Principal Horn Matthew Annin Performs Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2022.23 Season, MSO Musicians

Every serious horn student learns Richard Strauss’s Horn Concerto No. 1. Playing it in front of a professional orchestra is a different matter.

Matthew Annin, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal horn, has known the piece since high school, but his upcoming performances with the MSO will be the first time he has played it with an orchestra, and that requires a different kind of preparation. “You have to know exactly what’s happening in the orchestra at all times,” he says. He has studied the score and listened to recordings in order to pick up details like “which woodwind you’re playing with.”

Re-learning his own part was like riding a bike, he says, but he started practicing last summer. “During the season, we’re quite busy,” he says. “If we have three consecutive classical weeks, I’m not going to have time to practice that.”

Strauss wrote two horn concertos, both staples of the repertoire. The second came near the end of his life, but the first, written while still in his teens, was meant for his father, a noted horn virtuoso in 19th-century Germany. “It’s early, but it still sounds like Strauss,” Annin says. “It’s expansive and compact at the same time. It’ll be a nice complement to the Mozart and the Brahms” on the rest of the program.

Annin’s last outing as a true soloist with the MSO was in 2013 with then-Music Director Edo de Waart, who will also be conducting the upcoming performances. Usually a conductor and a soloist get together for a brief meeting or run-through before the full orchestra rehearsal, but Annin remembers that 10 years ago, “Edo had me play the whole concerto for him by myself. It was kind of intimidating, but it was a good challenge to have the endurance for it.”

Horn players have to think a lot about endurance. The principal horn is the only player in the orchestra who has a designated assistant to lighten the load. In the Milwaukee Symphony, Associate Principal Horn Krystof Pipal plays the first part on many short pieces, and sits next to Annin during the major work on the program, giving him a break on some ensemble passages so that Annin is fresh for more exposed work.

“Brass playing is taxing. Other instruments don’t tire out as quickly,” Annin said. And the horns have the heaviest load of the brass section because they have more passages with the woodwinds.

As brass players approach middle age and beyond, they think more about the physical demands of their instrument. Annin has maintained his routine of daily fundamental exercises, but in preparing to play specific pieces, “I do more listening, more mental focus. When I was younger, I didn’t know these pieces as well.”

Also, he is now even more aware that “you lead with your air, rather than the muscles of your face. If you compensate with tension in your face, you’ll get into trouble. Air is free – let it out.”  Although human bodies lose lung capacity as they age, brass players have developed techniques to maximize what they have.

During the pandemic, Annin posted videos for the MSO audience, including some in which he played with his wife, Christine, a professional violinist and music teacher. But he had to find a new place to practice (“almost in a closet”) so that he wouldn’t disturb his then-first-grade daughter’s virtual school.

When the orchestra moved into the Bradley Symphony Center as things began to open up, “there were challenges to figure out how to sound our best,” Annin said. “We could get more colors and a wider dynamic range out of the orchestra that weren’t possible in our previous space.”

Better onstage acoustics means that musicians can hear each other better, but small adjustments in pitch have always been a fact of life. A C that is the root of a chord may not be played at exactly the same pitch as a C that is the third of a chord, or the fifth. Annin doesn’t think about those details when he has the melody, but in a supporting situation, “ear training is part of everyone’s education, and we can listen and figure out how to fix it. But if you hear something is off, what if the person who has the root of the chord is the one out of tune? It can be a huge can of worms.”

Horn players can make minor adjustments on the fly with their lips, or by adjusting the position of their hand in the bell. “Unlike trumpets or trombones, our bells point backward, and it’s easy to use that as a crutch,” Annin said. “We think we can get away with it, but we can’t.”