Ahead of our performance of Strauss's Ein Heldenleben on 1 November, get to know No. 2 horn Kira Doherty, who chatted to us about the Philharmonia's fascinating connection with Strauss, and what it's like to play his demanding french horn parts.
Originally from Quebec, Kira studied horn in Montreal and at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and is now studying for a History MA at Oxford. She enjoys cycling and photography.
In the 40s we had a close relationship with Strauss – he conducted us in 1947, and we gave the world premiere of Four Last Songs three years later. Has this connection given the Philharmonia a special way of approaching his music?
Absolutely. The experience of being conducted by the composer himself would have been an extraordinary opportunity for the musicians to have. There are often so many disagreements amongst conductors over how to interpret a certain composer’s work and no way of digging them out of their grave to ask them what they really wanted in this bar or that, so the fact that the orchestra would have been able to hear (and see) it from the horse’s mouth would have meant that they were as close to the intended interpretation as possible. However, you might be asking "yes but what does today’s Philharmonia have to do with the orchestra it was 60 years ago?" which is a legitimate question. None of the players are the same after all. But orchestras are excellent purveyors of tradition and a good one will be able to pass those traditions on, whether it be of interpretation, of style or of sound quality, to the next generation of incoming players. It’s a funny process to describe - it’s happens through a means of consciousness, unconsciousness, osmosis and intuition. And, of course, hanging out with the older generation in the pub afterwards...
"To get a piece like Ein Heldenleben that covers the entire range of the instrument in the first minute of music is brilliant fun"
Right from the start, Ein Heldenleben features some of the most demanding horn moments in orchestral music. How do you prepare for a piece like this, and do you enjoy the challenge?
That’s an interesting question and one that would be answered differently by different players. Personally, my preparation for the piece will have a lot to do with what I have been playing right before. Playing a brass instrument can be quite like performing as an athlete so your muscles will need to be exercised in different ways for different tasks. The muscle shape that I would need for a Mahler symphony as opposed to a Haydn symphony could be as different as the muscle shape that a long-distance runner would have compared to a sprinter. The same muscles are being used, but they’re being used in different ways and so they need to be trained differently. You can imagine then that going from one straight into the other without the right preparation would be quite difficult.
As for enjoying the challenge of the piece, yes definitely! As much as I love playing the horn, there can be quite a few horn parts that aren’t terribly stimulating from a technical point of view (just think pages and pages of off-beats), so to get a piece like Ein Heldenleben that covers the entire range of the instrument in the first minute of music is brilliant fun to play.
The French horn is one of the orchestra’s ‘endangered’ instruments. Help us persuade the next generation - why should people give the horn a try?
I’ll let you in on a secret- many conductors and composers, when asked which is their favourite instrument, often say the French horn. It’s tempting at first to be drawn to the flashier instruments like the trumpet or the flute (like I was), but after a career in orchestral music making, you soon realise that so many of the most beautiful and haunting melodies are given to the horns. That and they always get the best bits on the film soundtracks!
Which upcoming concert in our 2018/19 season would you recommend to people who enjoy this one?
The obvious choice might look like Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all-Strauss concert on 6 December (which will be absolutely fantastic) but actually I’m going to stretch things a bit and suggest the 7 February concert with works by Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky and Eötvös. The reason being that if, as a listener you are drawn to Strauss, it will be interesting to hear how these later composers were influenced by Strauss’s work and how they chose to build on his musical language, pushing it further towards the limits of tonality and beyond.