Encores & Curtain Calls: Sweet-cream sound
Laura Klock’s recital marking her final year at UMass-Amherst will be Sunday, Feb. 16, at 4 p.m. in Bezanson Recital Hall.
“Listen — the horn!”
— Ralph Vaughan Williams
(to students, on hearing a Beethoven symphony)
If one instrument were to be named the pivot-point, the arbitrator of the entire orchestra and its sound, the French horn, which is actually German would be the likeliest contender.
Look, there it sits, amidst its one, two or three brethren, smack dab in the middle of the menage, seemingly a brass critter like its trumpet-trombone-tuba neighbors; yet, in sonic reality, a hybrid mediating a sonorous blend betwixt the pointed, piquant sonorities of the woodwinds and the blast-furnace fires of the brass, leavening the heady liqueur of the upper and lower strings with its soothing, soft-edged, sweet-cream sound.
A modern descendant of the ancient hunting horn, it still carries all the archetypal power of a musical herald, thrilling the cockles of our hearts with the vision of a lone Viking or a tribal elder standing high upon a precipice, sounding the call to arms to the kingdom, far and wide.
Due to its wide, fanning bell, its voice spreads itself, warmly and blanket-like, over its world, unlike the invasively penetrating assaults of its trumpet and trombone cousins. There is, in Tchaikovsky’s masterwork “Romeo and Juliet,” an achingly beautiful horn line that pulses repeatedly against the ecstatic overarching love theme. In fact, I’m not sure I don’t look forward to it more than that theme itself. It is the archetype for how the horn is employed in myriad other works, including such modern icons as John Williams’ “Star Wars” scores.
In spite of all its lush, leavening beauty, it is routinely pigeonholed as the toughest of instruments to master and, indeed, is one whose technical vulnerabilities are seldom if ever completely left behind, even by its greatest practitioners.
Laura Klock’s life has been given over to the impossibility of the French horn; she has passed the last four decades walking its daunting walk, teaching hundreds of students and performing nonstop both in and outside of academia. Now she is offering us a final recital before passing the mantle to her successor. We must pay homage.
For the past 39 years, Klock has been professor of horn at the University of Massachusetts Department of Music and, for almost the same period of time, she has been first horn in the Springfield Symphony, becoming a member of the Avanti Wind Quintet and the Infinity Brass Quintet, among many others.
Her recital marking her final year at UMass wil be Sunday, Feb. 16, at 4 p.m. in Bezanson Recital Hall. Tickets: $3, UMass students; $5, other students, children, seniors; and $10, general public. Tickets are available at the Fine Arts Center Box Office, 413-545-2511 or at fac.umass.edu/musicanddance.
I spoke with Laura, a colleague from my days at UMass, recently by phone.
JM: What hooked you on the horn?
LK: My older brother played horn very well ... I knew in fifth grade that if I played either horn or oboe, I’d definitely be in the band. So I went to the band director and said I wanted to play the oboe and he said, “Well, the school’s oboe is broken, why don’t you play the horn?” So it’s possible it was broken, or that he thought he could get another good horn player out of the family! (laughing).
JM: But you must have had a passion for music or you wouldn’t even have considered doing that ...
LK: Well, my mom and dad were both musicians. My mom had a master’s from Eastman and my father was a lawyer who was a tenor with a very lovely voice. So I grew up with music. Each of the three kids was required to take piano from my mom until we took up a band instrument. But, piano from a mom can be ... challenging! (laughing) So each of us took up a band instrument as soon as possible.
JM: None of the challenges of the instrument daunted you, it seems.
LK: Well, I’m really lucky that nobody told me that the horn is hard and so I really try not to tell my students, “We’re on a very special instrument, and hard, and you might miss notes,” and nobody told me “This is going to be rough.” I think that was a blessing and that it’s a disservice to tell students that this is going to be hard.
JM: For laymen, the challenges of the horn stems from its deep bore?
LK: I think it’s more that we’re asked to play such a large range from high to low; in the normal part of the horn register ... I have open notes C, E, G Bb, C, all available on one finger ...
JM: ... purely by manipulation of the lips?
LK: Right, only moving the lips. In short, the number of notes that are available from one finger position on the horn are much more than on other brass instruments. The lips and the ear have to be finer tuned.
JM: The horn has always felt to me like it is the mid-point, or the heart, of the orchestra.
LK: I tell my students, “If you’re a horn player, you have to provide the resonance, the richness, the beauty; the trumpets are going to give the fanfare, the fast notes, the flash and you’re there for the deep sense of heroism.”
JM: What do you feel have been some of the high points of your tenure at UMass?
LK: I think stepping into a community of performers, all interested in both making a community of performers and in making a community with the students was really a wonderful opportunity for me. There may have been other places where I might gone where you had to choose between being a teacher and being a player; and coming to the valley it was clear that you were a teacher because you were a player and you were a player because you were a teacher, and those two nurtured each other. Doing new music as well as standards. I was also very lucky that Springfield Symphony had an opening in the horn section when I arrived.
JM: What will you be doing on your final recital?
LK: I’m opening it with a Reineke nocture, which I’ve never done before. And then we’ll be doing Sal’s (UMass composer Sal Macchia) trio, a premiere, a bookend to a piece he wrote for us years ago. It’s for soprano saxophone, bass and horn. And then I will close my solo recital career here with Strauss’ second horn concerto, which he wrote quite late in life, and wrote it for his father, who was a hornist. It is very lush and romantic and lyrical and orchestral, but Nadine (UMass Professor of piano Nadine Shank) is willing to be my orchestra, so (laughing) that’s, of course, how we’ll do it.
JM: Any final thoughts you’d like to share, Laura?
LK: Ohh ... just that I feel so fortunate to have landed where I landed and to have had the opportunities that I’ve had ... this has been a wonderful place to make a career. I’m enthusiastic, as I’ve been enthusiastic over the last 40 years, both for UMass and for myself.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.