Author: Bush, John-Morgan
Date published: May 1, 2010
The curtain will rise on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera's 2010-2011 season, and one of its greatest stars will be missing - not from the stage, but from the pit. Julie Landsman is changing channels.
Landsman announced her retirement this year after twenty-five years of service at the Metropolitan Opera. During her tenure as principal horn of the MET, with heart-wrenching renditions of Rosenkavalier and dynamic interpretations of Wagner, she has continued to redefine the role of female brass players in the opera pit.
In a recent interview, I asked Landsman to reflect on her career in hopes that her thoughts will help guide a new generation of horn players. Landsman discusses her career and what horn playing has come to mean to her over the years. Her point of view is unique, and so is the music she has given us. The interview was recorded on February 24, 2010.
JMB: What influence did your early training with James Chambers have on your career? From what I understand, Mr. Chambers had a huge impact on his students and continues to have an impact on the styles of the horn players who are now in the major positions in New York City.
JL: When I worked with Mr. Chambers as a young girl, I did not have any style per se. When I played for him, it took time for me to develop my own style along with his guidance. I also got to work with "Dinny" [Ranier Deintinis], the third horn player in the New York Philharmonic section at that time. I'm happy to be from the "old school," and I like to think I'm continuing the tradition as time moves on.
JMB: What were some of the early challenges you faced in your career before the MET that helped prepare you for what you were going to encounter?
JL: I had the desire and personality of a first horn player and I found that I actually needed to leave New York to realize that. So I left New York to go to Houston where I played co-principal for three seasons. In my three years in Houston, I refined my first horn playing and readied myself for the next principal opening.
JMB: I understand how that can be a very different mindset - principal playing is more of a leadership position.
JL: When Howard Howard, my teacher, called me about the principal opening in the MET Orchestra, I jumped at the chance to take the audition.
JMB: The rest was history, as they say.
JL: Yes, it was quite a process winning that audition.
JMB: When did you join the Metropolitan Opera? How old were you?
JL: When I joined the MET it was 1985; I think I was 32.
JMB: What do you remember about your audition for the MET?
JL: My audition was documented in the last chapter of the national bestseller Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. What do I remember about my audition at that time? Well, there weren't many women so I had the luxury of the women's dressing room at the MET for my warm-up room and it was a very nice perk (laughs). Because at that point in '85, there were fewer women out there doing it. I remember keeping to myself at that audition. I hid in the ladies room and I did my meditating, yoga, and just getting my head together to go out there and win.
JMB: I read on the website of the Northeast Horn Workshop, you were quoted [in the Cornucopia newsletter] saying you had decided after you studied with Howard T. Howard that you intended to be principal horn of the MET Orchestra. It seems that was exactly what you set out to do.
JL: This is a true story. I had formed this dream when I was thirteen years old. Howard Howard was my teacher at age thirteen, and I became an opera "standee." I was at the opera probably five nights a week throughout all of my high school years - in standing room with opera glasses - and I stared at the horn section, and I stared at the brass section. I got to know all of these people through opera glasses. It was a very interesting perspective. (laughter) And I started forming my dreams. I started picturing myself there at a very young age - and I wanted it badly, very badly. (laughter)
JMB: That's fantastic.
JL: Isn't it amazing? This is one of those dream come true stories, and it's funny because my life is in no way storybook/fairytale material, oh no, but my career is. So it's a real interesting balance to a life that has had a lot of challenges for me and does to this day.
JMB: Let's talk a little bit about the climate of the orchestra at the MET when you joined.
JL: It was very different then from what it is now. Since I have been in the orchestra, it [the horn section] has become the jewel of the Metropolitan Opera. The improved horn section has become one of the finest in the world.
JMB: I got to hear one of the performances of Hänsel und Gretel and the horn section was great.
JL: Well, the horn section has changed in a big way since I have been there as well. I am going to miss them because they play just the way I like it.
JMB: Describe your working relationship with the many conductors you have encountered in your career?
JL: (Laughs) It is so funny you should ask because things are going really well right now with Riccardo Muti. It is my first experience with him and I have a very strong dedication to making conductors feel safe and comfortable with me as a section leader. I know how to do that. I've learned over the years what it takes to make them feel trusting in you. If they trust you, it's a great feeling to work with. I talk to them, and look at them. I make sure they know I will give them exactly what they want.
JMB: A great stance to take.
JL: There is something I want to add, the word non-adversarial. This is the climate I have set up in my section and in the orchestra with my conductors. I don't like the stress of having a combative relationship while performing at a high level. I am much more about heart, soul, and warmth. I try to show it in my sound and my personality.
JMB: That definitely demonstrates a connection between your sound, your playing, and you as a person.
JL: Yes and it is totally accurate. I feel like who I am, what kind of sound I have, and how I feel all are intertwined.
JMB: What horns did you play during your career, what were some of the specific reasons why you preferred those horns?
JL: I have played a Conn 8D since high school - because my teacher told me to! He also guided me to go to Mr. Chambers and Juilliard. I have played the Conn ever since. I currently own three older Conns and recently dabbled with a new lead pipe that Jim Patterson made for me this summer. I'm finding it a really beautiful help in my last season after twenty-five years. It is nice to have something that gives my older horn a little structure. I really love the sound of the old 8D's, I like the color options, the variety in the loud and the soft, and I like the malleability of the tone. It does mean I have more responsibility as a player.
JMB: I agree.
JL: You really must know what you want to sound like and make it sound that way. There are other instruments out there that make it easier, but I just haven't been willing to make those compromises. I really like having the sound flexibility I get on my 8D.
JMB: Do most of the horn players at the MET use an 8D?
JMB: I think that sound is really well-fitted for the large space in the MET too.
JL: That's good to know, I wouldn't know. (laughs)
JMB: True, I guess you wouldn't, but it does seem like the sound carries really well out of the pit and into the hall.
JL: I like the blending, the blend we get in the section. But of course, we all want the same thing. What a unique situation it is and I'm going to miss it like crazy - I also have some descants. Would you like discuss those?
JL: When I was in high school in 1971, my family took me to London for a very eventful week, a vacation, and I bought a Paxman descant, B[musical flat]/high f, Merewether system, large bore. I was eighteen, and I only got my Schmid descant, oh, probably ten years ago, so I played that horn from eighteen to age forty-eight. I had the access to my Paxman descant and I put an 8D bell flare on it. I use the Schmidt now for my descant needs, but I'm very specific when I use a descant. I don't use it very regularly, but I do use it wisely. I am not too crazy about triple horns. So I don't play one very often, but I do own a compensating triple Paxman. I also put an 8D bell flare on it, and it is used for specialty pieces. I did the world premiere of Gunther Schuller's Horn Quintet last summer on that instrument, and that was the last time I used it. It seemed like the right instrument for the extended technique. But for the most part I don't care for the variables a triple presents: intonation, and evenness of tone throughout the registers. These are my priorities as a horn player and I hope always will be.
JMB: Performing as a principal player for so many years is physically demanding. How did you maintain your edge all of these years?
JL: Being a first horn player is a lifestyle, and so is playing in the MET Orchestra. It's a full-time commitment, and I was able to make it since I was a young girl. I guess since age 32 to age 57, I have been a full time first horn player. It's a big undertaking. It requires being physically fit and well and healthy, and strong, and balanced, and flexible - quick reflexes. [It also requires] cooperation with the colleagues and being a good leader.
JMB: What about the stress of it? Did you ever get acclimated to the stress and the lifestyle, or is it a type of struggle maintaining balance with work?
JL: I certainly am very used to it, but I'm also ready to change channels. I feel like a little bit of been-there-done-that and I have a lot of dreams right now that I look forward to realizing. One of my dreams is to pass it on, and that is where my teaching serves me well. I absolutely love sharing the information, and seeing people succeed and shape their careers. It gives me goose bumps. Also, I've done yoga and meditation for a really long time. I started yoga practice while I was still a student at Juilliard. I found it to be very helpful, particularly around auditions. I still love practicing yoga; in fact I'm looking forward to practicing it more.
JMB: This passing on of knowledge is a really interesting concept tht I think about often. You studied with Chambers and Caruso, that knowledge comes to you, and their knowledge passes through you to your students with your own knowledge. It is really interesting how it works.
JL: Especially Caruso, because so much of the Caruso teaching is experiential. It is not something you are going to read a book and do. Having had the privilege of working with Carmine [Caruso] since I was thirteen years old, wow - how fortuitous? He used to come and work with our high school band, and that was when I started studying with him. I have the knowledge in me, and I am happy to share it and teach it.
JMB: Now for a little bit of nostalgia, what were some of your favorite moments in the opera repertoire? Do any moments have a special meaning to you?
JL: The Act III beginning of Götterdämmerung opens up with the horn section playing the opening of the Siegfried Call in unison. I remember after our first complete Ring cycle in the late 80s, we were about to play the last Götterdämmerung. The audience went bananas, screaming and cheering for the orchestra before the last act of the last opera of the Ring cycle run that season. I think we had done four complete cycles. The horn section absolutely nailed the Siegfried Call - it was off the charts thrilling! (laughs)
JMB: That's amazing, what a great story.
JL: It was amazing and a really great memory. Another great memory was brought to mind this past Saturday [February 22, 2010]; I just played my last broadcast and last performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, one of the most delicious horn parts in the repertoire. It's Strauss, it's a chamber opera with chamber orchestra. Early on in my career, we did the first live telecast around the world, and it was when countries were still behind the Iron Curtain. It was the first broadcast to Russia, and this has now been immortalized on DVD. What a moving performance - I cried quite a bit because I knew who was listening and what the meaning of this was for the world.
JMB: It is really profound, and I think you just summed that up, when we realize our playing has a greater impact or a greater meaning beyond the people sitting in the audience.
JL: Let me tie it into something else we have touched on and that is it is all about connection and communication. When I play and my heart is coming through the horn bell with my sound, it is hard not to be moved. A sound with soul speaks. Another fond memory was the broadcast of Julius Caesar. I received fan mail from the audience with people saying they felt like I was speaking directly to them. I really was speaking to my father through my horn and heart. It was hard to miss the soul-connection.
JMB: Do you find that when you do decide to dedicate a performance to someone, does doing that really make a greater impact?
JL: It definitely brings what I put into the performance to another level for me and for the audience too.
JMB: Since we are talking about crowd response to your playing with Julius Caesar, it is important to note that many people view you as an icon in the horn world, especially among students and young professionals. Have you given any thought to this and what does it mean to you?
JL: Well, it's a responsibility. I'm honored to have that responsibility, and I take it very seriously.
JMB: What has horn playing come to mean to you over the years, beyond your source of income and career?
JL: It is a means of expressing my voice. It was very important to me as a young person that I had this expression available. In terms of aspiring horn players, set your dreams and work your butts off. I worked hard and put in my time leaving no stones unturned.
JMB: I have one last question. I know it may seem cliché, but I have to ask - do you have any regrets?
JL: (pause) . . .none that come to mind. I would have to dig deep to see if I could come up with some. At the moment, I think my career has been spectacular and I'm looking forward to part two as a mentor and master teacher.
JMB: We are looking forward to it, too, Julie. Thank you and take care.
John-Morgan Bush is a master's candidate at Manhattan School of Music under R. Allen Spanjer. He completed bachelor degrees in performance and music education at the University of Kentucky with David G. Elliott and has published articles in The Horn Call and the British Horn Society journal, The Horn Player. He can be reached at waterinthecrook.com