In Conversation: Stefan Dohr

In Conversation: Stefan Dohr

Berlin Phil's principal horn on life in the orchestra.

Stefan Dohr
Berlin, Germany

In Conversation: Stefan Dohr

Berlin Phil's principal horn on life in the orchestra.

While Stefan Dohr was in Melbourne, we sent horn player and arts administrator Tim Hannah to meet him for a chat about all things horn, practicing and how sailing can help your playing.

You've had a long and varied career on the horn. What drew you to the instrument in the first place? What was it that made you want to pick up the horn and play?

In a way, I just picked up the horn and played! That's how it started - with a little hunting horn. A relative had come to visit my family and passed it around for us all to have a try. It turned out that I was the one who got the most notes out of it, so she gave it to me to keep. I had been learning the viola during that time period, and soon after I had been given the hunting horn, I had the opportunity to hear the German horn player Hermann Baumann playing a nice Christmas concert with organ in the town where I lived. I immediately thought, "that sounds better than my viola playing!"

You've also had quite a varied career in terms of the type of music that you play: solo recitals, chamber music and your role with the Berlin Philharmonic. What does a day in the life of Stefan Dohr look like?

There are never two days that look alike! Sitting in the orchestra is the most consistent routine, as it generally doesn't change drastically: there are two rehearsals a day - one from 10am to 12:30pm, then another from 4:15 to 6:45. In a week there are two days like this, then three additional concert days. The orchestra keeps me very busy, but because the Berlin Philharmonic has two principals, I only play half of the 130 concerts a year. Around that orchestral time there is more work to be done, though! I might be rehearsing new pieces with Ensemble Wien-Berlin or the Berlin Philharmonic Octet for upcoming chamber concerts, and then of course there is solo repertoire preparation. Then occasionally there is the work that goes into preparing for a residency like ANAM, which has been great fun.

Something I noticed about the programming for your first ANAM program, Fanfare & Fantasies, was that you included a number of works that were classic brass ensemble works, like the Fanfare for the Common Man, alongside works by more contemporary and living composers. How important is that kind of programming to you? Why did you make those decisions?

I thought that perhaps some of the young brass players I was working with may not yet have had the opportunity to play those classical fanfares and I do think it's quite good to get to know these pieces. Outside of those classics, I think it's important to experience working on music by yourself, like three of the brass players did with the mouthpiece piece by Zuraj (Quiet Please, for three brass mouthpieces) When you play this kind of repertoire you find out just how far you can go, how difficult it can get and ultimately, you get the satisfaction of mastering the challenge. That's what I experienced when I was playing in the Ensemble Modern. There were moments when I thought, "I'm going to die!", because we would rehearse for ten hours a day and it was all new and contemporary stuff, sometimes without traditional notation, just signs. But then to bring it all together, watching individual sounds and noises become a musical piece - that's incredible. It’s something every young music student should have the chance to experience.

Speaking of your education and your early professional years - the education system in Germany is quite different to the Australian system. Can you speak a little bit about your own training and education? Do you have any advice for young Australians that are looking at Germany as the next step in their career post-university?

In Germany you can start studying music and fine arts at a university or Hochschule conservatory when you are sixteen. So I actually never finished high school, instead going directly into studying horn. At nineteen I got my first job and thus, I didn't finish my studies either. When I heard there was a vacancy for the principal horn position at Frankfurt Opera, I went to the audition and got the job. Getting a job this early is not the usual way of things though, I have to admit.

Many things I‘ve learned simply by playing. The repertoire system in German opera houses is thrilling for someone who starts his professional life in the orchestra pit of an opera house, because you have to sight-read many evenings which is not necessarily the easiest thing for a beginner. Actually, what I recommend to students is to not only look at the university route, but to also be focused on self-education by trying out as much music as you can. I mean, you don't just have to play Baroque, Classical and Romantic. You can do contemporary, you can do pop, you can do whatever you want - try it all and play, play, play. While you play, try to identify new problems and react to them and solve them. Or course, a proper music education is essential, but in the end you can only learn how to play the horn by actually playing the horn.

Can you speak a little about the culture of the Berlin Philharmonic, your role in the orchestra and the relationship you have with your colleagues?

Some years ago, I became acting-chairman of the orchestra and it was fascinating, in part because of the demands due to the democratic structures we have in the orchestra. We don't have the usual type of an orchestra management. There is, of course, an artistic office and a general manager, but everything connected to the interests and concerns of the orchestra is managed by the chairman and by the instrumental sections themselves. It has been done this way quite successfully for more than 130 years. As an orchestra chairman, you find out how many rules there are and you realize where the money comes from and why the money comes – when it does and when it doesn't. You decide where you want to go on tour with the orchestra and sometimes have to debate why you want to go there. There are many more decisions to make as the orchestra participates in deciding about which guest conductors and soloists should be invited. Finally, as chairman you also hold responsibility for the Orchestra Academy, for the Society of the Friends of the Philharmonie, for maintaining contact with the sponsors and for the education program. You need to have very open ears and a strong determination. As much as I appreciated the insight and the experience, I decided to step down from the role as chairman after a couple of years, so to have more time for my solo projects again and to give other colleagues of the orchestra the chance to experience the position.

You're speaking there about a lot of skills that are not horn playing. How important is it for young musicians to have some of these skills, like programming and administration?

It depends on what you want to do. If you want to get a job in an orchestra, and simply sit back and play the music on your stand, then okay, maybe you don't need any more than that. But if you want to become a good chamber musician, then you have to put together programs and promote them – then you should learn as much as you can. You have to talk to people to get money for projects that you wish to develop. Even if you are in the orchestra, you can do so many things besides turning up and playing. It's good for you, I think.

It's interesting hearing from someone who has followed a more traditional career path that those entrepreneurial skills are still important.

And getting more and more important. With social media and all of these other things, it is so important that you look into it and find out what is important to you – but also, what's not important. I think the young musicians of the future will have to do that much more than my generation.

Speaking of the young musicians of the future, and the future of this classical music tradition: in Germany there is a long tradition of classical music that is ingrained into the culture, a lot more so than it is in a country like Australia. What are your thoughts on the future of classical music in this digital, fast-paced world?

I don’t see so much difference coming up in the future. I think there are rather similar structures running on slightly different and slightly faster terms. It’s true that while classical music used to be part and parcel of anybody who considered himself "educated“, it has clearly suffered from neglect over the last few decades. So it is not a system that’s running naturally by itself anymore, which is difficult, but then again there are also new opportunities coming up for promoting classical music. Basically, you have to sell something. When offering something to other people you have to generate their interest and get their attention. If you‘re passionate about what you’re doing, people will acknowledge it, appreciate it and listen to you! But if you don’t really like what you do, then it’ll become rather difficult to convince other people to like it. This is one of the very important things: you must be confident in what you do. The big advantage now is that you have all the new technology to assist you. It’s true that, like many other aspects of our lives, the classical music scene has become fast-paced, but it’s also been given many new ways to operate.

In Europe, we can definitely see a growing interest in orchestral concerts again and I would love to see a growing interest in chamber music concerts, too. It’s not happening at the moment, but I think it might in the future. Seeing an audience like recently at ANAM's Mostly Mozart concert was very inspiring. I think the audience loved it and it was great for the players to have the opportunity.

How do you maintain a good work-life balance? Do you have any secrets for maintaining good mental health?

I consider myself a positive thinking person. I have a very good life. I mean, look at my time here in Australia: it has been fantastic! Great surroundings, great company, the chance to play concerts wherever I am, sometimes every day. I really like company. That’s why I could not imagine being a soloist on the violin or piano; I imagine that it must be a really hard and lonely life on tour. Generally, the good thing about horn players is that they always come in herds. So I know that wherever I go in the world, I'll be able to contact someone and won’thave to be alone if I don’t want to. At home, I have three children - two are grown up and have moved out of home to study, but my youngest is still there - she's fourteen! And I have a wonderful wife who is very helpful and supportive. Without her, my life as it is would not be possible. Finally, I have my dog, who takes care of me when the rest of the family are not at home. We live on the outskirts of Berlin, so Lucky and I can just slip out the door and have a good long walk in the woods outside the city.

So, you do take time away from the horn to rest?

Yes! I like cooking, I like sailing, I like walking Lucy and I like spending time just with my family. I like that sometimes, especially when I go sailing, there’s no time to think about music or next week’s schedule. My brain needs little breaks in between.

Do you ever find that when you’re sailing, some of those necessary skills transfer to your music?

It does, it does! On these fast Catamarans you have to react quite quickly to gusts. Whatever comes up, you have to react quickly. Otherwise you capsize! It's the same thing for the horn: if you split a note and don’t react fast enough with your skills, you might have little accidents.

Horn is a notoriously difficult. Many players have talked about it as anything from an animal that you tame to just a tool that you use for expression. What are your thoughts on the instrument itself and your relationship with it?

I think there is a difference between the music and the instrument. How you deal with your instrument? That's about your technical ability. But to transform printed notes into the music you want to make you need a clear vision for the melody you want to play in both your head and in your ear. And if some technical problem comes your way, of course you have to solve it. That’s the idea: I’m not playing a solo because I can play it bases of my technical possibilities, I play it how I want to play it and then adjust my technical abilities based on that. I think the point is not to practice, practice, practice just for the obtainment of technical skills. The point is to express yourself by playing music and then practice to make the music sound exactly the way you want it to. Through all of this, the horn is your partner, your comrade, your ally. But unlike a string player's relationship to their instrument, I get a new horn every once in a while, so the relationship to one specific horn is always temporary.

You’ve spoken previously about practicing scales for music, not practicing scales for scales…  

Yes - and how to get over changes in the embouchure and things like that. Of course you have to do your daily exercises a bit… or rather, quite a lot! Of course, that’s one point. But then the other point comes: how do I want this phrase to sound and why it isn’t sounding like it should?

You could be said to be at the peak of your career. Do you still have mentors that you go to for advice and honest feedback or do you work in an ongoing collaborative way with your colleagues?

For me, playing chamber music is the perfect exchange, because if I do something weird, someone will instantly tell me! Then, sometimes you make a recording of a concerto and you think, “oh, there are some things I should take care of again”. You listen and hear all the things you hadn’t heard while you played. Sometimes you think you've done it really well and it turns out it’s not very good at all! And orchestral playing, of course, is totally controlled by your colleagues.

We’re coming into July now, which is exam period here in Australia. Do you have any tips, tricks or ideas for how you prepare for a solo recital? What’s your method?

My advice is to play as many different things as possible and to play as many times as possible in front of people and in bigger rooms. You might sound good in a small room and then you'll go into a bigger room and all of a sudden you feel totally lost. That is a problem that can only be solved by facing it head on. In a bigger room you need a completely different control of your breath because it’s more demanding: you have to create more sound! And sound doesn’t come out easily. If you’re not accustomed to performing, it is easy to get frightened and then if you’re frightened it blocks your neck and your muscles get tense. Therefore, you should play as often as you can in front of people – anyone you can find! If it’s your parents, fine. If it’s your grandparents, fine. If it’s your cat and you name it Karajan, that might provide an extra challenge.

Featured photo from The Berliner Philharmoniker's Digital Concert Hall.