Tag Archives: minnesota

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!”


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.


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.



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

    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!)