by Lindsey Stoker and Richard Steggall

bhs2020 is a big celebration year for the British Horn Society as it marks the 40th anniversary of its founding. It was due to be celebrated with a festival at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire on Sunday 1st November featuring guest soloists Radek Baborák and Ben Goldscheider. With the COVID outbreak and the country in lockdown it was looking increasingly unlikely that it would be able to go ahead. Time to think outside the box!

The main problem that we faced was that the lure of our annual festival for many is a social one. Yes, we showcase the best in horn-playing from Britain and abroad, but the focus is on being together, talking about and playing the horn. We have recitals, classes and group playing for young and old throughout the day, and for a lot of players the highlight is the massed blow at the end of the evening concert where children, amateurs and professionals all rub shoulders. We were determined still to hold a festival on 1st November, but how could we recreate that sense of community in an online event?

A festival sub-committee was formed and, with the help of Zoom, came up with an programme that we could stream on the day. Initially we decided to ask professional players around the country to submit videos talking about technique and also invited members to submit remote ensemble recordings for a competition as well as an online valve stringing contest, with prizes for speed and style. Given the coronavirus restrictions that musicians were experiencing, it also seemed like an opportunity to invite orchestral sections to introduce themselves, perhaps talking about their new work environment, what they might be missing or whatever they felt might be interesting for the BHS community. The final result was a mixture of these elements. Some sections were sadly unable to contribute as they were still not back at work.

At the 11th hour a window of opportunity opened for there to be a live-streamed element hosted by the Stoller Hall, a new concert hall at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester where Tom Redmond, former second hornist of The Hallé orchestra, animateur and presenter had recently been appointed joint head. Instantly this opened up new possibilities. Manchester is the home of The Hallé, BBC Philharmonic and Manchester Camerata and nearby is Opera North in Leeds. Surely we could form a horn ensemble for the event? Despite travel restrictions it was also looking possible that Ben Goldscheider could still be involved. Time to re-think our ideas...

The first festival, in 1980, concluded with a massed horn ensemble playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture arranged and conducted by Alan Civil. Could we recreate an online version of this? We managed to assemble eight players from four orchestras to play in a live-stream performance with Ben Goldscheider, encouraging everyone else to join in from their homes to recreate this moment. To compliment this, it seemed fitting to include the magical opening quartet from Humperdink’s Hansel and Gretel arranged for eight horns by Jeffry Kirschen. With Lindsey Stoker and Tom Redmond controlling events from Manchester and Richard Steggall running the YouTube feed safely from his home in London, 200 miles away, we were ready to go.

The event opened with a welcome from the BHS honorary chair Barbara MacLaren followed by a short film of the first British Horn Festival, including interviews with Willi Watson and Tim Jones. Videos premiered on YouTube every 15 minutes and included “Dream Concert Programmes” from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra horn section, “Four Reasons to Learn the Natural Horn” from Anneke Scott, “Top Five Things We Say to Our Students” from Tim Jones and Angela Barnes (London Symphony Orchestra) and how to play the Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 1st movement horn solo and Maxwell Davies’s Sea Eagle from Nicholas Korth (BBC Symphony Orchestra) and Richard Watkins respectively.

Ben Goldscheider and Huw Watkins performed an exquisite recital which was live-streamed after the first hour. Their programme was Jörg Widmann Air for solo horn, Roxanna Panufnik Sonnets Without Words, Huw Watkins Lament and the Beethoven Horn Sonata.

The event concluded with a live performance by the Manchester octet. Tom Redmond enthusiastically compered and announced the winners of the ensemble competition, with prizes donated by Corniworld Publications. The success of the event was highlighted by the number of photos of people playing along to the Egmont Overture in their own living rooms. The online nature also meant that we had a more international flavour to our audience, with many players from around the world joining in our live YouTube chat as the videos premiered. The one disappointing element was that no one entered the fastest valve stringing competition! Perhaps that’s for another time...

All our YouTube videos and the performance of the Egmont Overture can be found on the British Horn Society’s YouTube channel.  You can also have a go at joining in with the Egmont Overture; parts are available here

For those interested in the British Horn Society, our latest magazine can be found here.

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