My father was a music lover and we listened to records growing up. When I was quite young, maybe 6 or 7, I picked up a recording of Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 4 and I knew that I wanted to play that instrument. I was so taken by the sound of the horn and started asking if I could start lessons. I was told that I was too small at the time to start playing the horn and a music teacher suggested I start on the trumpet, which I absolutely did not want to do! I was really adamant about the french horn and I started lessons not much later.
I don’t really know what it was about the sound of the horn that initially captured me so much - sometimes you just connect with your instrument, perhaps. When I initially discovered the natural horn and realised what it was I did not understand it at all! I must have been 15 or 16 at the time, and to me, it just sounded weird and strange, but something about it kind of stuck with me and I became fascinated by the idea of trying it out. It’s funny because now I can’t imagine the repertoire on anything but a natural horn. I do understand people’s initial reaction (including mine!) because the sound is genuinely different. Mozart did know how to write for the horn extremely well though, and listening and performing now, I can hear all the notes that are best suited to the natural instrument.
When you make the transition from modern horn to natural, things do change a little bit technically. When I decided to take up the new instrument, my teacher was hesitant, thinking that it was going to be more useful for me to continue playing the modern horn which would allow me to join a symphonic orchestra in Europe. That pathway struck me as old-fashioned and from the first time I saw early music, I knew it was for me. Performing with a specialist early music ensemble is a lot like playing chamber music, just in a slightly bigger group. I did start out my career wanting to be in a traditional orchestra and did spend a number of years performing in this setting, but I got to a point where I started thinking “is this what I want?” It turned out that it wasn’t and I had to start looking for something else. Luckily, I already this fascination with early music, so the transition was easier than it could have been. There was definitely a marked period of adjustment though, and that was hard. You can absolutely get away with playing both modern and natural horn at the same time for a little more, but there comes a point when a focus is needed, and for me, it’s now all about the natural.
In conservatories and schools around Europe, you can start playing natural horn relatively early in your studies and for a while, that duel-study really helps but if you overdo it can work against your progress and exploration of the modern horn. A special thing about the specialisation is that the scene is relatively small - not only in Europe but across the world. It’s very international as well, and you often meet and play with the same people, which is really nice. The general public’s interest in early music is growing as well, I think. It used to be that specialist groups stuck to Bach and Haydn, but a broader range of composers are now being performed, which allows me to perform on some different period instruments. I suppose it is a pity that I can’t play Mahler symphonies anymore, but it’s really allowed me to enjoy listening to them instead! That’s quite freeing: being able to step back and enjoy the music you performed as a student.
I enjoy jazz as well, and while I don’t have the option of improvising very often on the horn, there is a freedom about early music that you don’t often get in traditional orchestras. Comparatively, there’s less of a feeling of playing things the “right” way - we can experiment and share openly about style and inflection. During this rehearsal process with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, we are all able to share our thoughts on the work and suggest new possibilities. The leader, the soloist and the musicians all have equal opportunity to speak. I remember in one of my first early music orchestral experiences when I was just a casual performer, the conductor came up to me and asked what I thought about the tempo, and I was so taken aback! I thought, “why are you asking me? I’m the fourth horn player!” It’s really easy when you sit in a big ensemble to get used to not being asked for your opinion. Early music is all about collaboration, no matter where in the world you travel. I think that’s pretty amazing!
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra present Mozart, Haydn and Friends at the Melbourne Recital Centre on the 9th and 10th September and at the City Recital Hall from the 15th to the 23rd September. More information and tickets here.