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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 3 November 2009

Louis-Philippe Marsolais: Horn of Plenty

by Arthur Kaptainis / November 1, 2009

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“Every week is not a Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony,” Louis-Philippe Marsolais said in a quiet corner of his alma mater, the Schulich School of Music of McGill University. “To me, this is the main problem.” Few readers would perceive this situation as a problem when it is put so simply. But the 32-year-old was making a particular point about the lot of the orchestral horn player: not every concert includes a performance opportunity as lavish as the solo that opens the second movement of that score. Which is precisely why Marsolais has filled his schedule with a mix of orchestra, chamber and solo duties while waiting, patiently, to see what trajectory his career will take.

Can there be such a thing as a travelling horn virtuoso? In the last quarter of the 20th century there was one, Barry Tuckwell, and even he played principal with the London Symphony Orchestra for 13 years before going solo. Only Hermann Baumann, in German-speaking lands, had a comparable reputation. These days the role is filled, mostly in Europe, by Radovan Vlatkovic, a much-admired Croatian with a day job at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. There is some buzz (and not the type that comes from the lips of inadequate horn players) about Ben Jacks, principal of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Well-travelled Martin Hackleman, formerly of the Canadian Brass and the Vancouver Symphony and many other ensembles, makes CDs from his current redoubt of the principal chair of the National Symphony in Washington. Another player with a clutch of CDs is James Sommerville, formerly of the Toronto Symphony and Montreal Symphony and now principal of the Boston Symphony. It says something about Sommerville’s solo ambitions, or lack thereof, that the native Torontonian spends much of his spare time conducting the Hamilton Philharmonic.

Marsolais is behind these gents by a few years. Still, his achievements so far are considerable. Most noteworthy is second prize in the 2005 ARD Music Competition in Munich, a contest run by the Bavarian Radio and one of the few major events in the world to veer beyond the standard triumvirate of violin, piano and voice. “The Olympics for horn,” Marsolais said, a description that can be validated by such winners as Vlatkovic (first prize, 1983) and Sommerville (second prize, 1988). While Marsolais did not win a gold—that went to Zabolcs Zempléni, now principal horn of the Bamberg Symphony—he was the only laureate in any category that year from North America. In addition to his second prize he collected the prize for the best performance of the imposed piece. He also impressed the German producer Dieter Oehms as the hornist most worthy of a recording under the Oehms label, a luminous recital of German romantic repertoire with David Jalbert at the piano. More recently Marsolais has made a recording for ATMA with the same partner, matching Beethoven’s Horn Sonata (arguably the composer’s most neglected masterpiece) with works by Beethoven students and followers, including a remarkably accomplished Sonata by Ferdinand Ries. Both discs sound like the work of a solo-calibre musician. Alas, all the engagements on Marsolais’s calendar at the moment are orchestral and chamber collaborations.

The relative scarcity of solo horn opportunities (despite four handsome concertos by Mozart and two by Richard Strauss) might have something to do with the reputation of the instrument for intractability. Its long tubing and wide bell create its characteristic mellow tone but also entail an infamous need for oral exactitude. Errors (“cacks,” as players call them) from horns are far more common (and noticeable) than those from other instruments, although in some cities, Montreal among them, horn culture is misleadingly high. To borrow from a popular song, if Marsolais can make it there, he can make it anywhere.

He began modestly, however, in his home town of Joliette, one of many youths to receive encouragement from the noted educator Father Roland Brunelle. Jean-Jules Poirier was his first teacher. Ensemble playing was confined to the Joliette youth orchestra and the Montreal Symphony Youth Orchestra under Louis Lavigueur. In 1996 Marsolais began studies at McGill with MSO principal John Zirbel, one of the most admired orchestral horn players in the world. “He taught me to go for the music,” Marsolais said. Such a philosophy might seem unremarkable, but it can be distinguished from the conservative, make-no-mistake horn style that prizes accuracy over courage and renders bland results. More encouragement came from the Austro-Germanically-minded conductor of the McGill Symphony Orchestra, Timothy Vernon. Marsolais played Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto in Vernon’s last McGill concert.

The next stop, in 1999, was Freiburg, where his professor was Bruno Schneider. “There are a few technical differences between the ‘German school’ and ours here,” Marsolais says. “For instance, the way they approach slurs is very different and it took me some time to get used to it. But I’m glad I can now choose depending on what I’m playing. What helped me most was certainly to hear and work with great musicians. In classes and also in all the competitions I did, I would listen to almost all the other contestants and see what I could do better for next time. I think playing an instrument is a never-ending learning process; there is always something that can be better. You always have to keep your ears open to what can be improved and find ways to make it happen!” Marsolais now regards himself (and other horn players in Montreal) as happily mid-Atlantic in tonal and technical profile, somewhere between the heavy American sound and the more fluid European ideal.

Whatever Marsolais had learned in Germany, it was good enough to land him the principal job in the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, which was undergoing a conductor search in 2000-2001. Things were more stable at the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, which Marsolais joined the following season. This is where the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony virus struck, and a particularly deadly strain, since as associate principal Marsolais was on overture and concerto duty and rarely played the true symphonic repertoire.

“In the three years I was there,” Marsolais said, “I can remember maybe three concerts where I enjoyed myself fully. If it had been like this (i.e. enjoyable) all the time, I think I would still be there. It’s just the inconsistency of what you have to play. After a while, after it’s been almost a year since you had something interesting to play, it’s very easy to realize you can start practising less and no one will notice. I could see that where I was going was in that direction and I didn’t want to keep going there.”

A return to Montreal was in order. There was an opening in the wind quintet Pentaèdre (the name is French for pentahedron) and Marsolais accepted it with relish. As artistic director since 2005 he has continued to move the group beyond the limited standard repertoire, to participate in operas (John Metcalfe’s A Chair in Love and Mozart’s Così fan tutte with a mime company) and transcriptions as surprising as Schubert’s Winterreise (by Normand Forget) with the German tenor Christophe Prégardien. A recording of this won the Opus prize last year. The theatrical projects have enhanced the group’s sense of audience dynamics. “Every movement we make on stage is important to communication. In every new project we start now, we try to have that consciousness.” Typically, all the players speak to the audience at a Pentaèdre concert, although Marsolais takes the mike on tour when Italian and German are required. (He acquired some Italian while on an Asian tour with the Italian International Orchestra in the summer of 2004.)

Of course, none of this activity falls under the special aegis of solo. “It’s hard for a horn player,” Marsolais explained, “because all the orchestras you approach just say, ‘Well, we have a very good horn player playing principal and if we were to program a horn concerto, we might as well offer it to him, and he’s going to do a decent job.’” As for chamber societies, they are simply not accustomed to hiring horn players, even though the available repertoire includes the aforementioned Beethoven Sonata, Schumann’s lush Adagio and Allegro and, with some string support, a Quintet by Mozart and a Trio by Brahms, to say nothing of more recent works.

There is, happily, another avenue for horn achievement: early music. Marsolais is handy with the baroque horn (on which he played Bach’s Mass in B Minor with Matthias Maute and his Ensemble Caprice in October) and has even mastered the valveless natural horn, which requires the player to create pitches with a combination of hand-stopping and ultra-precise lip pressure. He gave an impressive performance of the Beethoven on this instrument in 2007 but reverted to his modern horn (by the German maker Engelbert Schmid) for the recording. Compact discs get to Europe, he reasoned. He was not quite prepared to expose himself to natural-horn specialists.

Back in North America, and specifically Montreal, where he lives with his actress wife Julie Daoust, Marsolais has developed a balanced musical life. Yes, solo gigs are spotty, but he will be playing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with Bernard Labadie and Les Violons du Roy in Carnegie Hall in December and touring the Atlantic provinces with soprano Marianne Fiset and pianist Michael McMahon in March (a few months after making a CD for ATMA with the same artists). Pentaèdre offers a cinema-theme program on Nov. 22 with the silent-film piano accompanist Gabriel Thibaudeau. And as the new co-principal (with Pierre Savoie) of the Orchestre Métropolitain, Marsolais will maintain his love-hate relationship with the symphonic repertoire.

As for the solo problem, Marsolais can only do battle against horn-prejudice. “It’s a cultural thing,” he said about the lack of horn opportunity. “If we were in Germany, it would be a whole different thing. Horn players are heroes over there. Every orchestra programs horn concertos. Here we have people thinking of it as an unreliable instrument, a frustrating instrument to hear, because they hear it in an imperfect way. Maybe we just have to change the way people think about the instrument.”

Marsolais in concert:
» With Pentaèdre and the pianist Gabriel Thibaudeau, Nov. 22 (7 p.m.).
» Bach’s The Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, Haydn’s Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll,” Schumann’s Symphonie No. 2. With the Orchestre Métropolitain, Nov. 9 (7:30 p.m.).
» Poulenc’s Concerto for Piano, Schmitt’s The Tragedy of Salome, Ravel’s Mother Goose. With the Orchestre Métropolitain, Nov. 22 (4 p.m.).

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