L-R::  Tod Bowermaster, Alvin McCall,  Victoria Knudtson, Blaine Dodson, Julie Thayer, Asako Kuboki, Jessica Cheng Hellwege,   Roger Kaza, Thomas Jöstlein,  Andrew François. Photo courtesy of the SLSO.

When St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Principal Horn Roger Kaza and Fourth Horn Julie Thayer started putting together the program for the “Horn Calls” program presented at the Sheldon last Sunday (April 7), the first piece they thought of was the rarely heard Sextet in E-flat major, Op. 81b, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). As Thayer recalled, before Sunday’s performance, their last performance of the work took place under less than ideal conditions outdoors during the early days of the COVID pandemic. “We thought climate control would be a good addition,” she said.

I can hardly disagree. But climate control was far from the most important reason both the Beethoven Sextet (which concluded the concert) and the other works on the program were so successful. Pride of place must go to the generally high quality of the performances by Kaza, Thayer, and their fellow members of the SLSO—closely followed by the impressive diversity of the program.

Valveless "natural horn," 1797

The afternoon got off to a light-hearted start with the March in F major, K. 248, by W.A. Mozart (1756–1791). It’s a pleasant little thing scored for string quartet with two horns thrown in to lend a more martial air to the proceedings.  It’s a trifle and got a fine performance by violinists Jessica Chang Hellwege and Asako Kuboki, violist Andrew François, and cellist Alvin McCall, with Kaza and Thayer on horns. Mozart didn’t give the horns much to do in this piece since the valveless horns of the 18th had limited capabilities, but it was done quite well by Kaza and Thayer in any case.

Next, the mood became contemplative with “Solitude,” the second of the four movements from the suite of incidental music Jean Sibelius (1865–1957) wrote for the play “Belshazzar's Feast” in 1906. Originally scored for wind septet, “Solitude” had a kind of aural glow in this serene performance of an arrangement for five horns (Julie Thayer, Thomas Jöstlein, Blaine Dodson, Tod Bowermaster, and Victoria Knudtson) by Seattle-based horn player Danielle Kuhlmann.

The serenity continued with “Its Motion Keeps” by Caroline Shaw (b. 1982). Originally scored for treble choir (sopranos and altos) and solo viola, the work takes on a very different character in John Glover’s arrangement for horn quartet. The evocation of multiple choirs singing in reverberant stone cathedrals in Shaw’s original can’t be duplicated, but Glover uses muted vs. unmuted horns to create a remarkable illusion of acoustic space. Congratulations to Thayer, Dodson, Bowermaster, and Knudtson for a fine reading of some challenging music.

Principal Horn Roger Kaza
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

Speaking of challenging music, the score of the 1952 Sonata for Four Horns by Paul Hindemith (1896–1963) looks daunting if not downright scary. Complex polyphony, frequent time signature changes, rapid-fire passages with lots of accidentals, double- and triple-tonguing, and a wide tessitura—Hindemith threw everything he had into the short four-movement work. And he did it within the context of traditional forms like the Fugato opening movement and the theme-and-variations last movement.

The quartet of Kaza, Thayer, Knudtson, and Jöstlein played all of this with an assurance that made it sound far less thorny than it looks on paper. Unforgiving runs of sixteenth notes were cleanly articulated, the lines of the Fugato were clearly delineated, and the galloping final variations of the third movement were positively jolly.

The second half of the concert began with a pleasant surprise: a new work by Jöstlein inspired by the April 8th solar eclipse and scored for the unusual combination of two horns and three alphorns. Originally intended for outdoor communication among Swiss shepherds, these massive wooden instruments provided a solid drone over which a simple melodic rose and fell, invoking a sense of space and wonder. A pair of follow spots, one yellow and one blue, played the roles of sun and moon, coming together and then parting in time with the music.

The composer added to the visual element, playing his alphorn while decked out in a stylish modern version of the Tyrolean shepherd shirt.

L-R: Tod Bowermaster, Natalie Grana,
Thomas Jöstlein with alphorns

Things got a bit more serious as all six horns played the “Tristan Fantasy” by Herman Jeurissen, Principal Horn of the Residentie Orchestra in The Hague. As the title suggests, it’s an arrangement of themes from “Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). The solemn theme of Tristan’s death opens and closes the seven-minute work, bracketing the music of the opera’s lively hunting scene. The work got a solid, powerful performance by the ensemble.

Up next was another world premiere, this time by University of Missouri student composer J.T. Wolfe (b. 2002). Commissioned by the SLSO as part of its ongoing partnership with the university, “Cor for Four Horns” is a study in what Wolfe called “extended techniques” for the instrument. In practice, that meant that the quartet members were called upon to get every conceivable type of sound from their instruments, musical and otherwise. That included “white noise” effects created by blowing through the horns while manipulating the valves and even playing the mouthpieces without the instruments for a kazoo-like effect.

As a display of sheer virtuosity by the musicians, “Cor” was a fascinating piece. As music, it left something to be desired, feeling more like an aural high wire act. Still, it shows that Wolfe already has a deep understanding of instrumental technique, a skill which will stand him in good stead in his career.

The afternoon concluded with the Beethoven Sextet, performed by the same personnel as the opening Mozart march. Written around 1795 as the composer was just starting to make a name for himself in Vienna, the sextet shares a key signature with the later Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) but is otherwise a pretty well-behaved late Classical serenade: cheerful, easy on the ears, and mainstream in its form. With a sunny first movement in sonata form, a lyrical second, and a lively concluding Rondo, it could pass for late Haydn (with whom Beethoven was much impressed at the time).

Fourth Horn Julie Thayer
Photo courtesy of the SLSO

The horn parts, however, are a break from tradition. The horn was still the valveless instrument Mozart was writing for two decades earlier, but the first horn in particular has a much flashier role to play, suggesting that Beethoven might have had a particularly skilled player in mind.

In her pre-performance comments, Julie Thayer noted that the part called for the grace and flexibility of a ballerina, both of which she displayed in abundance. The same goes for Roger Kaza, whose role as second horn was almost as demanding. As in the Mozart, the teamwork among the six players was flawless, resulting a standing ovation from the audience—a well-deserved recognition for a superbly played afternoon of mostly unfamiliar works.

Next from the SLSO: This Saturday and Sunday, April 13 and 14, frequent guest conductor Norman Huynh is at the podium for “Star Wars: the Last Jedi in Concert” at the Stifel Theatre.

The regular season returns April 19 through 21 as another familiar face, John Storgårds, conducts the orchestra and soloist Marie-Ange Nguci in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The concert also includes the Symphony No. 7 and “Rakastava (The Lover)” by Sibelius along with “Lysning (Glade)” by contemporary Danish composer Per Nørgård. Performances take place at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus. The Saturday evening concert will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3.

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