Tag Archives: cleveland

Cleveland and the Conn

7 Apr

A while back, I said I would write an entry explaining some basic differences between horns from an equipment standpoint. After visiting Cleveland and talking “shop” with the horn players there, it seems like the right time to deliver on that promise. Bear in mind, this will be a brief synopsis. I will focus mostly on horn wraps, without going into much detail about the merits and disadvantages of various bell throat sizes, bore sizes, types of metal, valve design, bell weight, and all of the other myriad variables that can affect the way a particular horn plays. And forget about mouthpieces and any other gear you might add! Suffice it to say that every horn is unique, the things that make it unique are numerous and complex.

In the horn world, the word “wrap” refers to the shape and direction of tubing in the instrument. Horn builders who make double horns are divided into two predominant camps: the Kruspe wrap and the Geyer wrap.

The Kruspe style wrap was standard in the United States for most of the early to mid twentieth century. This wrap places much of the weight distribution near the top of the instrument, and contains numerous twists and turns in the tubing. The thumb valve that switches the horn from being in F to being in B-flat is placed at the top, toward the player’s face. Kruspe style horns are renowned for their warm, deep sound. The player can reach a loud dynamic with very little brassy “edge” in the sound. Some players find that Kruspe style wraps take a great deal of effort to play and can be inefficient, and find clarity to be an issue. This is all a matter of personal taste.

The Geyer style horn was once a more characteristically European horn, but Geyers have taken root in the United States and are becoming very popular. This wrap moves more of the weight toward the bottom of the instrument, and uses as many straight lines as possible in the tubing.  The key that switches the horn from F to B-flat is still operated by the thumb, but it is connected to its corresponding rotary valve by a long lever so that the valve is on the bottom end of the horn, away from the player’s face. Geyer style horns are renowned for their light sound, clarity, and efficiency. Many players find that it does not take as much effort to play in all ranges and dynamics on a Geyer style horn as it does on a Kruspe. Geyer style horns tend to “edge out” at loud dynamics, however, and some people find them to be too bright and brassy, preferring the warmer, richer sound of the Kruspe.

 

Take a look at the pictures of the Kruspe and Geyer style horns. The visual difference is clear. Look at the Kruspe’s numerous twists and turns compared to the Geyer’s more open design.

There are many other variants on these two types of wraps. Every horn maker puts his/her own stamp on these designs. The Knopf wrap, for example, is very similar to the Geyer wrap, but there is a slight bend in the tubing on either side of the valves that distinguishes it from the perfectly straight Geyer tubing. Some other styles are entirely unique. Alexander horns (very popular in Germany, to the point of exclusivity) and Lawson horns (played in the Minnesota Orchestra) are neither Kruspe nor Geyer style. But for the most part, if you ask a horn player what the two most popular wraps are, Kruspe style and Geyer style are the first two names that come to mind. These wraps are named for the horn makers who designed them, but I’ll save the history lesson for another entry.

The Cleveland Orchestra horn section plays exclusively on Conn 8D horns, a Kruspe style wrap. I knew this going in and was eager to find out why. As I mentioned earlier, Kruspes used to be the standard in the United States. The “New World” sound was one that was  characteristically rich and dark. Within the last few decades, however, many American horn players have gravitated toward Geyer style horns. As concert programs become more demanding, many horn sections have sought out horns that maximize clarity, minimize effort, and produce a sound that can cut through a massive orchestra. Cleveland has stayed the course on Conn 8D’s for the last several decades. After hearing the orchestra’s Mahler 7 dress rehearsal, I interviewed Richard King (principal horn), Jesse McCormick (second horn), and Richard Solis (fourth horn, retired). As expected, a number of factors have contributed to continuing Cleveland’s Conn 8D legacy.

One chief factor in this decision is, of course, personal preference. Solis stressed that he believes the Conn 8D is the best possible orchestral instrument for his taste. He finds it to be very versatile and flexible in its sound, able to play in a number of styles. The player can adapt his/her sound to be appropriate for the repertoire at hand. The other players concurred, praising the singing, deep quality the Conn 8D can produce.

Another factor that I had not considered was that of the hall. King described the hall as an “extension of the instruments.” Severance works beautifully with the Conns, easily projecting their sound without excessive effort on the players’ part. Some halls have more reverberation than Severance, which is on the dryer end of things, acoustically. McCormick explained that after some renovations to the hall in 1999, Severance was slightly more resonant, but not enough to upset the balance. Fun fact – that gorgeous organ at the back of the stage is fake! Behind the pipes is a black screen that leads to a resonating chamber behind the orchestra, which allows the sound to linger a bit longer. The real organ is behind the stage.

Solis pointed out that in other halls, the Conn 8D might not be the best choice for the section. Cleveland has a history of touring the orchestra throughout the country, and the section has found that projecting clearly in halls with more reverberation can be a challenge. As it stands, however, Severance fits the horn section beautifully, and their dark, velvety sound projects easily.

Some of the members of the Cleveland Orchestra horn section entered the orchestra already playing Conn 8Ds. Others, however, changed horns upon their acceptance. As principal horn, King is fairly adamant about this. He finds that playing in a section with unified equipment makes blending much easier between the players. Different horn models have different intonation tendencies (certain notes are reliably sharp or flat), and horns can also vary in tone quality and volume production. Taking these factors into consideration makes playing in a section of dissimilar instruments seem like an uphill battle. With this in mind when auditioning a new horn player, the section listens for musical concept. The player can easily change equipment to preclude the aforementioned challenges while maintaining his/her artistic abilities.

Cleveland’s long history of being a Conn 8D section seems unlikely to change in the near future. Preference for the Kruspe sound, respect for tradition, desire for uniformity, and balance in the hall contribute to this continuing legacy.

Despite all this talk of equipment, King stressed an important point. “Ultimately I really don’t take much interest in equipment,” he said. “As I get older, I become less interested in horn and more interested in music.” Looking past all of the nuts and bolts of choosing instruments, the section values making beautiful music above all else.

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The Seventh in Severance

4 Apr

Driving through northern Ohio in any sort of winter weather is never a pleasant experience, particularly when you are surprised to find yourself out of wiper fluid, particularly when you find yourself in such a predicament during rush hour traffic, peering through dirty smears on your windshield to find out if you are, in fact, in a lane. Should you find yourself in this situation, dumping coffee on your windshield as a desperate measure is surprisingly effective. As if I needed another reason to be grateful to coffee.

Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief upon parking in the Severance Hall garage.

This was my first time inside Severance Hall in Cleveland, and I have to say it is one of the most beautiful halls I have ever seen. The lobby area is decorated with elegant marble, and a series of hallways winds through gift shops, restaurants, and gathering spaces. The inside of the hall literally took my breath away. It is ornate but tasteful, spacious but warm and inviting. Sound floats through the hall and is perfectly balanced. As with Cincinnati, I was able to sit in on a dress rehearsal and experience the clarity of hearing the orchestra in an empty space.

Watching a world class orchestra rehearse is a fascinating experience. The musicians are constantly alert, making notes in their music and minor adjustments to their instruments. They are constantly communicating with the conductor and one another, moving in unison as a single entity rather than a group of individuals.

The rehearsal opened with a tuning note and the traditional handshake between concertmaster and conductor. The orchestra then dove into the sweeping, haunting harmonies of Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose. The delicate innocence and romance of this ballet score highlighted the orchestra’s versatility, providing contrast with the epic symphony to follow.

 § Mahler Symphony No. 7 §

I have to wonder what concertgoers were expecting to hear when they stepped into the concert hall in Prague to hear the 1908 premiere of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Each of his symphonies had been completely unique, from the quirky, tuneful movements of the First Symphony to the sweeping grandeur of the Second and Third, followed by the surprising lightness and innocence of the Fourth. The Fifth, a battle, the Sixth, a tragedy. I’m simplifying of course. Each symphony contains a stunning range of emotions and characters. But each has its own life, its own universe. If Mahler were alive today to compose an eleventh symphony (or tenth, depending on who you ask), I would have no idea what to expect. Were I one of the lucky people who attended the world premiere, having heard the crushing hammer blows of the Sixth, I might be afraid to hear what comes next.

So we arrive at the Seventh: a five-movement work nicknamed “The Song of the Night,” though not by Mahler, who merely titled the second and fourth movements “Nachtmusik” (though far removed from the Eine Kleine variety).

The first movement immediately grabs the listener’s attention for a number of reasons. The opening music sounds almost transitional, as though we have entered a speech in the middle of an idea, or even mid-sentence. The work begins with a low rhythmic string figure for only a few measures before launching into a tenor horn solo. “A what?” you ask. The sound is slightly shocking at first, as listeners may be taken aback by the “is-that-a-horn-or-a-trombone” sound and the “is-that-a-baby-tuba” appearance. Mahler uses a number of unconventional instruments in this symphony, including said tenor horn (also known as a baritone) as well as mandolin, guitar, and cowbell (cue Christopher Walken jokes). But I digress. The first movement is a riot of sweeping strings, percussive effects, and textural play.

To me, the Cleveland horn sound is like velvet: dense and substantial but with a soft edge.Image It is showcased in the second movement, which opens with a haunting horn solo and often features a rich four-horn texture. The movement is in turns a march, a dance, and a song. That Mahler titled this movement “Nachtmusik” shows that he thought of night not merely as a period of darkness, but as one of restfulness, mystery, and merriment.

The third movement seems almost a continuation of the second in its character. It is a playful waltz tinged with dark humor. It begins as though we are hearing the thought of a waltz slowly occur to Mahler, being built beat by beat in the low strings, horns and clarinets. The dance fluctuates throughout the movement, at times slowing down or halting altogether before being rebuilt.

The fourth movement, another of the “Nachtmusik” movements, shows a more romantic side of night time, opening with singing violin and horn solos. And in case you thought you had this movement figured out, expecting tear-jerking string melodies with song-like wind solos here and there (a fairly standard slow movement), Mahler throws in mandolin and guitar solos, just to keep you on your toes. The movement comes to a soft, calming close, and then…

Wake up! It’s the finale and we are in C Major! The fifth movement is a colorful pageant of brass fanfares, hymns, and playful marches. If the symphony does in fact reflect night, then the last movement is the glory of daylight breaking through the darkness.

The Seventh Symphony was not well received in its day, and though it has gained favor, it remains one of his least popular works. Many listeners feel that the symphony is disjunct, that the movements do not flow one into another. To me, it seems like Mahler used his Seventh Symphony as an outlet for experimentation. It is full of sound effects, unconventional textures, and unique orchestration. Like each Mahler symphony, the Seventh has its own color palette, character, and landscape. Though it may not be as gripping or popular as some of his other symphonies, I believe the Seventh is a gem worth exploring.

 

 

Up next: I interview the Cleveland Orchestra horn section about their sound concept and history. Stay tuned!