by Joseph Anderer, Principal Horn
What are the responsibilities of the principal player in an ensemble such as the MET Orchestra? What are his/her section members’ responsibilities? Are they the same? Do they differ? In thinking about these issues and attempting to answer these questions, I draw on my 13 years’ experience as a principal player, as well as on my 18 previous years as a section member at the Met. I should also say that I’m speaking from the perspective of a wind player, as our roles in the orchestra differ in significant ways from that of string players, particularly section string players.
I don’t think of the responsibilities of the wind principal and those of the section member as being very different. They are certainly more complex for a section leader (by obligation, at least!), but a section member’s thinking about ensemble issues is only limited by his/her imagination and what he/she is willing to bring to the table.
All of us in the orchestra negotiate a complex equation every time we play a note in a performance - do we follow the conductor precisely? (What does that mean, anyway? In reality, his/her gestures must always be interpreted by each of us on an individual basis while simultaneously responding to our colleagues’ responses. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is!) Do we just go with the other orchestra members? Or simply listen to the singer? There are constant choices to be made by each and every one of us, and they are calculated moment to moment, including bits of all the above options. In an ideal world, supporting the singer is what we all (including the maestro) strive for. The artists we work with are so inspiring that most of us would probably be inclined to follow them even if they went over a cliff!
A principal player must set the tone regarding placement, articulation, volume, phrasing, tuning, and as many other parameters as you can imagine for the rest of the section. This means, in my case, that between three and eight people must take their signals from me, depending on the opera. Because of my location in the pit, I also consider myself a conduit for information to be conveyed from the strings and woodwinds (many of whom are on the other side of the pit) to the part of the orchestra that sits behind me. Fortunately, my horn points backwards, towards them! We of the horns normally sit in two rows, so the third and fourth hornists (and sometimes several more) are behind me in the pit, as are the trumpets, trombones, and tuba. They simply cannot hear the folks across the pit as well as I can. I consider my placement of the notes, in ensemble with my colleagues in the winds and strings, to be valuable information for the rest of the brass in achieving our goal of orchestral togetherness. (Whether those guys back there agree with me or not might be a good topic for a future article…)
Besides my many years as a non-principal role at the Met, I have been well-served by my experience in chamber ensembles, free-lance orchestras, Broadway pits, and also as a substitute player for 14 years with the New York Philharmonic. I spent a large part of my time before I joined the MET Orchestra playing a subordinate (sometimes very subordinate - three or four notes here and there!) role in my various “gigs.” I think I have a pretty clear sense of what it takes to be a non-principal player in almost any situation. Basically, the idea is not complicated. You pay attention to what’s going on around you and go with the flow, especially with regard to your principal player.
However, there are many outlets for a section player’s creativity. First of all, in the wind section (particularly in the horns), there are often specialized solos in each of the parts, so we are all in the spotlight at times. (Well, not literally in the spotlight at the opera, I suppose.) Often, solos are played by the third horn, and sometimes a low-register solo will be played by the second or fourth player. (The horn section is usually configured in pairs, so the third and fourth horns are like an extra pair of first and second horns.) Wagner’s Ring operas, in particular, are filled with very specialized fourth horn solos in the low register, and a lot for the second horn as well.
The MET Orchestra is first and foremost a group of great players who are also great listeners. In my experience, the ability of our players to hear each other, themselves, and the stage in context (a very complex context, at that!) is really exceptional. The balance, ensemble, and phrasing unity our audiences experience is the result of each and every player’s full participation in the rehearsal and performance process. I cannot take very much responsibility for my section’s unity - it’s the result of each person really “being there” at all times, listening to how I phrase, my dynamics and articulations, paying attention to the singers and to the other orchestra members. You can easily understand that if one is fully engaged, it’s extremely difficult to be bored!
As a section leader, I feel a large part of my function is to encourage a free flow of input from all quarters. I do my best to set the tone, and I suppose I have the final say about things, but we all enjoy the process more when everybody is free to try things, make suggestions, and generally have a voice in how we play. I don’t believe in trying to impose my will on players of this stature. I may occasionally say, “OK, I think this is how we should do this passage,” but only if there is some confusion or, in very rare cases, some clear disagreement about how to proceed. I think we all (myself included) benefit from the free flow of opinions and information. I should also explain that most of the communication within the section and around the orchestra that I’ve described is totally non-verbal and “in the moment.” We don’t really need to verbalize much because we are always listening and responding to each other - this is one of the real joys of what we do. This is part of how we achieve our results, despite rehearsal time that’s very limited due to the huge quantity of opera our company produces each and every season. The fact that we don’t have to talk, and rarely argue, about any of these issues is one of the miraculous things that make our lives as musicians, as busy as they can be at times, so richly fulfilling.