As I mentioned a while ago, I play French Horn in the Stroud Symphony Orchestra, a happy group of amateur musicians who rehearse weekly and play 3 concerts a year. The immediate aftermath of our most recent concert, last weekend, prompted (almost compelled) me to write this post. The experience was almost overwhelming. We played Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with a terrific young soloist, Emil Huckle-Gleve, whose confidence and fearlessness was astonishing to behold. We then tackled the majestic 5th Symphony of Jean Sibelius. This is one of the pieces I have longed to play since I was a teenager…
In many ways I owe a lot to my school music teacher, John Willson. When I was 12, he suggested to my parents that “Christopher seems to be interested in music, and has some aptitude, perhaps he would like to learn an instrument…”. Indeed, he indicated he had a ‘spare’ French Horn that I could ‘try, if I liked…’. So began my musical ‘career’, in which I’ve regularly played as part of an orchestra for most of the last 25 years.I met my wife in the Exeter University Symphony Orchestra, and have lifelong friends from that same unruly mob of students!
I achieved Grade 7 in my late teens, but finished school too late to ever try for Grade 8. I haven’t had any lessons since leaving school, and am well aware of my technical limitations. I can get by in most amateur orchestras, and often relish the challenge of more demanding parts, as they force me to practise more regularly and indeed ‘properly’. Strangely, practising tends to make me a better player…
Playing in an orchestra is an immense privilege. I love playing the French Horn, and genuinely wouldn’t want to play anything else. It’s uplifting and moving in so many ways, the collective playing experience, the mutual respect for the talents of others, the relationships within a section, between sections, and between players and orchestra. Perhaps most of all, I can have strong physical and emotional reactions to music, especially when I’m helping to create the soundscape and it is developing around me.
I’m biased towards the ‘bigger’ orchestral pieces. There’s not a lot like a meaty symphony to stimulate body, mind and soul. I love the complexities, the layers of orchestration, the shifting harmonies and melodic invention.
I love the thrill as the brass really go for it and belt out a chorale or fanfare, like this one: 20 (unamplified) musicians filling The Royal Albert Hall. Forget Phil Spector’s produced ‘wall of sound‘, this is the real thing.
Some composers write cracking symphonies for huge orchestral forces, which can be exhausting and exhilirating to play. While it’s by no means my favourite piece, I was left literally breathless at the end of Mahler’s First Symphony. More than an hour long, it’s intensely demanding for every section of the orchestra. It ends in typically bombastic fashion, with tunes bouncing around all over the orchestra. Every instrument is playing hell-for-leather, everyone is exhausted, lips are at melting point, fingers and wrists aching, lungs burning. And then in an act of lunatic stagecraft, the composer notes in the score that the Horns should stand up, so as to rise above the rest of music. It’s adrenaline-pumping like few things I’ve experienced.
(this is quite a long clip which I really recommend for the full experience, but the climax kicks in at around 10 mins…)
It’s not all ear-bursting stuff though. This is another reason I love playing the Horn. I’ve never played this one outside of my own practice room though…
And then there are the parts I’ll probably never play, mostly because I don’t have the time for lessons, reconstructing my technique, the required hours of practice, or indeed the natural ability. But I can still bask in the amazing glow that such music offers me.
To aficionados out there, I realise I’ve selected a very partial set of clips and excerpts here that don’t even do justice to my full experience of playing music in an orchestra. They’re the ones that come to my mind. I would love to get other suggestions and recommendations. Thanks.