 Dec

Hello there readers!

 

News flash:  life as a musician is busy.  Over the summer I thought I would have just oodles of time to write, but most of my time was absorbed by practicing, rehearsals, and performances at the Bay View Summer Music Festival in northern Michigan!  I thought certainly once school picked up I would have a more regular schedule, or perhaps some time on the weekends to write, but free time was still hard to come by.

 

Image

Horn quartets by the lake in Bay View, Michigan

Fortunately, as a musician busyness = success.  Since my last post, I attended the aforementioned chamber music festival, took my first professional audition for the a major orchestra, played the odd gig around CCM, toured for a week with the U.S. Air Force Band of Flight, and got in the Christmas spirit by playing Christmas carols with horn ensembles in Dayton and Cincinnati.  This, in addition to my duties as a student and the occasional social interaction, left me very little time.  Now, however, I am on break and there is really no excuse for me not to be writing, so here I am!

 

It’s time I introduce the Minnesota Orchestra, which I had the absolute pleasure of visiting last May.  Much like Chicago, Minnesota and I have a long history.  Although I never lived there, much of my family lives in Minnesota now or has in the past.  Every summer while I was growing up, my family visited a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota called Elbow Lake (funny name, I know).  We would visit around the same time every July along with several other families who had children close to the ages of my sister and myself.  As a result, everyone in my age group became close, and we still keep up occasionally today (thank you, Facebook).

 

I have always loved the culture of the people in Minnesota.  The people are polite, down-to-earth, and hospitable.  My experience with the Minnesota Orchestra horn section proved to be no different.  Professor Gardner first introduced the project to the section when subbing with them last winter, and they were very receptive to the idea.  I contacted several members of the horn section, all of whom were enthusiastic about the project and readily offered suggestions for travel, lessons, concert dates, and housing.  Ellen Dinwiddie Smith (third horn) graciously opened her home to me, and allowed me to stay there for a few nights.  Michael Gast (principal horn) offered immediately to set up a lunch with the section that would allow me to interview them and learn more about their history and musical ideas.  I was overwhelmed by their kindness and enthusiasm.  This was exactly what I had been hoping for in this project!  After a volley of emails with the section members, I was scheduled to attend a rehearsal, interview the section over lunch, attend two concerts, and take lessons with Michael Gast, Ellen Dinwiddie Smith, and Brian Jensen (second horn).

 

I departed from the Cincinnati airport (which is actually in Kentucky – go figure.) on Thursday, May 26th.  It was my first time dealing with long-term parking by myself.  Admittedly I was quite nervous about leaving my car outside, exposed to the elements and numerous bandits that were sure to break into my car and steal valuable things like my air freshener and ten year-old radio.  As soon as my shuttle reached the airport I became extremely paranoid that I had not locked my car or even closed all of my doors, and was already plotting ways to jump my car when it was most certainly dead upon my return.  Apart from teaching me a great deal about horn playing, this project is exposing me to the frenzy of traveling.  As a musician, this is certainly something I will have to get used to.

 

Mark Smith (Ellen’s husband) picked me up from the airport and took me to Orchestra Hall where the orchestra was rehearsing.  As soon as I sat in the balcony to listen, I was finally able to relax.  Everything was organized, and I was now free to observe and learn.  The rehearsal began with a fascinating trumpet concerto by Finnish composer Jukka Linkola, performed by Finnish soloist Jouko Harjanne.  Mr. Harjanne played exquisitely.  His embouchure was perfect and the highest notes floated effortlessly from his instrument.  I was entranced by his musicality in the performance of this concerto which featured everything from jazzy, rhythmic acrobatics to sweeping, lyrical melodies.  After a short break, the orchestra returned to rehearse Gustav Mahler’s sixth symphony.  Originally, the section had planned to get me onstage during the rehearsal from an inside perspective.  In the end this proved impossible, and now I could see why.  Even for Mahler, who is famous for thick instrumentation, this proved to be a packed stage.  The symphony features:

  • 4 flutes
  • 4 oboes
    Image

    A hammer that might be used for Mahler Symphony No. 6

  • 5 clarinets (Eb, A, Bb, and bass)
  • 4 bassoons
  • 1 contrabassoon
  • 8 – count ‘em 8 horns (9 with an assistant)
  • 6 trumpets
  • 4 trombones
  • 1 tuba
  • 2 timpani
  • Offstage bells and cowbells
  • Xylophone
  • Bass drum
  • Triangle
  • Snare drum
  • Cymbals
  • Slapstick
  • Tambourine
  • Tam-tam (a type of gong)
  • At least two celesta (a dreamy keyboard instrument – think Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy)
  • 2 harps

…In addition to a full string section, and of course, a giant hammer (more about that later).  Needless to say, there was hardly room for me onstage.  There was hardly room for the orchestra!  As I listened to the rehearsal of the sweeping, dramatic music of Mahler, the vast grandeur of the symphony seemed to be worth the tight space.  Hearing a recording of Mahler is magnificent, but only hearing it live can deliver the full effect of his music.

 

The rehearsal progressed much the same as the ones I have experienced myself.  Maestro Osmo Vänska made comments and suggestions here and there, shaping phrases and textures and gesturing animatedly to convey his musical ideas.  Maestro Allen Tinkham of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra once told us that professional orchestras have the same problems that youth orchestras do – they just fix them more quickly.  Observing the Minnesota Orchestra, this certainly seemed to be true.  The orchestra was flexible, quickly adhering to Maestro Vänska’s input while performing with their own musical style and expression.  Adaptability and musicality are crucial in the professional orchestra.

 

The most unusual thing to me (which really was not unusual at all) was the orchestra’s casual attire.  When I am sitting in a beautiful hall listening to professional musicians, I am accustomed to seeing tuxedoes and concert black.  To see these musicians rehearsing in Orchestra Hall in jeans was a new experience for me – not that I should have expected anything different!  It added a new reality to the professional orchestra for me.  As a student musician, it is easy to idolize these performers and the performance career in general.  To see the musicians dressed informally, producing the same beautiful music, made it easier for me to picture myself on that stage – an exciting prospect, to be sure!

 

At one point during the rehearsal, everyone suddenly and inexplicably lifted bows and instruments into the air.  Michael Gast explained to me later that this was an old tradition.  If someone loudly dropped music or equipment during a rehearsal, the other musicians wanted to prove that they had not been the cause of the disturbance.  This tradition is maintained humorously today.  It made me happy to see these sorts of inside jokes and camaraderie within the orchestra.  This companionship is certainly evidenced in the cohesive blend of sounds in the orchestra, as well as the closeness of the members of the horn section, which I experienced firsthand at lunch afterward.

 

Stay tuned for my next entry featuring an interview with the Minnesota Orchestra horn section – coming soon!  (I promise!)

A Developing Art: Lesson and Interview with Dale Clevenger

23 Aug

What makes a horn section great?  How is it that something like the “Chicago sound” comes about?  What is the “Chicago sound?”  In January, I decided to see what I could do to find out.

I arrived in Chicago after a long day of driving from Cincinnati.  My former teacher, Laura Guili, was generous enough to let me stay with her during my time in Chicago.  I had a wonderful time catching up, and meeting her delightful cats!  No matter how long I am away from the Chicago area, it always feels like home when I come back.

The next day I had my lesson with Dale Clevenger.  I had been  looking forward to this – as I mentioned in my last entry, Clevenger was one of the first horn players after whom I tried to model my sound.  I had been listening to his recordings for years, and always admired the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the whole.  So, naturally, I hit every red light on the way to his house for my lesson.  Thankfully I managed to arrive on time.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little apprehensive.  Clevenger is widely known and admired for both his solo and ensemble performing as well as his conducting and teaching abilities.  He performed with the likes of Arnold Jacobs and Adolph Herseth for decades, and has been the principal horn in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1966.  I was extremely grateful to have this opportunity to learn more about his playing.

My lesson with Mr. Clevenger provided me with a wealth of information.  We talked for nearly an hour about the development of a section’s sound, an extremely complex thing to describe.

I began the interview with a broad question: How would you describe the Chicago horn sound, as distinct from other orchestras?  Mr. Clevenger thought for a moment.  “To approach this project just arbitrarily as a ‘horn sound’ is a little bit limiting,” he replied.  “It’s a process.  It’s not something that you set out to do.  I didn’t come to Chicago saying, ‘I’m going to play with this sound.’”  The creation of a specific approach is instead, as Clevenger puts it, “a developing art,” and the Chicago brass sound has been developing for decades.

Dale Clevenger

But how did this come about?  “I am a product of my conditioning.  Pure and simple,” said Clevenger.  He described his early influences, listening to records of symphony orchestras, and emphasized the importance of attending live concerts on a regular basis while he studied at Carnegie Mellon.  “I heard very few live concerts until I got to Pittsburgh and studied with my teacher,” he said.  “Then I heard the Pittsburgh Symphony twice every week for four years.  I went to every concert twice.  It was just not an option to do otherwise.  If they were playing, I was there.”  This, in conjunction with his studies at Carnegie Mellon, no doubt influenced Clevenger’s playing.  In addition, he added that he had always admired the Viennese sound.  “One of my favorite horn players and horn sounds was Roland Berger, with the Vienna Philharmonic.  It’s just magic, his sound.”

Clevenger also mentioned his admiration for Frank Brouk, with whom he played when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  “I sat next to Frank Brouk when he was assisting me my first day in the orchestra.  And I heard this sound come out of him, and I said to myself, ‘I have to sound like that.’  It’s just fantastic.  He was an unsung hero, Frank Brouk.”  Although I  have been unable to find any recordings of Frank Brouk online, I was able to find other descriptions of his sound.  In Brouk’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune, published in May 2004, Norman Schweikert described Brouk’s ‘“gorgeous tone.’”  ‘“Frank…had that melted butter quality of tone, in the true Bohemian tradition,”’ Schweikert continued.

In addition to this fellow section member, Clevenger was further inspired by his colleagues outside of the horn section.  He performed with tuba player Arnold Jacobs and trumpet player Adolph Herseth, both brilliant performers and teachers, for decades.  Describing Herseth’s playing, Clevenger said, “You had to hear it live and sit next to it to believe it.  It was just always right. Everything that he did always seemed just right.  Arnold Jacobs was on the bottom end of the brass, and it was phenomenal all the time.  It was wonderful.  Thirty-five years I get to play with both of these guys.  And that affects you!

With all of these influences in mind, how does a principal player’s approach affect the section?  “If a person wants to play in a certain section then they at least tacitly agree to sound as much as they can like the principal,” said Clevenger.  The hornist’s style becomes evident through his or her playing, although some beginning principal players try to verbally “put a stamp on” the sound.  “It’s more important to do it musically,” said Clevenger.

Banner for the CSO Downtown

To Clevenger, one of the most important aspects of the Chicago horn sound is its flexibility.  “I don’t play Mozart like I play certain French music like I play Brahms like I play Bruckner or Strauss.  It’s all different…one of the nicest comments that I’ve ever gotten from anybody…was, ‘Wow, you sound like a different horn player even in the same piece!”’  This versatility was evident later in my lesson, when we worked on excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.  Clevenger demonstrated various approaches to the sound using different horn positions (on or off the leg and at various angles off the leg) as well as varying tone qualities and air speeds.  Clearly, there are numerous ways to approach every piece, and the Chicago section values the ability to adapt its sound to different works.

One of the most important things Clevenger stressed was the limited ways in which horn sound is described.  “Unfortunately, the world of horn has two basic words, which is very limiting on horn sound, and it’s ‘bright’ and ‘dark.’”  I have noticed this myself.  In describing a player’s sound, these seem to be the first words people use.  Perhaps this is because it is difficult to put such a complex idea into words, but there is so much beyond these simple qualities of sound.  So, near the end of our lesson, Clevenger charged me with a new challenge for the project.  “Debunk, as best you can, the myth that there are only ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ horn sounds.”

I learned a great deal from this first journey for the Horns Across America Project.  Dale Clevenger’s perspective has given me a new outlook on how to approach the origins of a section sound.  “The sound of an orchestra is like talking about personality – the personality of an orchestra… The persona of players.  It’s a combination of where these people study, of all of their conditioning, and how they arrive at the way they sound, and the way they present themselves in an audition and how they continue to develop.”  I look forward to exploring more orchestras and understanding the complexities of this living and constantly developing art.

Chicago: The City, the Symphony

29 Jun

It’s been so long since I’ve updated this blog, you may be wondering if the Horns Across America project still exists.

I can assure you it is in full swing!  I’m still not exactly in the habit of blogging, but I am working at it!  Life tends to get in the way of these things, especially in my busy life at CCM.  Thankfully, summer is here and I have some more time.  I have lots of material to write about!  I will be catching up over the next several weeks.  Stay tuned!

Chicago: The City

To say that Chicago and I have a long history would be an understatement.  I grew up about an hour north of the city, where I began playing horn at age 11.  My first horn solo recording was Dale Clevenger’s Mozart Concertos with János Rolla and the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.  I always idolized the Chicago horn sound growing up, admiring especially Dale Clevenger’s diverse stylistic approach, from the raw power of Mahler to sweet, lyrical Mozart concertos.  I sought to imitate the purity of his tone quality in my own playing, and, to put it crudely, “crank it out” when orchestral works called for a powerful dynamic.

I joined the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra when I was fifteen years old.  Under the direction of Maestro Allen Tinkham, I was given the opportunity to play fantastic works with the symphony orchestra as well as the Encore chamber orchestra.  It was in this setting that I fell in love with orchestral playing.

Growing up, when it came to orchestral music, I rarely strayed from the Baroque and early Classical periods.  Preparing for my CYSO audition exposed me to new works that I couldn’t have dreamed of: Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Barber’s Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, and Richard Strauss’s Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils were all on the first audition list.  Hearing recordings of these pieces completely changed my perspective on classical music.  Playing them was truly the spark that led to my love of performing in an orchestra.  I walked into the rehearsal room for my first practice with the orchestra during our Labor Day retreat and heard the trumpets and low brass practicing the third movement of Fountains of Rome (“The Trevi Fountain at Noon”).

The rest, as they say, is history.

Weekly rehearsals in the city allowed me to begin navigating parts of Chicago on my own.  This independence inspired a new confidence in me and led to an even deeper love of the city.

I could go on about the wonderful music I performed with the CYSO, the incredible people I met, and my deepening love for music through these experiences.  I was only a member of the orchestra for a year before my family and I moved to Atlanta, but I can safely say that the CYSO changed my life.  I may have come to where I am through some other route, but I am happy to say that it was through this youth orchestra that I decided to pursue music on a professional level.

Chicago: The Symphony

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1891 under conductor Theodore Thomas (it was then called the Chicago Orchestra).  Thomas traveled widely in the United States as a conductor, but finally settled permanently in Chicago.  The orchestra began with sixty New York musicians and twenty-four local musicians.  At first, the orchestra struggled, averaging $33,000 in debt for the first eleven seasons.

Nevertheless, the orchestra survived.  In 1904, donations and funding from trustees provided the ensemble with a new hall, much smaller than the one they had been playing in.  “We are now in the same room as the audience,” said Thomas.  The new Orchestra Hall seated 2,500 at a time.

Thomas left a lasting legacy with the Chicago Orchestra.  There was certainly camaraderie

Theodore Thomas (found at http://www.soc-pres-music-hall.com/)

between himself and the ensemble.  One anecdote I found amusing from John Henry Mueller’s The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History in Musical Taste occurred while the orchestra was rehearsing for their first performance of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony.  The third movement, written entirely in 5/4, proved challenging for the orchestra.  In order to help the ensemble count in the odd meter and focus in the sweltering heat, Thomas suggested counting each beat on the words “Ein Glass Bier für Mich.”  Thus, driven by the prospect of a cold glass of beer, the orchestra made it through the rehearsal.

Thomas challenged his orchestra to play increasingly demanding repertoire during his tenure, including the first ever performance of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben in the United States (if the horn players struggled with the third movement of the Tchaikovsky, they must have had a field day with Heldenleben).  Thomas passed away in January 1905, leaving a legacy behind as the “Father of the Permanent Orchestra.”

Thomas was succeeded by Frederick Stock, a violist and assistant conductor with the orchestra beforehand.  Even with his brief retirement during a period of Anti-German sentiment during WWI, Stock had the longest tenure of any music director for the orchestra thus far, directing for 37 years between 1905 and 1942.

Since then, the orchestra has featured numerous influential conductors including Fritz Reiner and Georg Solti, to name a few.  They have also made numerous recordings of major works, including Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, several Mahler symphonies, and all of Beethoven’s symphonies.  The orchestra has traveled around the world, touring in Asia, Europe, Australia, and South America.  The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is globally renowned as one of the premiere ensembles in the United States, and worldwide.

Sources:

Mueller, John Henry. The American Symphony Orchestra ; a Social History of Musical Taste. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1951. Print.

http://cso.org/About/Performers/Performer.aspx?id=4434

Overture (Part 1)

24 Jan

Part 1: Concerning Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the first leg of my journey is complete!  (This journey is going to have lots of legs…think arachnid here.)  Before I regale you with tales of my travels through Chicago, however, a few introductions are in order.  Some of my readers are musicians and are well-versed in musical terms, but for those less familiar with some of the musical jargon, I’ll provide some footnotes.  For example, an overture is an opening movement to a play, oratorio, or opera which introduces some principal themes that will be running throughout the rest of the work.  Hence, the title of this entry – I’ll be introducing some major players in my trip to Chicago.  First, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, which I heard the CSO perform twice during my visit.

A great deal of mystique surrounds Tchaikovsky’s famous sixth symphony.  The composer’s death just nine days after its premiere in October 1893 came as a tragic shock to the public.  Tchaikovsky was only fifty-three when he died of cholera in St. Petersburg, leaving a massive legacy behind him.  In his lifetime, Tchaikovsky composed numerous ballets, symphonies, concerti, and other works which earned him a great deal of notoriety both in Russia and the rest of the world.

Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony was premiered on October 28th, 1893, with the composer conducting.  Titled Pathétique, which in Russian means something more akin to passion and emotional suffering, the symphony is both dramatic and programmatic, although its true meaning remains a mystery.  Tchaikovsky composed the symphony during a period of immense personal emotional turmoil.  Wracked with insecurities throughout his lifetime, the composer grappled both his own compositions and his homosexuality.  During the time when he was composing the Pathétique, Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with his nephew and heir, Bob Davydov.  Although the composer’s intentions for the meaning of the symphony remain ambiguous, it is hard not to interpret his passionate themes as expressions of forbidden and unrequited love, especially given the context and title of the piece.  Such was the mystery surrounding Tchaikovsky’s composition and unexpected death that the symphony was once regarded as a prelude to suicide.

The Pathétique is a dramatic break from Tchaikovsky’s earlier symphonies.  Scored in B minor, the first movement begins with a deep and ominous bassoon solo.  The violins soon enter, tentatively at first, but soon crescendo into a passionate melody.  The first movement maintains a tragic yet passionate tone, containing some of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful themes. Its title (Andante – Allegro non troppo1) indicates the wide variety of character and tempi2 throughout the opening.  Tchaikovsky scores the orchestra in the widest possible dynamic range, from bold fortes to nearly inaudible pianissimos3 (at one point the orchestra is marked at pppppp, which in Italian would be pianissi-issi-issi-issi-issimo, to put it in perspective).  After a prolonged, tender and soft section, Tchaikovsky suddenly returns to the first theme, subito forte4. (Side note: if you ever see this symphony performed live, watch the audience – those who are unfamiliar with the piece will leap at least a foot out of their seats at this point.)

All of the video clips in this entry are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing under Fritz Reiner.  Unfortunately I was unable to embed the clips, but you can follow the link to the original YouTube post!

The second movement, much shorter than the first, is a sort of quirky, 5/4 waltz.  Its main theme is much lighter than the first, creating an aura of hope and relief after the passionate first movement.  (On a personal note, this is one of my favorite movements by Tchaikovsky.  I defy you to listen to the main theme, introduced by the celli, without smiling.)

The third movement is a brilliant march.  At this point the first-time listener feels as if the symphony may have a happy ending.  What began as a tragedy shows strength and resilience in this movement.  A jaunty theme is passed between the winds while the strings maintain a bouncing, triplet feel beneath.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the rumors of this symphony being a suicide note.  Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova was the first to publish this belief in 1979, and for a time it was widely believed by many of his followers.  Since then it has been largely refuted.  That said, the final movement of the Pathétique sounds like a farewell to me.  Perhaps the composer intended the movement to signal a defeat, succumbing to life’s failures and frustrations.  Perhaps it was a solemn and heart-breaking acceptance of the fact that his could never truly express his love in a society fiercely intolerant of homosexuality.  Listeners should make of the music what they will.  The passionate themes speak for themselves to each person.  The movement begins with a dramatic and desperate-sounding introduction in the strings, eventually evolving into a more tender theme.  Soon, however, the melody becomes dark and brooding once more, and a deep tam-tam stroke signals the beginning of the end.  To me, the low ostinato5 on the tonic6 from the double basses brings one word to mind: inevitability.  The symphony ends as ominously as it began, fading to a nearly inaudible note in the low strings.

The first audience of this symphony was stunned by this conclusion, uncharacteristic of any symphony, let alone one by Tchaikovsky, known for his powerful, almost bombastic endings.  To the composer’s initial dismay, the crowd’s response to the ominous symphony was a round of half-hearted, bewildered applause.

The work premiered under Tchaikovsky’s baton.  At its next performance, the concert hall was draped in black, in memory of the one of the world’s greatest composers.

I saw this symphony performed twice by the CSO with Juanjo Mena conducting.  Both performances were thrilling.  The amount of passion created by the orchestra was stunning, capturing the emotional highs and lows of the entire work.  The first performance was particularly enrapturing to me, as this was the first time I had seen the piece performed live.  Pondering the composer’s untimely death, the final movement brought tears to my eyes as it diminished to what the program notes aptly described as “defeat and disintegration, over a fading, ultimately faltering pulse.”  Leading up to this performance, I studied the CSO’s recording of the symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim and fell in love with the piece.  No recording, however, can match the striking emotional expression of a live performance, particularly with such talented musicians.  I was happy to hear it performed twice during my stay.

In the next entry, I’ll introduce the Chicago Symphony Orchestra itself.  Stay tuned!

1 Most movements are named after the basic tempi they follow.  Andante is Italian for a walking pace.  Allegro non troppo roughly translated means “not too fast.”
2 Tempi – the plural for “tempo,” which indicates the speed of a piece.
3 Pianissimo – “Very soft” – the suffix “-issimo” in Italian roughly translates to “very” or “to the highest degree” in English.
4 Subito forte – Italian for “suddenly strong.”
5 Ostinato – Italian for “obstinate,” in music this term refers to a persistently repetitive musical phrase or rhythm.
6 Tonic – The first note of a major or minor scale.  This is the note after which a particular key is named.  Most pieces end on the tonic.

A Quick Update from Evanston

17 Jan

Hello everyone!

I have completed the first part of my journey for the Horns Across America project!  This weekend I drove from Cincinnati to Chicago for the first installment of the project.  I was fortunate enough to hear the CSO perform twice and I also had a lesson with Dale Clevenger, the principal horn in the orchestra.  I was in contact with David Griffin, the fourth horn, but unfortunately we were unable to schedule a lesson.

Here’s a quick preview of what’s coming up for the blog:

  • A brief history of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
  • An introduction of Dale Clevenger and some information on his career as a horn player.
  • Stories about my adventures in Chicago and a summary of the information I gathered from my lesson with Mr. Clevenger.
  • Some background information on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6

Good stuff on the way!  Stay tuned!

– Jessie

Prelude: In Which I Figure Out How to Blog

14 Jan

Hello there, readers!  Welcome to the Horns Across America blog.  I suppose an introduction is in order.

My name is Jessica Pinkham (I usually go by Jessie).  I am currently in my first year of undergrad at the University of Cincinnati, studying horn performance with professor Randy Gardner.  I am also a member of the honors college, which brings me to the purpose of this blog!

Each honors student at UC is required to have a certain number of “Honors Experiences” before graduation.  These can include honors level seminars, study abroad tours, co-ops, and a variety of other experiences designed by the college.  Students can also design their own experiences which meet a specific set of guidelines and submit a proposal for the project to the honors department for approval.  As a music major, I worried that I would have a difficult time designing such a project that would be applicable to my major, but after some thought and careful planning, the Horns Across America Project was born.


Tools of the trade.

In high school, I was a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra.  As I participated in each youth orchestra and studied with different teachers (Laura Guili in Chicago and Susan Welty in Atlanta), I learned about the various differences in horn playing style, equipment, and technique between each region.  These differences have always fascinated me.  I have heard about the basic variations in horn playing between regions, but I have never studied them in depth.

Thus, the project: Over the next several months, I plan to travel across the country, visiting several professional orchestras and studying different techniques of sound production in each horn section. I plan to visit major orchestras in Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of the extremely talented orchestras in the United States, but it will give me a good basis of understanding of the different qualities of sound based on technique, equipment, and musical concepts.

These are my goals for each visit:

  1. Attend at least one concert performance per orchestra.
  2. Meet with at least one member of the section and obtain a better understanding of each section’s distinctive sound and musical philosophy.
  3. Attend a rehearsal.
  4. Arrange a private lesson with at least one member of the horn section.
  5. If permissible, record the rehearsals and lessons I am able to attend.

Although I will not be able to do everything on this list for every orchestra, even fulfilling a few of these goals will be incredibly educational.

In preparation for each visit, I will listen to a variety of recordings from each orchestra, making note of the differences in sounds between the horn sections.  I will also read excerpts from John Henry Mueller’s The American Symphony Orchestra: A Social History of Musical Taste, which examines the different aesthetic qualities of several orchestras in the United States as well as their histories and prevailing repertoire.

I’m not sure what to expect from this project as of yet, but I am certain that this undertaking (and it is quite an undertaking!) will be incredibly beneficial to my career as a student, artist, and professional.  I’ve never been much of a blogger per se, so please bear with me while I figure all of this out!  I hope you enjoy sharing in my adventures – thanks for reading!

Musically,

Jessie