Last week I had the opportunity to play Principal with the Asheville Symphony Orchestra for Mahler's 2nd Symphony. I normally play 4th in this group, but due to a couple of absences in the section, I got to play 1st. If that doesn't deserve a blog post, I don't know what does!
This might sound super obvious, but playing 1st was a lot different than playing 4th. I have to admit that I was pretty uneasy at the first rehearsal on Wednesday, but by Friday night I was much more comfortable and had settled into the role. It's not that I'm unused to having every note I play be heard; I give a couple solo recitals a year, and I play lots of chamber music concerts, mostly with the Smoky Mountain Brass Quintet. But playing in a full orchestra, and leading a section of horn players is different.
When I play 4th horn, my attention is very focused on the horn section. I'm playing in harmony or octaves with the 3rd horn... I'm matching the 2nd horn when we're in unison... I'm taking cues from the 1st horn for timing, intonation, dynamics, articulations, etc.
Playing 1st, I got to listen all over the orchestra. I made music with the trumpets, the woodwind section, and individually with the flute, the oboe and clarinet. I listened to the concertmaster to make sure I changed notes just as he got to the end of his solo.
As the Principal horn, I also got to assert my own musical initiative more, with regards to style, articulations, dynamics, and phrasing. I had to lead the section by establishing a good pitch center, and picking my spots with the conductor's baton without letting a tentative downbeat throw off the horn section.
I know it's not PC to say that my usual 4th part isn't as important as the 1st, but I have to say that playing 1st was much more fulfilling to me musically. Yes, it's more pressure and more responsibility, and honestly there are some weeks when life is busy and I'm happy not to be the one in "the hot seat."
Overall, it was a great experience that I will treasure for a long time. I had a great section; they were all fantastic players, and very supportive. What an amazing work that symphony is! The last movement is really transcendent.