The Next Page: The [French] horn rocks!
Pittsburgh's music scene is diverse. Any given weekend you can choose to go hear house, indie-rock, country, electronic, techno or classical. For musicians, there are local bands, community groups and professional opportunities.
Me, I'm into horns. Specifically, the horn. It was known as the "French horn," but that's getting ahead of the story.
The Pittsburgh Horn Club aids and abets our passion. Great horn players in and around Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have kept the standards high.
The horn is unique in its appearance, and so are its players. The sound of a well-played one can swoon in an orchestra or solidify a woodwind quintet. They can add heroism to movie soundtracks like the intro to "Star Trek" or menace as the villain in Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."
The horn is not my professional calling; it's a release and a pathway into a greater cause than myself. It's also not an instrument easy to jam on.
But when I play, I understand a remark by Dale Clevenger, a CMU-educated musician who has been principal horn at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1966. He called the horn his "catalyst, protagonist and a culprit" for launching his lifelong love of music.
There are at least two reasons that horn players have a home in Pittsburgh: the PSO and teachers such as Forrest Standley.
Dale Clevenger, now 72, is just one of the horn players who have come through Pittsburgh in the past 50 years. A young man from Tennessee, he attended what was then called the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he perfected his craft with Standley.
Standley, the principal horn for the PSO from 1949-1959, taught at the university for 37 years until his death in 1986. Philip Myers, principal in the New York Philharmonic, credited him for solving his technical problems. He said that as a teacher, Standley had a special ability to spot problems and to cure them on the spot. He never sent students away to solitary futile struggle.
Horn players are celebrated here. Last October, Mr. Clevenger received an Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award from Carnegie Mellon. He delivered a heartfelt lecture, asserting that art pays dividends for those who participate in it.
"The world wants to see baseball and football more than an opera," he said, "but a symphony concert can change lives."
Mr. Clevenger is coming back to Pittsburgh to conduct Schumann's "Konzertstuck," one of the most challenging pieces for horns to play, on March 31 at the Benedum Center during a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Mellon's School of Music.
The four horns who will be performing it with the university symphony are up to the task. Three studied under Standley: Howard Wall of the New York Philharmonic; Peter Rubins, a member of the San Antonio Symphony and principal horn with the San Antonio Opera; and Brice Andrus, principal horn at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The fourth is William Caballero, PSO principal horn and a CMU artist lecturer.
But it's not just professionals who have a place in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Horn Club is a place where musicians who may have felt like misfits now have a place to belong.
Now in its fifth year, it's a casual group where professionals and amateur enthusiasts mingle and change seats to play and share a love of horn music. It's the only place I've ever been able to perform eight-part horn melodies.
I love it. The group is a community outreach program of the PSO section with Steve Kostyniak, associate principal horn for the PSO, as conductor and Ronald Schneider from the PSO horn section as president. But the group thrives on volunteers who want a place to play.
It's also a little bit like a pickup basketball game. You can come and go through the year, as time allows.
I started playing horn the summer before sixth grade in Kansas. My instrument was a single horn, pre-Korean War instrument, orange with rust that the school provided for free. I eventually was given one of the district's two double horns, which helped my tone and sound.
Gary Branaman -- the sole band teacher for a district that spanned three towns, and whose high school rested on the Santa Fe Trail -- taught me how to play until my senior year. He retired shortly after. The following band teacher used my old orange horn as Exhibit A in requesting more money in the music budget. He received $75,000 and threw the horn away. My younger sister rescued it, and now it decorates my fireplace mantle. (It's a reminder of days when an elderly neighbor, overhearing me practice, would remark the next day that the cattle at the auction barn sure were loud last night.)
At Drake University in Iowa, I sat next to a player who would become one of my dearest friends and a three-year roommate. After a bout of Bell's palsy paralyzed the right side of my face, my weekly lesson with Bret Seebeck, then the principal horn for the Des Moines Symphony, served as physical therapy. The relaxed muscles made it possible for me to hit notes in the bass clef that I never had previously.
When I moved to Pittsburgh, doors opened. When we were looking for a home church, we found one at Trinity Lutheran Church in Franklin Park, where I've played horn in the Christmas cantata.
The PSO has a community program for amateur musicians to rehearse and perform with the pros. This June will be its 13th annual Community Side-By-Side event (application deadline April 13).
In 2010, I had the opportunity to sit with Zachary Smith, another former Kansan, who was gracious and helpful in offering suggestions. He could have doubled on a solo that I was given, a single breath blowing away my own tepid sound. But he let me do it on my own and feel the joy of ringing a lone note at Heinz Hall. Even if I flubbed it a little, I thank him for that opportunity.
The year of the side-by-side concert, Mr. Kostyniak was playing first chair for the PSO. He shared with me the triple horn he played, with its three separate ranks of valve slides.
It's a far cry from the looped hunting horns that were the forebears of the instrument -- or the ram horns that are even older. There are endless twists and turns to a horn's shape, though nearly all coil in some way. Long alpinhorns are an exception and a cousin to the more common horn.
The Wagner tuba, another variation, looks more like a euphonium or small tuba. For the curious, the International Horn Society maintains a website (hornsociety.org/section-listings) that offers what brand of horn professional players use. In some cases, symphonies require all of the players to use the same one. The PSO uses at least five brands of horns.
In Germany, it's called a Waldhorn, or "forest horn." I always loved that -- my maiden name is Waldman. But since 1971, the International Horn Society recommended the instrument simply be called "the horn."
Such a short name for such a complicated instrument.
To look at a horn mechanically, it's a series of brass tubes that stretch from 12 feet long in a single horn to nearly 20 feet in a triple horn. Most horns use lever-operated rotary valves, although some styles have piston valves similar to a trumpet.
It wasn't until the late 1700s that horns became a permanent part of most symphonies. Prior to that, they were specialists, brought in for pieces that featured idyllic nature scenes, such as Handel's "Water Music."
According to hornhistory.com, the first mention of a horn's use in a purely musical context was in a piece called "Battles, Hunts and Bird-Songs" by Susato. Double horns, which are what most players today use, weren't developed until the end of the 19th century.
In many respects, the modern horn is still a young instrument.
Mechanics of an instrument are only a piece of the art to playing. You play a horn as much with your lips and hand as you do with the three to five valves and triggers. A single note can be played four or five different ways, and an entire song can be played without touching a key.
To produce a single perfect note is a symphony in itself. One must first raise the soft palette in the mouth, lower their larynx, blow a steady stream of air, position the tongue, have the appropriate amount of lip tension and then finally press the proper valves.
The best horn players can pick up any music, play it effortlessly on first try and then go back and transpose the notes into a new key signature while playing. Their range swoons four to five octaves, from the bowels below the bass clef signature to a double high C that rings rather than pinches.
As for me, I might squeeze out three octaves on my best day. But I sure do enjoy trying.
The Pittsburgh Horn Club will meet at 7 p.m. at St. Bede Church, 509 S. Dallas Ave., Point Breeze on the following nights: March 8, 22, 29 and April 15, 26. The spring concert will take place on April 29 at 7 p.m.
Horn players of all ages and levels are invited to attend as many meetings as they'd like.
For more information, visit pittsburghhornclub.com.
First Published March 4, 2012 12:00 am