Kristina Mascher-Turner: Hosting a symposium is an enormous time commitment. During this past year, how many hours a week would you say you spend working on IHS 51? How have you had to adjust your schedule to fit these demands?
Jeroen Billiet: It’s difficult to say exactly as I have never counted working hours, but I would say between 5 and 7 hours a day, so at least 30 hours a week. As an artistic assistant at the Ghent School of Arts, I fortunately have a lot of freedom to organize my work. I try to make sure that the students aren’t neglected by this excess of work, but my research activities are at the moment mainly focused on things that are useful for the symposium. And of course, it means that every night and weekend has long laptop sessions (not the most popular person in the house at the moment.)
I mainly cut a lot of playing hours, which is bad. However, I get a lot of support from my wife Nina who is charged with the coordination of the symposium, our master student Eline who helps us with communication and practical organizing, my colleague and co-host Rik Vercruysse, our dean and the entire Ghent School of Arts team, which is good. The backing of a large organization such as the Ghent School of Arts is a big relief!
KMT: It‘s always a bonus when the symposium comes to a spectacular city, and Ghent is amazing. What are some of the things visitors from far away can look forward to experiencing there?
JB: Ghent is a very important place for the history of the horn: our conservatory was founded by one of the most important horn players of the early 19th century (Martin-Joseph Mengal). It was also the place that Philip Farkas’ teacher Louis Dufrasne studied!
It is, as you say, a spectacular scene with its canals and splendid historical buildings. Our conservatory itself is housed in premises dating back to the 14th century….Don’t miss the Unesco Heritage altarpiece by Van Eyck in the Cathedral across the street from the conservatory! And of course there is good food, chocolate and great beer in this friendly and open-minded city. Ghent was named ‘Belgium’s best kept secret’ by the Lonely Planet guide, with good reason. We will have plenty of outdoor activities, concerts and flash mobs during the week. Since our venue is in the heart of the city, you won’t need to make a special effort to see a lot of Ghent during the week.
KMT: Tell us about the Historical Horn Conference taking place Wednesday-Friday alongside IHS51- how did the idea to bring the IHS symposium and this event together arise?
JB: We have imagined IHS51 as a comprehensive symposium showing the current diversity in the horn world in all possible ways. To include an academic conference with IHS51 was one of the primary ideas. The Ghent School of Arts is a member of the Ghent University Association, and research is a very important and present topic in our school. The Historical Horn theme was an obvious choice, as it fitted perfectly with some other plans: to set up a temporary exhibition of unique historical horns from private Western European collections in our nearby Wijnaert campus exhibition hall. As a third feature, we are organizing a natural horn competition for the first time at an IHS symposium.
Ghent was home to an important horn playing tradition in the Romantic era, which is also the subject of my current doctorate at Ghent University. I have been active in historically informed performance practice for nearly 20 years now, and the “natural horn" scene has come to full maturity in this part of the world. We hope that regular IHS51 participants will find their way to some of the dedicated historical lectures and concerts.
Don’t worry, those who are not into history will find an amazing number of other events. We have a lot of premieres of new pieces, book and product presentations, social activities, lectures and workshops, masterclasses etc. There is also a lot of variety in the day themes: Thursday is mainly devoted to Jazz and band playing for example, Monday focuses on Belgian music, Tuesday is one big playground and Wednesday puts women composers and artists in the picture. And of course there are our five competitions (soloist, orchestral excerpts, jazz horn, natural horn and ensemble).
KMT: Would you say that there is a distinct „Belgian horn sound“? If so, what is it and what has influenced it?
JB: No, or at least not anymore. Belgium is a small country between the French and Germanic, British and Dutch influences, and has thus always been a melting pot of artistic ideas. However, during the Romantic era, Belgian players were praised for their elegant, lyrical way of playing and impeccable technique. There are still some aspects of our playing today that refer to this (think of distinctive players like Francis Orval) but I notice with my students that this sense of tradition is fading out. The sledgehammer of globalization hits the old traditions, but other things come in its place. I think the “Belgian” touch is mostly about style and a general approach to music that is more intimate, more lyrical and softer than in other schools. Belgians are generally reserved and humble, and patriotism is something completely unknown to us. On the other hand, Belgians adapt easily to other standards, which explains the success not only of our musicians but also of the large number of Belgian-born industry executives, opera directors etc.
KMT: How did your own love for historical and natural horns begin?
JB: My father was a historian who was crazy about Bach and Händel. Baroque music was my first deep listening experience, and I am still profoundly moved by Händel, Rameau and of course Bach, and the incredible horn parts these old masters have written for our instrument. One of my major artistic influences was my teacher at Ghent Conservatory, Luc Bergé, who was experimenting with natural horn around the time I started studying with him. I didn’t think twice when he suggested I participate in summer courses with natural horn legend Claude Maury. Apparently this was just the incentive I needed…only a few months later I was playing principal horn with some major European baroque ensembles, then started research in the subject.
KMT: What has surprised you the most so far about hosting a symposium?
JB: That we get the best reactions from the ‘original' features of our program that are less obvious: lesser known artists, special social events, our world record attempt, day themes. People talk about us, which is heartwarming because a lot of love goes into it!
Also, it surprises me how different cultures and policies are in different parts of the world. I have traveled a lot; for the past 20 years I’ve toured abroad 120 days+ yearly. Still I’m amazed to see how different the horn playing culture in Western Europe is to the one in the US or in Japan. It is inspiring to present a truly international horn symposium where more than 20 different nationalities (and counting) are presenting.
...And mostly how much work it is! You cannot imagine how many small things take a lot of time. IHS51 organization is particularly challenging as there is so much going on- we didn’t go easy on ourselves...
KMT: It seems to me that in the light of current world events, bringing people of different nationalities and cultures together to celebrate music and friendship can be a real source of healing and light. Is your roster of guest artists and repertoire influenced by this desire? Does a modern symposium need to be different than ones that have come before?
JB: Yes, very much. Our aim was to rethink some aspects of the traditional IHS symposium without throwing away its soul. This is why we imagined IHS from the beginning as a community event, with our IHS51 event bar as a central conversation place, a schedule that offers a wide choice of parallel sessions all day presenting people from all possible backgrounds and networks.
For this reason we mostly invited people who had a particular story. Some of the heroes from my student days will be there: Marie-Louise Neunecker, William Vermeulen, Frøydis Ree Wekre and Hervé Joulain. But also the lady who played and sang in Disney’s Frozen, Sissel Morken Gullord and the splendid, multi-national principal horn of the Antwerp Philharmonic, Eliz Erkalp. You’ll also experience natural horn virtuosi Anneke Scott, Teunis Van der Zwart and Bart Aerbeydt, Canadian “enfant terrible” Marjolaine Goulet and Ghengis Barbie (for the first time in Europe!). Tom Varner will perform with the French Mallet-Horn Jazz Band. Johannes Hinterholzer is one of the most versatile horn players around but has never been featured at an IHS symposium before. Equality and diversity are very dear to our approach, and this shows in the program.
When I was studying in the 1990’s, all that mattered in horn festivals were the “big names” on the program. They are still there, and we are very proud of our line-up of featured artists, but the sense of community, the all-inclusive approach of IHS51 was the main concern when deciding upon the program.
KMT: Can you talk about the world record „Wake the Dragon“ event? How many horn players are you hoping to include?
JB: The symbol of Ghent is the dragon statue on top of the medieval Belfry tower. Horn players will be acquainted with the story of Siegfried waking the dragon Fafner with his horn call…this inspired us to organize a large event for horn players of all ages and abilities on the last two days of IHS51. There are approximately 40 full-time professional orchestras in the 300 kilometer range around Ghent, and we estimate that approximately 10,000 horn players live in the same perimeter. There is a flourishing culture of wind bands and music schools. This is an enormous potential for the IHS and for our festival.
So far, we have organized five successful “horn days” with our Mengal Ensemble, aimed at non-professional players as well as a number of other activities in Flanders in the last 15 years. On the last horn day in Roeselare (2012) we had over 200 players on stage for the final concert.
The city agreed to host a spectacular open-air concert on the cathedral square, next to the belfry, joined by the city Carillon and conducted by the famous Ghentian conductor Dirk Brossé. Breaking the Guinness world record for the largest horn ensemble is our aim. A few percent of the people living in this three-hour drive range would be enough to break it, certainly when combined with the IHS51 participants. Anyhow, our main goal is to bring people together for a giant and happy celebration of the horn in this mythical place for horn players, on 6 July at 4pm.
KMT: How do you think holding the international symposium in Europe can enliven the IHS as a whole, especially in the European countries?
JB: It is strange that in Europe, where there are so many players, orchestras and enthusiasts, IHS membership is so low. In Belgium alone there are estimated to be at least 3000 horn players, and we don’t even have ten IHS members! One of the main problems is the visibility of the organization here. This is something we want to improve, and I think Ghent is very central and is a tourist destination appealing to many Europeans. These are the people we want to reach and make the future of the IHS! People here mostly know the organization exists but don’t feel the need to be a member of the IHS. Hosting and supporting events, supporting scholarships etc. happens mainly in North America where the overwhelming majority of IHS members live. Also, regional associations are very active here: the Dutch, French, British, Spanish…all have their own horn players’ associations that are more closely connected to the local scene. I reached out to these associations by offering them the same advantages as IHS members, and we will evaluate how this works.... I hope that the event will open the hearts of many for our wonderful horn society.
KMT: Have you been able to keep up your international concert schedule this year? What and where have you performed recently that stands out for you?
JB: I have been very busy in the last years, and even quit the orchestra in Paris where I was part-time principal horn, but I am continuing with other groups. It’s the advantage of being in historical music: it is very flexible, and I have a good network that understands that hosting IHS51 is more important at the moment. I even took some complete months off to concentrate on IHS51. Recent programs were mainly Baroque and classical opera and some Bach. I did a very nice tour around Europe and the US with J.E. Gardiner’s orchestra and my great friend Anneke Scott in October. In March I will be playing Rameau’s opera "les Boréades" in Dijon, and two months before IHS I still have some Schubert with René Jacobs and a set of Brandenburg 1’s. That will be more than enough, as in the meantime university work continues. At the moment we are right on schedule with the programing of IHS51, and we intend to keep it that way!
KMT: In 10 words or less, tell us why we need to come to IHS51!
JB: Wake that Dragon! (and join us for a beer)!
Jeroen Billiet studied the horn with Luc Bergé at the Royal Conservatories of Ghent and Brussels, and obtained a Master’s degree in music performance magna cum laude in 2001. He has since specialized in historical instruments and and is principal horn with some of the leading European HIP ensembles including le Concert d'Astrée (Emmanuelle Haim), B'Rock (René Jacobs) and Insula Orchestra (Laurence Equilbey).
As a soloist, Jeroen focuses on the repertoire, instruments and playing style of Belgian horn players in the Romantic era. After his post-graduate study "200 years of Belgian Horn school" (Orpheus Institute 2008) he has continued researching the practice of horn playing in Belgium, resulting in a large amount of published articles, music productions and recordings.
Jeroen is a full-time research fellow and teacher of natural horn at the School of Arts-University College Ghent and a faculty member of the Royal Conservatory of the AP-Institute in Antwerp. His current doctoral research at Ghent University investigates the artistic heritage of the Ghent horn playing tradition that established itself in the Belle Époque period.