French horn players are notorious for being the naughty boys and girls of the orchestra, and why not? A horn player takes so much grief from this supremely treacherous instrument that the prospect of brooking additional nonsense from a colleague or a conductor is unthinkable.
Don't let the mellow sound fool you. French horn solos are music's answer to a high wire act.
Cupping the right hand inside the bell, perching the instrument precariously on the right leg or in midair if preferable, the virtuoso player must dominate a tiny mouthpiece with an outstandingly large arsenal of lip movements, while expending prodigious amounts of oxygen and engaging the inner senses of pitch and melody to coax music out of an unwieldy system of tubes, slides and valves.
The valves help, by the way, but only a little; identical fingerings can yield many different pitches. Only one of them, needless to say, is correct. Combine an opera star's sense of song with the nerves of a cat burglar, and you begin to sense the makeup of a horn virtuoso -- which is why a crowd gathers when one of them shows up.
Arthur Brooks is such a player, and a crowd did gather Friday evening at St. John's College when he presented a recital in tandem with pianist/composer Douglas Allanbrook.
Brooks is a member of the Barcelona Symphony of Spain, but he is well-known to local audiences as the former French horn player of the Annapolis Brass Quintet. The program featured works by Allanbrook along with Beethoven's Opus 17 Sonata and three shorter works for horn and piano.
Brooks is a supremely accurate player who negotiates the obstacle course just described with a minimum of fuss. He mixes registers effortlessly. The upper range is rich and glossy sounding while the lower notes sing out clearly with no hint of unpleasant buzzing.
The central work on this program was a "Grand Duo" composed expressly for Brooks by his pianist. Allanbrook cryptically titled his piece "25 Building Blocks."
Clearly there was an organizational scheme to be deciphered in this long and difficult work, but I'll not pretend for a minute that I found it.
Surely this complicated piece called for some pre-performance discussion but none was forthcoming. The few printed remarks contained in the program were more baffling than the music itself.
Despite my confusion, I enjoyed "25 Blocks." The individual sections are rich in melodic diversity. Allanbrook's wonderful use of the instrument really put Brooks through his paces, and the horn player delivered the searching soliloquies, skittish rhythms and declamatory chromaticism as expressively as the composer could have wished.
The musical stroll seemed perhaps 10 blocks too long, but greater insight into the work's organizational scheme might have tightened things up a little for me.
Brooks and Allanbrook were most impressive in a pair of Spanish pieces for horn and piano by DeFalla and Mendez and in the fireworks of "Hora Staccato," which Brooks double-tongued into submission with an ease that would make duffer horn players weep.
Alas, the Beethoven Sonata failed to impress. The Opus 17 is clearly not Beethoven at his most momentous -- it was hastily cranked out in a single afternoon -- but good things should happen nonetheless.
In this performance there was virtually no change of character in the minor key sequences of the first movement and the abbreviated second movement sounded as uneventful as it was brief.
The horn playing was dispassionate and the piano accompaniment was not as admirably assured as it had been elsewhere in the program.