Various Questions

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01 一 2009 10:00 #214 by Phil Myers
Various Questions was created by Phil Myers
Q: What was the North Korea Experience like?

The North Korean experience was as controlled as is possible. The bus took us from the airport to a hotel on an island and if one tried to walk away from that hotel, a policeman would politely tell you to return to the hotel. The hotel had a bowling alley, a table tennis room, an exercise room, a grocery store, restaurants, everything that one would need so that you didn't really need to leave the hotel. But it was clear that you were being confined. When we went on the bus to the concerts, the bus went directly through town at 60 mph because the roads were clear. After the concert, same thing back to the hotel. Only at the concert did you come into contact with people who were exceedingly friendly, genuinely so I believe. It was generally a sad experience for me because it was hard not to feel bad for the people that were living under that control all the time. At night we would look out from our hotel and in the capital city of North Korea you could see maybe eight lights on - total. On the one hand you might say that such a thing is highly enlightened, conserving energy, etc. but on the other hand it is so far out of our experience in traveling around the world that it has the feel of super-control to it that is out of our experience. I guess as is said "you had to be there", but I think most of our touring party of 150 felt much the same way.

Q: Of your colleagues in the NY Phil, who most impresses you?

The nature of being in an orchestra is that the demands of the job are rather unending. It just keeps coming at you. On the one hand it is a blessing. It would be very hard too for me to go back to a situation where I rehearsed for a couple of months for one concert where everything either went right or did not. In a professional job you get more chances than that. In a typical week we are doing four or five concerts and by the end of the year have probably played a couple of hundred. And rehearsals. Probably the biggest difference between a student situation and a professional one is that in a professional situation you are really expected to know the piece as a whole and your part before the first rehearsal takes place. Learning the piece on the job while others have made the effort to learn it before the first rehearsal is rather looked down upon. So in effect, if in a typical week you have four rehearsals and four concerts, you must be prepared 350-400 times a year to try to do your best. And you are not being paid to try, you are being paid to produce. Now some professionals would try to have you believe that it is no problem to go into the job year after year and play perfectly. This is not my experience, not on horn, not on any instrument. In the same way that a batter will have a slump or a sprinter will not set a world record every time out, musicians have ups and downs. When I went to hear my teachers play I was aware of the fact that some days they played better than others, even the most consistent of them. A big part of one's job is to try minimize these day to day fluctuations, to sound comfortable and competent equally every day. Often times in my thirty years, a new member of the orchestra might go a few years before they first begin to have a problem on the job. How they overcome it when it shows up says a lot about them as a player, a person, how their career is going to proceed, etc. Therefore, if you are talking about long term respect, I am going to have to mention the people who have been in the orchestra a long time (25 years or more) and who have been consistent performers for a long, long time. These would especially include the bassoonist Judy LeClair, the trumpet player Phil Smith, but once I start listing them there are simply too many. I enjoy my job and I enjoy hearing what a lot of people around me do.

Q: After 30 years in the orchestra, what are your most memorable experiences?

Every now and then, I would say every four or five years, I manage to play something really the way that I would like to. These are the memorable experiences. The first time this happened for me was in my first job. I was in that job three years and played two phrases during that time the way that I wanted to. The first one was a little phrase out of Milhaud's "Creation of the World". I've never forgotten how that felt. I am sad to say that they last time this happened for me does not immediately come to mind, ordinarily I am not too happy with how I am playing. But apart from myself there is one time that does stick in my mind for many years now. Sometime during Mehta's tenure as conductor (roughly 1978-91) we played a joint concert with the Israel Philharmonic. One of the pieces we played together was the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique. During this performance we shared the solos so I would play a couple of solo passages and then the person from Israel would play a couple. When we got to the movement with the big English Horn solo, the man from Israel played the beginning of the movement and the English Horn player from New York played the end of the movement. The man from Israel sounded great and did a fine job, but in our first time (only time) through the piece in rehearsal when the Philharmonic English Horn player begin to play his sound was so huge that literally the entire Israel Philharmonic snapped around in their seats to see who in the world could make a sound like that. I will simply never forget that reaction to someone's size and quality of sound. I've never seen it before or since. That English Horn player is still in the orchestra - Thomas Stacy.

Q: Where do you practice in a city short on space?

I live 65 miles outside of the city in a house chosen in part for the spaces it has to practice in and the sounds that one is able to make in these spaces. It is very important to me to have a few different sonic environments in a house though in general I tend to want to practice in very live spaces. I know that many feel that one should always practice in relatively dead acoustic spaces, but I have tried this and it does not work for me. I think everyone should experiment for themselves and find what works for them in this regard. So, I don't practice much in the city.

Q: Do you get to play chamber music very often, i.e. Brass/Woodwind Quintets, Schubert Octet etc?

Probably more brass quintet playing than anything else, though any professional horn player probably ends up playing the Brahms Trio, Beethoven Septet, Schubert Octet quite a few times in their career. I enjoy the clarity and simplicity of when one has the melody and when one does not in chamber music. It is ordinarily more clear in chamber music than in orchestra exactly who has the most important part and how one might go about supporting it. For me, most of the joy of music comes in accompanying and supporting others in an intelligent way. To me this is equally if not more challenging than playing an eight bar solo myself. Think about it. If you are playing a symphony that is a thousand measures long perhaps twenty, thirty, forty of those will be horn solo. All the rest is accompanying the flute here, the trumpet here, the strings there. This is going to be 950 measures of the piece. I ordinarily am able to enjoy those 950 measures as much if not more than the fifty measures where I am plaing a solo. When I left first horn in Halifax to play third horn in Pittsburgh I had a student asked if I didn't feel less fulfilled playing third horn than first. I told her that basically I felt as though I was trying to do the same thing I had been trying to do in Halifax. For the majority of a piece in either chair, most of my responsibility is to accompany well.

Q: When the orchestra is televised/filmed, are the cameras distracting?

No, these camera guys are really good at what they do and you just are not aware of them, at least not where I sit. Over towards the edge of the stage where they actually are, they might be a bit hard to ignore. Tonight we did the New Years show. I am aware that because we are on TV only a couple of times a year that if I pull some real boner that there is going to be a certain amount of the audience that will consider I must do that every night that I play, so I think we all feel that we want as little as possible to go wrong as possible, but it isn't specifically tied to the camera. And it is different in another way also. I would say that ordinarily one goes out on stage thinking about what they want to do right and how they want to try to do it. Being on TV makes you think a little bit more about what you don't want to have go wrong and that puts you into sort of a backwards way of thinking before you ever start. Probably would be better if it didn't have that effect but I would be lying if I pretended it was not so. At least for a few of us.

Q: Have you played in opera orchestras?

When I was in Pittsburgh there would be some weeks where the orchestra would divide in half. Half of the orchestra would do chamber orchestra stuff and the other half of us would do either ballet or opera. So I played I think four to six weeks of opera for four years, but frankly I don't remember much about it except one thing. The horns sat in two rows and the fourth horn player and I were right up against a cement wall with the first and second horn players right in front of us. Now I would have thought that sitting against a wall that if anything I would hear myself too much, but in fact for some reason I could only hear the first horn. Now he had a nice sound but our sounds were not exactly the same and in spite of telling myself that I wasn't going to fall into this trap, I would go into these manipulations with my embouchre trying to change his sound into mine, as though his sound was coming out of my bell instead of his because his was the only sound I could hear. Obviously crazy but I used to come out of those weeks so messed up that it would take me a couple of weeks to feel normal again and no matter how many times I wold myself not to do it, I never totally was able to conquer this involuntary compensation.

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