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French Horn: Interview and demonstration with principal John Cerminaro

Video transcript
"The Firebird - Suite" by Igor Stravinsky John: 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 music, as to get the attention of somebody else who maybe had a horn and he was going to broadcast too. (quavering call) Later you got hunting horns, so if you caught the fox you might want to let them know you got them, so can play something very fetching. (rapidly modulating trumpeting) Meanwhile the postman plays this to let you know the mail has come. (bright bugle call) The horn I picked up here is typical orchestral instrument. This is a normal French horn that you'd find in the orchestras. It's still the same idea. 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 sound, pitches. Look. (ascending musical scale) But then the plumbing came. It was around the same time that people liked that kind of sound that the horn was getting. I've got a more complex instrument here. This instrument I played for many years in orchestras. It's a triple horn. You can see it's quite complicated and beautiful. What people liked was the sound you can get on a horn, and the beauty of playing one. (flowing trill) It was that dark, haunting tone that made the horn seem likable for the orchestra. ♫ "Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36" ♫ by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. ♫ 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 a French horn. 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. ♫ "Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ♫ "From the New World" by Antonin Dvorak ♫ The French horn has become known as the tightrope walker in the orchestra. Everybody who goes to concerts worries a little bit about the horn. With the violin, when a violinist makes a mistake it's a little (whistle), this slight little thing that nobody notices, but a French horn, a blooper on the horn is like somebody dropping the dinner tray, you can really spoil a concert. 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 mouthpieces and bells, bodies of the horn, lead pipe. All these things play a part in making the horn a little bit more reliable. You probably have noticed the mouthpiece I have chosen is heavy, it's special. That heaviness is also equalled here on the bell, as you can see. I have, along the edge here, a little extra metal. That garland is also based on the principle of weight distribution and accuracy for the horn. It is true that you lose some of the highs in the sound, very minuscule, but you do gain some in solidity of playing. (gentle flowing music) What am I talking about? Trying to play the horn in a, (laughs) not a flawless way but in a reliable way. That's what we're going for with this sort of equipment. "Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67" by Ludwig van Beethoven. 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 going to be the perfect one." This is a very minuscule representation of some of the mouthpieces I've gone through. Some of them are kind of famous. For example, this was my teacher's mouthpiece, James Chambers. I also played his horn for quite a long time. It has some interesting secrets. This was his teacher's mouthpiece, Anton Horner. 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. Dennis Brain is the great spiritual father of all horn players, so I 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. Here in Seattle I found a maker, just over the line in Portland, Oregon called Marcinkiewicz. He made a mouthpiece for me that had the right weight and the right weight distribution. You can see I have all kinds of experimental models here. Eventually I found the one that I wanted and it was just right. It may seem like such a small matter, but with horn playing everything matters. The mouthpiece, the rim! 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 going to lose a little off of one area or another, because you have an abundance there. "Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler Both of my parents were musicians. My father was a clarinet player, my mother was a trumpet player, but they were both band directors. In those days band directors went where the jobs were, and they landed in small towns in Texas. 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 liked 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, in Orange, Texas it was bands. I loved it, it was oom-pah music for the French horn. Nothing too hard but it was thrilling for me. Playing in a band and going- (staccato march) That sort of thing, nothing big! One night at a football game when my father was conducting the band -- this was the high school band. I was just sitting up in the bleachers and I saw dad conducting. He looked a little bit like Toscanini. He was conducting with great fervor. The band was playing something wonderful, Sousa, something very arousing. I got all choked up, I loved it. I felt right then and there, I didn't know how, but I wanted to be a musician. ♫ "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97 ♫ "Rhenish" by Robert Schumann ♫ In my first year of high school, as a sophomore in high school there was a traveling jury from Juilliard, I don't know if they do that anymore, but the traveling jury came to Dallas. Jean Morel was there, and other people who were deciding who might get scholarships to go to Juilliard. My teacher, Alfred Resh, a great old-time horn player, and my parents, they pushed me out on the stage and said, "Play for them!" 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. I didn't have anything to worry about, I thought, so I just breezed my way through high school, but I practiced my horn all day long, every day. My plan was to go to Juilliard, and I did. My parents put me on the plane and off I went to New York, by myself, and it was a huge change. ♫ "Symphony No. 5" by Dmitryi Shostakovich ♫ 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, 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 Seiji was asking me, I think it was San Francisco. The point is I was in school and I asked my teacher, my mentor, Arnold Fish, he was a great friend. I asked him, "What should I do? "Should I take one of these jobs?" In those days he said, "John, you should stay in school, "get your education. Something better will come along." Nowadays nobody would pass on those jobs. First horn on 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. 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." I left school just a little early and went right into the New York Philharmonic as assistant principle horn. It was wonderful because Leonard Bernstein had just stepped down and he'd become conductor laureate. 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. 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. Then I was promoted up through the ranks as the years went on by. I went next to associate principle horn, then to principle horn, which was a great thrill for me to be in the chair that once belonged to my teacher. After 10 years with the New York Philharmonic I'd seen already, I'd been with Bernstein, Boulez and Szell as music directors and hundreds of other great conductors. But the next was coming was Zubin Mehta. I played, in fact, almost a whole year with Zubin, but in the mean time was being wooed away by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Carlo Maria Giulini, Giulini had come and conducted the Philharmonic, I played a lot of great things with him. A lot of Verdi, a lot of Bruckner, a lot of Mahler. 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 Giulini would be-- I just had that feeling this is something I should do. ♫ Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 ♫ "From the New World" by Antonin Dvorak" ♫ I had secretly harbored the wish to be a soloist. Even while I was in Los Angeles I had began to make a bunch of solo CDs. 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. The solo life 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 but my manager thought I needed a category. One of the categories he had there was guest principle horn. 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. I played guest principle for Milwaukee, for Dallas, for Houston. All those places they kept saying, "Why don't you stay?" No, not going to stay. Done it all. No reason. Been there, done that, didn't want to stay. 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. So I did. I flew down, opened the season. 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? The answer probably would have been the same as for the others. I'd 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. Then our daughter Rose was born. That's a huge incentive to stay and have a home. I did not know I was going to have this life, to have a nice home, to have kids, have a wife. A standard, wonderful B flat life, but there it was, and Jerry cooked it all up, I don't know how! I stayed here with him longer than I stayed anywhere. (daunting music) I played for Leopold Stokowski in his penthouse suite. I brought Weber's concertino, which is this wildly unplayable piece. I was playing the cadenza for him and all over the place. I was way, way overqualified for whatever it was I was playing for. He said to me, "You should look at the Mozart concertos, "you'll love them more. There's more music there." I was told virtually the same thing by Dr. Szell, and by Leonard Bernstein, and by Pierre Boulez and by Gerard Schwartz and by Giulini. 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. 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. 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 and with such power that you can't find a way to give yourself peace. Many people ask me 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. My art has been the thing. Having a hobby of some one kind, playing chess it was as one point for me, now it's painting. 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 peace from it too, because it can be quite overwhelming at times. "The Firebird - Suite" by Igor Stravinsky