Tag Archives: orchestra

Eat Your Vegetables: An Argument for Orchestral Music

14 May

A few months back, a colleague and I got into a heated debate about the value of various types of music. He expressed frustration with people who associated orchestral music purely with things like relaxing, studying, or providing a backdrop for a “refined” setting. On this point we couldn’t agree more. To my mind, anyone who calls all orchestral music relaxing or worse, boring, needs to sit in a corner with the second movement of Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 and think about what they’ve done.

Where we disagreed, however, was on the point of the value of popular music. “It serves no purpose, musically,” he said, “It’s just a repetitive beat with boring chord progressions.” That was where a more vehement argument began. The label of “classical snob” was one that he bore proudly, disdaining popular music he had dubbed useless. As a classically-trained musician eager to see the revitalization of my art form among people in my generation, this attitude strikes me as dangerous. The last thing we should be doing is disparaging the audience’s music tastes if we want to become more accessible to the public. The fact is that popular music bears an important sociological function, often representing the zeitgeist of the generation in which it was produced.

Granted, I believe that the bite-sized length, predictable chord structure, and user-friendly lyrics characteristic of pop have led to a shorter attention span and an expectation of transparency for most listeners. The symphony structure, by contrast, is lengthy and complex, and often contains layers that even seasoned listeners may not pick out without several listens or dedicated score study.

Impatience with these more complex forms goes hand in hand with media in general today. Lengthy, dense prose has largely been replace by sound bites, videos, and Buzzfeed-style articles. This is the new speed of the world. We are so driven by the visual that auditory experiences must be as simple, transparent, and attention-grabbing as possible in order to reach a wide audience. If my tone sounds nostalgic or reproachful of this paradigm shift, know that I have checked Facebook, Gmail and texts numerous times while writing this entry, and will probably end up taking a few breaks during the writing process. I know that despite my best efforts, Internet culture has shortened my attention span considerably. (Also, I become terribly concerned if a webpage takes longer than five seconds to load. At twenty seconds I will probably give up.)


The bane of my existence

All this is to say that a culture of short attention spans is not an environment that is likely to foster an interest in, say, a two-hour Mahler symphony. Popular music is a reflection of this culture. But do I disparage it?

Not in the least.

On long car trips, I often take time to listen to epic symphonic works. After finishing a lengthy, awe-inspiring work that takes me on an emotional journey, I often drive in silence for a few miles. How does one follow a work like Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 or Beethoven Symphony No. 9 or Mahler Symphony No. 3? Usually my go-to is something like Beyoncé. Maybe Justin Timberlake if Dvořák made me feel like bringing sexy back. Why? To me, music is like food.

Putting aside the idea of music as life-giving sustenance (which could be an entire entry in itself), I liken different genres to different types of food. Listening to orchestral music feels like eating a healthy, hearty meal. It engages my imagination and stimulates a variety of emotions that top 40 chart pop music often ignores (yes, there are emotions beyond “sexy time,” “look at all this money I have,” “sad because love is hard,” and “happy because love is great!” There are things like awe, existential despair, melancholy, and “Soviet Russia is oppressing me. Again.”)

Shosti vs. Weezy

Slightly different subject matters here

After such a feast though, I’m ready for coffee and dessert. Cue Nicki Minaj and Maroon 5. There are other genres to consider as well. I often feel the same multi-course meal sensation after listening to a Radiohead or Pink Floyd album. Maybe Delta blues is like satisfying barbecue. Thievery Corporation could be tasty ethnic fast food. Björk is definitely that offbeat, ethereal molecular gastronomy cuisine that uses a lot of liquid nitrogen for the fun of it. At the risk of going entirely off the rails here and making you wonder how hungry I must have been while writing this, (answer: very) I’ll leave the rest up to your palate. I’d love to read your genre-cuisine connections in the comment box!

The point is that to my mind, variety is crucial to a well-rounded love of music. Spending one’s life listening exclusively to whatever is cycling on the pop station is tantamount to eating nothing but junk food. Easy, quick, and satisfying on the surface but often devoid of sustaining nutrition. By the same token, listening to nothing but Wagner is like eating nothing but steak, Oscar style, smothered in some kind of hollandaise. 

So in conclusion, listen to Miley Cyrus all you want. Just know that if “Wrecking Ball” speaks to you, you may find similar (or even more visceral) satisfaction in the second movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 7.

I’m going to go eat dinner now.


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.

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!

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.


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:


If you saw this instrument and said to yourself, “Baby French horn!” you are not alone.

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.


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. 

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!)

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!