New York Philharmonic Close-Up: The Horns

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic Close-Up: The Horns
A talk with the six musicians who play one of the orchestra's most challenging instruments.

"Schumann's piece is a bonding moment for us," says Philip Myers, who has been the New York Philharmonic's Principal Horn since 1980. He was referring to Robert Schumann's Konzertstück for Four Horns, a showpiece for the instrument that the Orchestra will perform this month with Mr. Myers, Erik Ralske, R. Allen Spanjer, and Howard Wall as soloists. For this work the horns take center stage, a rare occurrence for them as a section. "This piece is a true tour de force," says Mr. Ralske. "It's unusual for there to be a concerto for multiple instruments‹especially for the same instrument."

The six-man section‹which also includes Associate Principal Jerome Ashby and Assistant Principal L. William Kuyper, who are both on leave‹has a collective experience that reaches back to their early careers. "We share a common approach to music," Mr. Myers says, "meaning, we have the same understanding of what is defined on the page and what is not." Mr. Ralske concurs: "We've been playing together for so long, it's like being in a string quartet. We really know each other's moves."

This unity, as well as the individual members' virtuosity, has earned them considerable critical praise. One review from a recent European tour described the horn section as "both robust and refined."

Yet even players of this caliber admit the horn's challenges. The instrument requires tremendous stamina, as well as fine-tuned breath control. The mouthpiece is smaller than a trumpet's, but the coiled tubing is more than 20 feet long, giving the horn a four-octave range. In the high register, the horn is famous for cracked notes. "The notes are really close together," explains Mr. Spanjer. "So when you push the envelope for notes that are extremely high or loud, the margin of error is nearly nonexistent." Additionally, the player's right hand is placed inside the bell to sensitively adjust intonation and dynamics. "It is a completely unique instrument," says Mr. Ralske.

The players are looking forward to this season's four-program series that features the music of Brahms, which begins this month. Howard Wall, the low-register specialist of the section, appreciates how Brahms "wrote such great horn parts for all the players. It is a great experience to play that repertoire."

While these musicians relish the chance to be in the spotlight‹in the Konzertstück or in famous solos such as the one in Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss‹they also relish their multiple roles in the orchestra, from playing fanfares to providing the lush cushion from which the strings and winds take flight. "To me, the accompaniment is much more interesting than playing a solo," concludes Mr. Myers. "After all, most of our job is in accompanying, and I think it forces us to always be aware of the surrounding musical environment."

Stephanie Stein Crease is a music journalist and author; her book Gil Evans: Out of the Cool won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

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