On Friday September 14, I attended Dr. Kristin Thelander’s recital, American Music for Horns and Piano. As a horn player, I was excited to hear both familiar and unfamiliar works. I was not disappointed. The audience seemed to be quite pleased with the recital as well. The program included a variety of settings with three works for horn and piano, one horn duet, and one horn quartet.
The evening began with Sonata for Horn and Piano by Halsey Stevens. I was unfamiliar with this piece but it reminded me of the horn sonatas by Paul Hindemith and Bernhard Heiden. In each of these works, pitch-centricity brings a familiarity to the audiences’ ears yet the harmonic language is extended far beyond classical tonality. The Stevens Sonata began with a triumphant and technical opening movement. The second movement was fraught with open chords which created a mysterious and cavernous setting. The playful final movement demonstrated the horn’s ability for contrast with a conversation between running eighth note passages and a slow lyrical melody.
Second on the program was Calls for Two Horns by legendary horn pedagogue Verne Reynolds. For this piece, Thelander was joined by hornist Steve Schultz. Thelander explained how the predecessors of the horn, animal horns and shells, were used for signals and calls. Reynolds, known by many horn players for his extremely challenging atonal etudes, was inspired by these calls but he gave them his own post-tonal twist. Rather than using the traditional intervals of a fourth or fifth, Reynolds has the horns call with intervals such as the tritone and major seventh. In addition, the piece brings a visual twist. The two horn players began offstage. As the piece continued, each hornist moved on stage only to return offstage before the end. The movement in the piece created a sonic landscape. Audience members listened with their eyes closed as the horns played in the distance and their tones rang throughout the hall.
Closing out the first half of the program was “A Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. This controversial work tells the story of a priest as he struggles with faith in times of conflict. Thelander explained that this specific song, based on a hymn and a psalm, is one of her favorites. The solo horn reminded me of a cantor singing liturgical music. University of Iowa alumna and pianist for the evening, Sue Haug, is currently director of the School of Music at Penn State, where the entire Mass will be performed this spring. Here is a performance of the original version of the song.
The second half of the program began with a horn quartet, Americana Variations by Douglas Hill. Hill, recently retired horn professor from the University of Wisconsin, was Thelander’s professor as she completed her doctorate degree. His works on horn pedagogy, extended techniques, jazz, and natural horn have been invaluable to the horn world. Americana Variations includes depictions of Daybreak, Lullaby, Kid’s Game, Ballad, Country Dance, Hymn, and Sundown. The writing style of this piece reminded me of Aaron Copland and specifically the Horn Quartet No. 2 “Americana” of Kerry Turner. Known as the Bon Vivant Quartet, this horn quartet includes Kristin Thelander, Steve Schultz, Kelly Heidel, and Russ Lenth.
Margaret Brouwer’s Sonata for Horn and Piano was the final piece of the evening. Thelander was part of an eleven person group to commission the work. In addition to recording the piece, she premiered the work here at the University of Iowa in a faculty recital in 1996. With only two movements, Brouwer’s Sonata for Horn and Piano is different than other horn sonatas. The work is about the sudden tragic death of the composer’s husband. The first movement, Hymn, is almost a surreal prayer. The colors of muted and stopped horn are used to create a dramatic contrast with the high range of the piano. The prayer transitions into hope for the second movement, Rising to Higher Clouds. With an almost minimalistic repetition in the piano, the movement elicited a haunting character. The horn was majestic, however, as it rose above the piano and the piece concluded with triumph.
Friday evening’s American Music for Horns and Piano recital was a great performance. As a horn player, the program and high quality of performance were the highlights for me. By sharing her connections with the pieces, Thelander helped make the music more accessible to the audience.