Horn Symposium Update No. 3

Day 3: Another exciting day at the 47th International Horn Symposium! Here’s what I attended during the morning and early afternoon.

  • Lecture – Contemporary Solos for Low Horn (Robert Stonestreet) A fascinating presentation focused on little known works which feature the horn’s low register. I knew a few of the works mentioned, but discovered some new ones, including several which were commissioned by Denise Tryon of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and which will be premiered at the symposium.
  • Recital – Stefan Dohr and Arkady Shilkloper Both of these renowned musicians played great sets. Dohr’s included two works which were unknown to me; Lewy’s Divertissement Op. 13 on Themes by Franz Schubert, and Haas’s Sonata No. 2 in F, Op. 29. Shilkloper’s virtuosity and sheer inventiveness on both the horn and alphorn were impressive as always. Though their musical voices are quite different, I took note of several common elements between the two which I think have contributed to their success as musicians and soloists. 1) A confident and comfortable stage presence 2) A distinct musical voice 3) Great sounds on the horn, but even more important, the use of different colors and interesting sounds. These include the full range of articulations, dynamics, timbres, etc.
  • UW Madison Alumni Ensemble “Hill’s Angels” This was certainly the highlight of the day for me. Getting to catch up with old classmates and meet some new faces was fantastic, and we played some great music as well. The concert was well attended, and the audience seemed to enjoy the repertoire we performed. Here’s a picture of the group, taken just after our morning rehearsal.
  • Concert – Genghis Barbie I’ve heard recordings of this quartet, but until today had not seen them perform live. They put on a great show, and can really play! In addition to having great chops, another element worth noting is their energetic and unique stage presence. Their show included a number of pop tune arrangements, many with vocals. It’s a good combination, and I highly recommend this group!
  • Evening Concert – Then & Now: A Night Honoring the Horn in Hollywood This was a very special night, bringing together most, if not all, of the main studio horn players working today. Studio playing legends Fred Fox and Alan Robinson were honored with both words and music. Like many horn players, my first experience with being thrilled at the sound of the instrument came from movie scores. It was a real treat to see and hear so many of the players who recorded this important and inspirational music. It was a big program (approximately 2.5 hours), and my favorite works were James Horner’s Titanic Fantasy, performed in honor of the late composer, with James Thatcher performing the solo part; and George Hyde’s Color Contrasts, which was one of the first works I played which required extended techniques. Here’s a shot of the marquee for the concert venue, the Los Angeles Theatre. Follow the link to see some amazing images of the interior of this historic building.

Friday Review: Video Games Live Concert

Last weekend I performed with the South Arkansas Symphony for a program called Video Games Live. The show has been around for nearly 10 years, and has toured internationally. All of the music for the show is taken from current and past video games, and includes live and pre-recorded video footage, light effects, and other elements normally associated with a rock or pop concert. Here’s a nice promotional video for the show’s live broadcast on PBS with the Louisiana Philharmonic in 2010.

I played video games quite a bit when I was younger, and still play them occasionally, so the much of the music for this concert brought back some nice memories. Logistically the show is quite involved, and required lots of extra setup time for the crew. Once marginalized and considered purely functional, video game music has come a long way since the early days, and there are many game scores which rival those of the biggest Hollywood films. There were plenty of big parts for the horns and other brass, but the ones I remember the most came from these games:

  • World of Warcraft
  • God of War
  • Metal Gear Solid

The show’s creator told us that they have around 90 orchestrations of music from various games, and they pick around 18 or so for each concert to create a different experience each time. Some of the other numbers on our concert came from games in the Super Mario Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Castlevania franchises. The concert was programmed to a click track, and the show brought along their own guest conductor. Here’s a shot from the horn section. Notice the earpiece hanging on the stand for the click track. Overall things went pretty smoothly during the rehearsal and concert. The conductor obviously knew the scores very well, and was able to quickly address any issues as they arose. The biggest issue throughout the show for me was being able to follow the click track during tempo changes.

Pops concerts like this one are usually popular with their target audiences, and I was pleased to see so many people actively engaged at an orchestral performance.   The show was interactive and fast paced, definitely geared towards a younger audience. However, these shows aren’t always well liked by everyone in the orchestra, and I can certainly see that side of the argument as well. On one hand, I tend to support shows that bring in new audiences and reach out to demographics that might not normally attend an orchestral concert – which this one certainly did.  But the other side of the coin is that these shows don’t necessarily build support for more traditional programming, or cultivate the idea of an orchestra as an educational and cultural institution. Pops concerts are a reality of the business, and are definitely here to stay, but finding the balance between popular and traditional programming can be tricky. The differing perceptions of what an orchestra is and how it functions in society have been, and will continue to be, a central debate in the future of classical music.  Do you have any thoughts on the subject?  Feel free to comment!  [Emotions can run high when discussing this topic, but please keep everything civil or your comment may not be approved.]

Notes from a Film Score Recording Session

I’m back after an especially interesting Spring Break week. There were a few days of much-needed rest at the beginning and end, but for the majority of the week I was busy with rehearsals and performances in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. One of the highlights of the week was a film score recording session at Blade Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana. Blade Studios is a new, multimillion dollar facility which seems to be doing quite well. Louisiana offers some very nice tax incentives for the film and studio recording industries, so lots of companies are beginning to bring their projects here. Though I’ve done some recording in the past, it was always for more classically oriented projects. This was my first film score session, so I was especially interested in everything going on around me. The film is titled Arachnoquake, and is scheduled to premiere on the SyFy channel sometime in June. The music is by Andrew Morgan Smith, a young film composer based in Lafayette, Louisiana. Overall the session was a very positive experience, and I look forward to doing more studio work. Here are a few random thoughts about the session.

Sight-reading, anyone? The session was scheduled from 1:30-6:30pm, and I arrived at the studio around 12:45pm. After having a little chuckle about the film’s title, I began perusing the thick stack of music on the stand. Though the score is for full orchestra,  this particular session was just for the brass (2 trumpets, 4 horns, 3 trombones, 1 tuba). Here’s a picture of the studio, just prior to the beginning of the session. There were four horn parts, though much of it was in unison and two parts. Film scores are divided into cues, or tracks, and this film had around 30 or so, I believe. Obviously, good sight-reading skills are indispensable for this kind of work, and you have to be prepared for just about anything. I looked for unusual meters, key signatures/changes, muted/stopped horn, and anything else that appeared out of the ordinary. I didn’t end up using them, but I brought two kinds of straight mutes and a stopping mute to this session. This being a science-fiction film, there were plenty of soaring lines and big moments for the brass, along with several articulated accompaniment figures.

Getting Used to the Click Track Each musician was given a pair of headphones, attached to a box like this. Each of the knobs on the box controlled a different sound level – the overall mix, the horns, or the click track. Every cue was programmed to a click track, so that it could be synchronized with specific moments in the film. I’d never played with a click track before, and it took a few minutes to get used to it. It’s of course very similar to playing with a metronome, but how often does an entire brass section with a conductor perform or rehearse together with a metronome going? Most of us played with one ear in the headphones and the other uncovered. It took a bit of experimenting with the volume to make sure we could hear the click track over the actual music, although there were a few places where it would have been painful to have the click track too loud, and we just had to go on internal rhythm for a few measures. Although the general mood of the session was very relaxed, it did get a little nerve-wracking at times waiting for the next section to be programmed into the click track. Basically there’s dead silence, and then a 4 or 8 beat click in the upcoming tempo. This was especially noticeable in difficult sections which needed to be repeated a few times to get some good takes. Generally musicians want to repeat a passage  immediately if we miss something, but there were often delays while waiting for the click track be “punched in” at a certain spot.

Pace Yourself, and Play Smart Everyone played well during the session, and the production staff were also very professional. However, there were a few instances when it was clear that endurance – both physical and mental – were beginning to wear down. We got a 10 minute break every hour, which was great for getting the chops and brain back in order. My advice to anyone going into a long session like this one is to be smart and pace yourself. Many of the big moments were towards the end of the session, so it was important to have some gas left to deliver even after four hours of recording. Resist the urge to go “all out” on things. It’s much better I think to back off a little and play in tune and accurately, especially if you may have to repeat a passage several times. The composer changed things on the fly in a few places, so flexibility was important as well. We finished the session at 6:30pm on the dot, and I called it a day. Some of my colleagues from the session actually had a ballet rehearsal that evening for Prokofiev’s Cinderella – ouch!

Do you have any advice or suggestions about film score recording? Feel free to comment below.

Friday Review: Carved in Stone, The Life and Musical Legacy of Vincent DeRosa

We return to horn-related books in this week’s review of Carved in Stone: The Life and Musical Legacy of Vincent ReRosa, by Todd Miller.  I’ve had Carved in Stone for a while, and have actually read through it a couple of times, but writing a concise review was a little daunting because of the broad scope of the book.   According to the author’s website (linked above):

Carved In Stone documents the life, career, and playing and teaching techniques of horn player Vincent DeRosa, the world-renowned recording artist. DeRosa has had an astounding career that spans seven decades. He is undoubtedly the most recorded horn player ever, as well as one of the most respected.

This is an accurate description, but Carved in Stone also includes a wealth of historical information on the film and recording industries, as well as technical and musical advice for playing the horn. I was especially interested by the account of relations between studio musicians and the American Federation of Musicians. The book is divided into four main parts: a biographical overview of DeRosa, an extensive account of his career as both an orchestral player and studio musician, descriptions of his playing and teaching techniques, and several appendices containing exercises, photographs, and recommended etudes. The writing is engaging, and strikes a fine balance between academic and informal prose. Growing up on the east coast, I was not as familiar with Mr. DeRosa – and his immense influence on the horn playing world – as I was with Philip Farkas or James Chambers.  However, DeRosa’s contributions are arguably just as substantial, and in 2004 he was elected an Honorary Member of the International Horn Society. Thinking back over the various chapters of Carved in Stone, a few common themes stand out to me.

  1. Work ethic: Carved in Stone is full of accounts of DeRosa’s industriousness, both as a teacher and a professional player. I particularly appreciated his “can do” attitude about every single challenge with which he was faced.
  2. Concentration: Studio playing is full of make or break moments, and DeRosa seems to have had an uncanny ability to focus his mind and body on the task at hand, shutting out any and all distractions.
  3. Tone, Tone, Tone: In his teaching and playing, DeRosa stressed the importance of a beautiful tone above all else. Here’s a great quote from Carved in Stone via Julia Rose’s blog. [UPDATE:Link no longer available]

A good portion of the book is devoted to several calisthenic and flexibility exercises favored by DeRosa. They are similar to exercises found in other places, but it never hurts to have multiple variations on tried and true materials. As with other deceptively simple long tone and arpeggio patterns, the difficulty in these exercises is executing them accurately, in tune, and with a good tone every single time.

Even if you’ve never heard of Vincent DeRosa, chances are you’ve heard his playing – through hundreds of film and television scores as well as commercial jingles. Carved in Stone, along with biographies of other great players and teachers in the horn world, should be on every serious player’s shelf.  To close out this review here’s a brief sample of DeRosa’s impressive tone and musicality. The recording below is “Micky” from the soundtrack to the motion picture Rocky III. Score by Bill Conti, recorded by Vincent DeRosa and the Hollywood Studio Symphony. Enjoy!

Solo Horn in Opening Titles

Bruce Hembd’s great series on Horn-tastic TV Themes at Horn Matters got me thinking about all the amazing horn solos in movie soundtracks.  There are too many to list in this post, but I thought what might be fun is to consider only those horn solos that appear in the opening few minutes of a film, either in the opening titles or the first scene.  Here are a few that came to mind.

Braveheart “Main Title,” composed by James Horner, London Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Jones?, solo horn [Solo begins at 1:55.]

Saving Private Ryan “Revisiting Normandy,” composed by John Williams, Gus Sebring, solo horn [This is not the first track on the motion picture soundtrack, but it is the first scene in the movie.]

Wyatt Earp “Main Theme,” composed by James Newton Howard, ?, solo horn

Can you think of any more film scores with solo horn (not sections) featured in the opening titles or main theme?  Further information on the soloists for Braveheart and Wyatt Earp would be great too.

If horn playing in film scores interests you, some great resources are Cindy Liu’s dissertation from the University of Cincinnati, The Examination of the Appearance and Use of French Horn in Film Scores from 1977 to 2004, and the website Moviebrass.

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