Kristina Mascher-Turner: First of all, Erik, Tell us about that famous week back in July 2010!

ralskeErik Ralske: In 2010 I was lucky enough to end up in the unique position of winning two major principal horn jobs in the same week—at the Metropolitan Opera and the LA Philharmonic. The crazy part was that my story got picked up in a front-page article in the NY Times about the large number of vacancies in the NY Philharmonic at the time. I had been a member of the NY Philharmonic for 17 years--initially as third horn and later 6 years as Acting Associate Principal. Prior to my years with the NYP, I played first horn in Houston (Associate Principal), Vancouver, Florida, and Tulsa, so playing first horn again was a return to my old life. Playing third horn in a great orchestra and brass section such as the NY Philharmonic was not only essential experience and training for the skills and endurance needed in my current job, but also an education in excellence. Choosing between 2 such different jobs in 2 very different cities wasn’t easy, but my NY roots helped tip the scales. I grew up in the suburbs of NY (Long Island), went to school at Juilliard and have always identified myself as a New Yorker. I have family here. I also felt that the opportunity to play completely different and yet major horn repertoire at the MET, would make for a very complete and varied musical life and career. To have played the Mahler Symphonies with the NY Philharmonic and the prospect of playing the Wagner operas at the MET is something that intrigued me at the time of the decision. For me it was the right choice, but I can understand others may have chosen differently. In short, I felt I had done most of the orchestral repertoire on both first and third horn and working the MET provided a chance to do something refreshingly different.

KMT: When you made the switch from playing in the NY Phil to the Met, what aspects of your new job came as a surprise?

ER: The MET Opera is such a unique, demanding and yet wonderful job, the list of surprises in my rookie season was long!

We never play the same work 2 nights in a row!! It may seem obvious, but until you’re living it, it’s hard to imagine how that affects you. Singers can’t or won’t sing back-to-back nights. Therefore, any opera that's in production is only performed twice in a week, with at least 3 days off between performances. I remember my NY Philharmonic days, the usual subscription week opened Thursday night, continued Friday and Saturday, with a 4th performance on the following Tuesday. We used to fret going into the Tuesday concert for not having played the program in 3 days!! In the opera that’s just normal. Sometimes an opera will re-open later in the season—without rehearsal—months after early season run of performances!!

The average week often means being prepared for 15-18 hours of music! We perform 7 times a week: every night, Monday through Saturday, plus a matinee on Saturdays! Therefore, there are generally at least 4 different operas performed each week, while during the day, other operas are being rehearsed before opening in upcoming weeks. It's not unusual to have 4-6 different operas in one week between rehearsals and performances. With an average time of over 3 hours per opera, that’s 15-18 hours of music to keep up with each week. It's a ton of music to have in your head/chops/fingers!! We do have 2 full-time horn sections (plus a shared assistant = 9 full time players), so dividing up the 7 performances only makes it manageable, but most of us are still involved with at least 4-5 operas at any given time.

Never over-hydrate before a long opera! I made that mistake on my first HD Broadcast, which was Rheingold in my second month at the MET. The HD Broadcasts go live to 3,000 movie theaters in 60 countries around the world. It was a matinee performance and when I woke up that morning feeling thirsty, I thought I was doing the right thing by hydrating. Rheingold is the shortest Ring opera, but there’s no intermission and it’s about 2 hours and 40 minutes long. I was pretty uncomfortable about 45 minutes into the performance and started that long internal debate in my head about whether or not I could get through to the end. I had to wait about an hour for a 50 bar rest in a slow section and then dodge players and cameras to make a dash to the dressing room!

Changes in personnel happen all the time! Each opera production will run about 8 weeks from the first rehearsal to the last performance. Not all conductors or star singers schedules allow for a full 2-month commitment, so some personnel changes are scheduled in the middle of a run.  I remember in the middle of my first run of Siegfried performances, I took up my position to play the Long Call and when I realized there was a new tenor singing the role—someone who had never rehearsed with the orchestra! As he has to mime the solo and I have to try to synchronize the beginnings of phrases with him, it was a challenge not to freak out. I also remember in my first run of Die Walküre seeing a new conductor come out after the orchestra tuned and thinking, “What?!! This piece is hard and long enough and it’s about to get harder!” Fortunately, scheduled changes such as these, involve artists who are well rehearsed and experienced, so I’ve since learned to roll with the punches. Unscheduled cast changes when a singer becomes ill and can happen in mid-performance. You just have to be ready for new tempi, rubatos, balances and phrasing.

In standard repertoire, the orchestra personnel can change nightly too! We perform about 26-28 different operas each season. About one third of them are deemed “non-switchable”, meaning that the personnel for those operas is fixed for the entire run. Everyone involved has to be at all rehearsals and performances to ensure the highest standard artistically. The difficulty of the work is one determining factor, but the star power of the cast and conductor might be another. Other considerations are whether it’s a new production, or if it’s on the list of HD Broadcasts for the season. In any case, the “switchable" operas end up being standards such as Carmen, La Bohème, or Tosca. With over 200 opera performances crammed into a 9-month season, it becomes necessary to switch personnel on these operas so that most weeks, no single player is hopefully doing more than 4 performances within that week. It’s an incredibly huge jigsaw puzzle to create the individual player’s schedules, in order to distribute the workload as equitably as possible. What struck me as odd when I started, is that from night to night I might play a piece like Tosca with not only different wind sections, but also different horn sections. Even though we have 2 complete sections in the horns and we try to treat each section as a unit, there invariably ends up being some 'mix and match’ horn sections for some performances. Sickness, relief days, scheduling conflicts, etc., account for the juggling, but it’s one of those things that took getting used to.

KMT: What defines the Met and makes it world-renowned?

met section
The Met opera horn section after a recent performance with Simon Rattle: L-R: Michelle Baker, Javier Gandara, Sir Simon, Barbara Jöstlein-Currie, Erik Ralske. Not pictured: Joseph Anderer, Anne Scharer, Brad Gemeinhardt, Scott Brubaker, Julia Pliant.
ER: Like any great institution, the Metropolitan Opera has a long history (133 years to date), and most of the greatest names in the history of music have had long associations with the company. Former conductors and directors include Anton Seidel, Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Fritz Reiner, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Rafael Kubelik, and James Levine. All of the great voices of the past sang regularly at the MET, and the stars of today appear nightly. Productions generally spare no expense and constantly delight audiences. It amazes me how they put together such stellar casts 7 times a week all season long! I have to say I feel spoiled that no matter what we’re playing, I always enjoy hearing the best voices in the business. With an annual budget of over $300 million, it’s the largest arts organization in the U.S., so you expect nothing but the best.

KMT: What kind of physical/mental preparation do you do to remain in top form for the demands of your job?

ER: That’s tough to say. Given that this job taxes a player to the max on both counts, it’d be obvious to say you’ve always have to be in your best shape. I think that most people strive for that in any orchestra job. For the physical aspect of playing, I focus more on keeping my basic fundamentals in shape (tone production, air support, articulation, range, dynamics, etc.) so that if my fundamental technique is sound, then endurance isn’t so much of an issue. We play such long hours during the week, that the greater challenge is keeping one’s playing healthy. Knowing when to rest (versus practice) is also a key to staying healthy. It’s easy to have chronically tired and unresponsive lips on this job. Maintaining good physical condition is important to me, especially given the long hours of sitting. Personally, I usually do 40-45 miles in spinning (bicycle) classes each week and work out regularly.Mentally, it’s hard sometimes to find the energy for long opera nights. Opera rarely stays in the same tempo for very long as compared with much of the symphonic repertoire. Therefore, staying alert is all the more critical. Like any performance, to be successful means to live in the moment with keen attention as to what’s going on around you, so that you can react to all of the spontaneous nuances. I feel I’m at my best mentally when a performance is like a meditation: if I’m really swept up in the flow of music—which is so often led by the stage—it’s easy to find the mental focus and energy despite the challenges of the day. It’s my lifeline for getting though those 5-6 hour performances. I have 2 young sons at home and a sizable studio at Juilliard, which can tax my mental energy before performances. If nothing else, there’s always caffeine and sugar for those super sleepy nights!

KMT: What "tools" does an opera horn player need that a symphony musician might not know about?

ER: My first reaction would be a comfortable chair, a strong back, a cast-iron bladder and chops of steel, but in reality, I can’t really add anything new. I would just say generally, everything is magnified in the world of opera. Everyday challenges (such as endurance of every kind, horn technique, etc.), are much like any job. It’s just that the intensity is multiplied exponentially with the longer hours. One specific challenge is that we may play softer for longer stretches since we accompany so much of the time. Therefore, having some fail-safe solutions to getting through delicate passages on perhaps not-so-delicate chops would be key. Another challenge that exists in any busy player’s life is the extreme range of demands in the really hard weeks. I saw many tough weeks at the NYP, but nothing that compares to the most challenging weeks at the MET. My first run of ‘Ring' cycles included Handel’s "Julius Caesar” on “off-nights”. This went on for weeks as we did several complete cycles, each spanning about 12 days.

KMT: Are there any pieces that you see on the season plan and say to yourself, "Oh no, not this again!”?

ER: I’m not a big fan of playing 'bel canto’ opera in general. It can fun to listen to but for the horn player it can be hours of just repetitive rhythmic figures or after-beats and then suddenly an aria where you’re featured in a big lyrical solo. That can be so much harder after hours of after-beats! The only thing worse is when you have all those after-beats and there is no solo. On nights like that I try to remind myself I have a front row seat to hearing some of the best vocal acrobats in the world.

KMT: Which operas do you feel are underrated and deserve to be played more often?

ER: I’m a huge Puccini fan, and in my experience, aside from his most popular works (La Bohème, Tosca, Madame Butterfly and to some extent Turandot), we have only occasionally done his other works. In my first season, we did 'La Fanciulla del West' because the MET commissioned it 100 years earlier (with Caruso singing and Toscanini conducting!). It’s such a great work. Puccini creates an original musical style of the American Wild West, well before American composers did. You can hear how much Hollywood composers later borrowed from this score, or certainly were influenced by it. Those performances in the 2010-11 season were the first in a long while and we haven’t done it since.

KMT: Who were your most influential teachers?

ER: I feel blessed to have had the right teachers at the right time throughout my years of study, so I’ll name them all. Each of them helped me achieve all that I have in my career, and I feel so indebted. They are in order: Paul Rudoff and Dennis Behm during High School; Ranier DeIntinis at Juilliard; Martin Smith also helped me while I was at Juilliard and he was with the NY Philharmonic; Myron Bloom and John Cerminaro at Aspen Music Festival. Since learning never ends, I have all my professional colleagues to thank in part because I’ve learned much along the way in professional life.

KMT: How does it affect you and the section to know that millions of people around the world are watching live during the Met broadcasts?

ER: I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t affect us, but I always try to remind myself that every day is just another day at work, another day on the horn. Of course, you prepare and aim for your absolute best work, but when you play as often as we do, I feel it’s healthier mentally not to blow things out of proportion. One can easily convince oneself that the whole world is watching you under the microscope that we tend to view ourselves through. In reality, there aren’t many moments like that at all. Music is to be enjoyed and I like to enjoy it too. I always think of that line from a Woody Allen film: “90% of life is just showing up.” While it’s a funny line, I do think that behind it is a very liberating message: don’t carry the baggage of the past forward, have no expectations of the future—all of that can be pressure and a distraction from doing your best in the moment of the present tense. So after a few minutes those cameras hopefully recede from my awareness.

KMT: What are your favorite memories you've taken with you from your years in the NY Philharmonic?

ER: There are many to pick from, but among them I’d say playing the Schumann Konzertstück with Kurt Masur at the Berlin Philharmonie was one favorite. After intermission we played Bruckner Symphony #4 and then Meistersinger Overture as an encore. Back then I thought that was a long night!  I also really enjoyed playing the solo part to Mahler Symphony #5 with Gustavo Dudamel even though it was without a rehearsal!! Phil Myers had some dental emergency after completing the rehearsals, so I ended up playing the week. On a personal side, memories of the many exotic places we toured during my time there are also treasured. Among them: a private visit to the Taj Mahal at dawn on a tour of India with Zubin Mehta, and the historic trip to North Korea with Lorin Maazel.

KMT: Do you have time for hobbies outside of horn playing? If so, what are they?

ER: I took up pottery during my years with the Houston Symphony. When I came to NY I rarely had time for it. I loved doing something that was creative, but physical—not abstract like music. I made an 80-piece matched set of dinnerware before putting my wheel in storage. I know I will get back to it big-time one day. For now it’s skiing in the winter and tennis in the warmer months with my family.

You can hear Erik’s artistry on the following YouTube recordings:

“Va tacito” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare (from the MET live broadcast)

Live performance, Haydn’s “Divertimento a tre”

Wagner’s Ring Cycle Leitmotifs, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Brass


Head shot courtesy of David Finlayson