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English Horn: Interview and demonstration with Pedro Diaz

Created by All Star Orchestra.

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Video transcript

("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler) - This instrument is an English horn. The English horn is the brother of the oboe. It's a member of the double reed family. As you can see, there is a reed right here. I made this with myself. It's better if you make the reed yourself, because you have more control of about what it sounds like. The English horn made out of cocobolo and it's made by a very well known maker in upstate New York and in their studio, they only have three people working and everything is made by hand with hand tools. Unlike other companies that have automated machines, computers, they drill everything, this instrument took over a year to make. The reeds are made out of a little bamboo that grows in the south of France. It actually grows everywhere, but most of the people buy it, it comes from the south of France, because it is a tradition. And the English horn is a long, conical tube. So at the very top here it's very tiny and also, it utilizes this thing called a bocal. In other languages it's also equivalent to the name a crook. And being so small at the top gives you a little bit of more control, it also gives it a sort of trumpet-y sound. Especially in the oboe. And when you put your fingers down what you're doing is you're actually making the tube longer. So for example, if I play here. (English horn trumpeting) As I played down on the tube, it makes it longer. A long tube, for example, when I put all the fingers down, it gets very low. (English horn trumpeting) I love that it has a beautiful, soulful sound. It has a very expressive character, much like a human voice. Because not a very high instrument and it's also not very low. So it's right around the range of the human voice. Most people just always love the English horn and there are so many great pieces, there's so much great literature that has been written for the English horn. ("Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95" by Antonin Dvorak) Dvorak's New World Symphony, basically the Holy Grail of every English horn player. It's one of the better known English horn solos. I don't think there's anybody who doesn't know this tune. And it exemplifies how beautiful the English horn can be. The English horn has an endearing quality. Which is, it's not perfect. You know, much like the human voice. Violin playing and oboe playing can be very technical, very meticulous, and the English horn it's more like a viola, like a cello. Nobody expects it to be 100% in tune. It's just a very dolce sound, it's a very warm sound, that has this characteristic of sort of a folk instrument, almost. Perhaps like the same reason that Stravinsky used the bassoon and the English horn in the opening of the Sacre. Because he wanted it to sound like something exotic that could not be, you couldn't put your finger on. So perhaps, this is the reason why Dvorak chose the English horn, because it's a warm and old sound. That is imperfect, in a way, but beautiful. ("Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95" by Antonin Dvorak) When I was growing up my parents took me and my brother to concerts, so we were used to going to symphony orchestra concerts and I developed an affinity for the woodwind instruments. And I really like the oboe, which is usually what you start studying. The English horn is always sort of something that you study later, much like if you study the violin, then you can branch out into the viola. So I studied the oboe, I started when I was 12 years old. And the circumstances made me practice. I wanted to play in the youth orchestra, I wanted to be the best in my school so my parents supported me, but they were not super, they didn't really force me to practice. And it was a matter of circumstances, one thing led to another, I wasn't sort of railroaded into a career or pushed to be the ultimate oboe soloist. I just, I really enjoyed what I was doing. I worked at it. I listened to a lot of recordings that my grandfather had of classical music. And I listened to the radio. I love, for example, I listened to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto every single day and think, how can someone have come up with this? How can this beautiful trio in the first movement? How can this be conceived? It's so perfect. I just, ponder on things like that all day long when I was in seventh grade. I come from a school where it was a different generation, perhaps. We would go to the school and people would bring boomboxes and we would be playing Strauss on the boombox and we would be comparing the Chicago Symphony versus the Berlin Philharmoniker versus the Philadelphia Orchestra. And we were all in it. What happened as an accident was that I ended up getting a job playing the English horn. I auditioned for an orchestra in South Africa and they had two openings and one was for assistant principal oboe and the other one was for the English horn. And I had just happened to had bought an instrument at the time, just for no particular reason and I ended up getting the job. Some days I'm a better English horn player, some days I'm a better oboe player, it depends on how much time I spend on each instrument. But technically, if you play the oboe very well, which is what I went to school for, you will also become, you have the ability to become a good English horn player. It's much like the difference between going, I'd say, from a violin to a viola or the cello. The spaces are smaller, tighter, the sound is much higher on the oboe and on the violin. So when you move to the English horn, like you would move to the cello, the vibrato is wider. The sound is warmer. There is little bit less intensity in the sound. It's not as tight and it's not as rigid. It's much more relaxed sound. ("Symphony No. 2" by Gustav Mahler)