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French Horn: Interview and demonstration with principal John Cerminaro

Video transcript

- To tell you a little bit about the french horn, is interesting because the horn is as old as they come. It literally was in its first rendition, a horn. The purpose was not so much musical, as to get the attention of somebody else who maybe had a horn and he was gonna broadcast too. (John playing the horn) Later you got hunting horns. So if you caught the fox, you might want to let them know you got 'em, so you'd play something very fetching. (John playing the horn) Meanwhile, the postman plays just to let you know the mail has come. (John playing the horn) Now, the horn I picked up here is a sort of typical orchestral instrument. This is a normal french horn that you'd find in the orchestras. It's still the same idea. Now imagine all this tubing is not there still, we're still in the old days. You could play a scale, an actual scale on the horn. If you notice with your hand you get a certain kind of sound, pitches, like look. (John playing a scale on the french horn) But then, the plumbing came. But it was around the same time that people liked that kind of sound that the horn was getting. Now I've got a more complex instrument here. This instrument I played for many years in orchestras. It's a triple horn, but, and you can see it's quite complicated and beautiful. But what people liked was the sound you could get on a horn and the beauty of playing one. (John playing the french horn) It was that dark, haunting tone that made the horn seem likable for the orchestra. Now the horn that I play most of the time that you've been seeing... This is much lighter because this is for solos. It's a solo instrument and it's as light as they come. But it's still an all, it's a french horn. So we're not as, we can't play as high as a trumpet, or as loud as a trombone, or as fast as a flute. It's always been that middle register, beautiful sound, that people like about the horn. The low register, okay. The high register, yes. But what they fondly call the cash register, the middle register of the horn is still what people like to listen to. Something beautiful, something that is not possible in any other instrument. The french horn has become known as the tightrope walker of the orchestra. Everybody who goes to concerts sort of worries a little bit about the horn, because with the violin, when a violinist makes a mistake he's literally, (John whistles) you know, the slight little thing, nobody notices. But a french horn, a blooper on the horn is like somebody dropping the dinner tray. You can really spoil a concert. So as much as we don't like to think about it, playing the horn as well as possible and finding ways to play it beautifully, yet also reliably is what we seek in mouth pieces and bells, bodies of the horn, lead pipe, all of these things play a part in making the horn a little bit more reliable. Now you probably have noticed the mouthpiece I've chosen is heavy. It's special, and also that heaviness is also equaled here on the bell as you can see. I have along the edge here a little extra metal, and that garland is also based on the principle of weight distribution and accuracy for the horn. It is true that you loose some of the highs in the sound, very minuscule. But you do gain some in the solidity of playing. (John playing the french horn) So what am I talking about? Trying to play the horn in a, not a flawless way, but in a reliable way, and that's what we're going for with this sort of equipment. Every horn player goes through a pursuit of the will-o'-wisp, the mouthpiece that would be perfect. Where is it? I know I can find it. I know I can find the mouthpiece that's gonna be the perfect one. And this is a very minuscule representation of some of the mouthpieces I've gone through. Now some of them are kind of famous, for example this was my teachers mouthpiece, James Chambers. I also played his horn for quite a long time. And it has some interesting secrets. This was his teachers mouthpiece, Anton Horner. And it's fascinating for many reasons. They are orchestral in nature, they're made for a certain kind of sound and articulation. This mouthpiece was put together and is very, very close to the one Dennis Brain played, and Dennis Brain was the great spiritual father of all horn players. So was very anxious to play a mouthpiece like his. But it wasn't for me, we were very different people. I began to go a little bit wild with depth and weight, but here in Seattle I found a maker just over the line in Portland, Oregon, called Marcinkiewicz and he made a mouthpiece for me that had the right weight and the right weight distribution, so you can see I have all kinds of experimental models here and eventually I found the one that I wanted that was just right. It may seem like such a small matter, but with horn playing everything matters. The mouthpiece, the rim, all of these mouthpieces have rims that screw on and off, you keep trying to find the perfect rim. But in the end, you arrive at the same conclusion as all my teachers did, that you're opposing yourself. You're going against yourself in a way, you're taking up a mouthpiece that helps you with something you don't do that well and not worrying too much that you're gonna lose a little off of one area or another, because you have an abundance there. Both of my parents were musicians. My father was a clarinet player, and my mother was a trumpet player. But they were both band directors. So in those days, band directors went were the jobs were, and they landed in small towns in Texas. And when I was about 10 years old my father brought home two instruments. He brought home a french horn and he brought home an oboe. My sister likes the oboe, and I immediately liked the horn, so I started playing the horn. I played in school bands from about 10 years old all the way to 18. There weren't orchestras until I got to Dallas and there were a few orchestras there. But in Navasota, Texas and Orange, Texas it was bands. And I loved it. It was oom-pah music for the french horn, nothing too hard. But it was thrilling for me. And so playing in a band, you know, and going, (John playing the french horn) that sort of thing, nothing big, and one night at a football game when my father was conducting the band, this was the high school band, so I was just sitting up in the bleachers and I saw dad conducting, he looked a little bit like Toscanini. And he was conducting with great fervor, and the band was playing something wonderful, something very rousing, and I got all chocked up. I loved it. I felt right then and there, I didn't know how, but I wanted to be a musician. In my first year of high school, as a sophomore in high school there was a traveling jury from Juilliard. And I don't know if they do that anymore, but the traveling jury came to Dallas, and Jean Morel was there, and other people who were deciding who might get scholarships to go to Juilliard, and my teacher, Alfred Resh, a great old time horn player and my parents, they just pushed me out on the stage and said "play for them." So I played a little Mozart, I read a little music, and they gave me a full scholarship to Juilliard in my sophomore year of high school, so I didn't have anything to worry about, I thought. And so I just breezed my way through high school, but I practiced my horn all day long, every day. And my plan was to go to Juilliard. And I did. My parents put me on a plane and off I went to New York by myself, and it was a huge change. Juilliard was bustling with people that all knew what they were doing, and I picked it up as fast as I could. How to do this and how to do that, and how to be good. While I was still in Juilliard, I was offered principle horn in the Dallas Symphony, principle horn in the American Symphony, and even principle horn in one of the west coast, I think Sage who was asking me about, I think it was San Francisco. But the point is, is that I was in school and I asked my teacher, my mentor, Arnold Fish who is a great friend, I asked him "what should I do? "Should I take one of these jobs?" And in those days, he said, "John you should stay in school. "Get your education, something better will come along." So nowadays nobody would pass on those jobs. First horn in any of those orchestras would be considered wonderful. But I said "no, and thank you very much." In my last year in school it was the New York Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, they wanted me. And I asked Mr. Fish again, "should I stay in school or go?" He said "no, you should go this time. "This time you should go." So I left school just a little early and went right into the New York Philharmonic as assistant principle horn, and it was wonderful because Leonard Bernstein had just stepped down, and he'd become conductor laureate. So we still saw as much of him as ever, only he wasn't the music director. Pierre Boulez had come in as music director and between the two of them, briefly, Dr. Szell, George Szell. The New York Philharmonic was the beginning, and I was playing assistant principle horn, which was a great spot. I wouldn't have been ready to just go right into first horn playing. And then I was promoted up through the ranks as the years went on by. I went next to associate principle horn, and then to principle horn which was a great thrill for me to be in the chair that once belonged to my teacher. And after 10 years with the New York Philharmonic, I had seen already, I'd been with Bernstein, Boulez, and Szell, and as music directors and hundreds of other great conductors. But the next one coming was Zubin Mehta, and I played in fact almost a whole year with Zubin, but in the meantime was being wooed away by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Carlo Maria Guilini was, Guilina had come and conducted the Philharmonic, I'd played a lot of great things with him, a lot Verity, a lot of Bruckner, a lot of Mahler, and he loved me, and I didn't know how many years it would be with Zubin in the Philharmonic, but I knew they were in store for some big changes, and I knew that going with Guilini would be, I just had that feeling, and this is something I just should do. I had secretly harbored the wish to be a soloist. And even while I was in Los Angeles I began to make a bunch of solo CDs, so I got a manager and pointed the car back towards New York. I taught at Juilliard and my manager booked concertos for me here and there, and I liked it. But it was, the solo was sort of feast or famine. Most soloists will tell you that truth. You have great seasons where you have lots of stuff and you're making a lot of money, and then you have lesser seasons. In the meantime, I had gotten married, I was enjoying being a soloist, and, but my manager thought I needed a category. And one of the categories he had, there was guest principle horn. So I would play guest principle horn wherever they were trying to get a principle player for their orchestra, where they were advertising and trying to get somebody, so I played guest principle for Milwaukee, for Dallas, for Houston, and all of those places, they kept saying "why don't you stay?" No, not gonna stay. No reason, I've done it all, been there done that, didn't want to stay. So it was, I was in Japan, I was in Nagano when I got a call from Jerry, could I come and open the season. Their first horn player was ill and so I did. I flew down, opened the season, and he kept asking me "can you stay a little longer? "A little bit longer?" Then they were going to build a new concert hall. How about staying for that? And the answer probably would have been the same as for the others, I think maybe no, I want to go back to my solo life, but my wife and I got pregnant, big surprise, and our son Johnny was born. And then our daughter Rose was born, and that's a huge incentive to stay and have a home, and a thing I thought I did not know I was going to have this life, to have a nice home, to have kids, to have a wife. It's sort of, you know, a standard, wonderful B flat life, but there it was, and Jerry cooked it all up, I don't know how. But I stayed here with him longer than I stayed anywhere. (orchestral music) I played for Leopold Stokowski in his penthouse suite, I brought Weber's concertino, which is this wildly unplayable piece, and I was playing the cadenza for him and all over the place, and I was way, way overqualified for whatever it was I was playing for, and then he said to me, you know, you should look at the Mozart concertos. You'll love them more, there's more music there. And I was told virtually the same thing by Dr. Szell, and by Leonard Bernstein, and by Pierre Boulez, and by Gerard Schwarz, and by Guilini, they all said draw close to the music and that's what I've done with my life. I've loved the music and drawn closer to it, and it is true that it's harder when you decide to be a professional musician. When it says professional musician on your passport, when they pay you for it, but if you can stand it, it's a great life. Now it is true that I have, I say something to you now, that I tell all my students. You can be overwhelmed by the thing, it can pull you towards it at such a rate, with such power you can't find a way to give yourself peace. Now, so many people ask me why did I, why did I pick up an easel? Why did I start painting again? I painted to help hold myself back from just complete annihilation by the instrument. So my art has been the thing. Having a hobby of some kind, playing chess it was at one point for me, and now it's painting. And so I recommend anybody who wants to play this instrument professionally, be sure that you also take up a hobby that gives you a chance to have some real rest and some real peace from it too, because it can be quite overwhelming at times.