The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Meet Daniel Grabois, the new horn professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who makes his local performing debut next Monday night with the 35th Karp Family FREE Labor Day Concert

August 30, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

Next Monday night — Labor Day night — at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, summer turns suddenly to fall.

That’s when the traditional opening of the new season at the University of Wisconsin School of Music, and of the Madison area in general, takes place: The FREE 35th annual Karp Family Labor Day Concert.

Guest performers will join family members for the concert that is historically the best attended event of the UW Faculty Concert Series – and for good reason. In 35 years, they have never repeated a piece. That is a huge repertoire for them to play and for us to hear.

Three generations comprise this year’s ensemble, augmented by three guest artists from the school’s faculty. Participants include violinist Suzanne Beia; violist Katrin Talbot; cellists Parry Karp and Ariana Karp; clarinetist Linda Bartley; hornist Daniel Grabois, who will be making his debut public appearance as assistant professor of horn; and pianists Howard and Frances Karp.

The appealing and unusual program consists of the following works: Cello duos by Sol Cohen (1891-1988); “Andante and Variations” for two pianos, two cellos and French horn by Robert Schumann; the Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano in D minor, Op. 108, by Johannes Brahms, as transcribed for cello and piano by Parry Karp; and the rarely heard Quintet in D major for piano, violin, viola, cello and clarinet, Op. 42 by Czech composer Zdenek Fibich (1850-1900).

Hornist Daniel Grabois (below, a Romanian name pronounced gra-BOY) recently granted The Ear an e-mail interview, which will run in two parts, today and tomorrow.

Here is a capsule bio from the UW School of Music:

Here is a link to his website, which includes a biogrpahy, essays, publications and a blog:

And here is his Q&A with The Ear:

Can you tell us briefly about your background, from when you first started music lessons through your education and career to how and why you came to Madison?

I took up the horn in 5th grade. I had studied piano as a littler kid, and felt no affinity for the instrument. But the horn felt good right from the start.

I went through high school band and also played in the orchestra in the small town I grew up in (Williamstown, Mass.). In the summers in high school, I attended Kinhaven Music School, which was like paradise for me.

I went to college at Yale, so I didn’t get a performance degree. Nonetheless, I did a huge amount of horn playing at Yale, and I already knew I wanted to go into music, so I was very serious. In my last two summers in college, I was fortunate to attend the Marlboro Music Festival (below), where I played with a lot of famous musicians and a lot of incredible young players; both groups were an inspiration to me.

After college, I used some prize money I had won and moved to Paris (you have to move somewhere, right?). I thought, “Here I am in Paris, now I can play the horn.” I knew nothing about the realities of work visas and immigration, and, although I had a wonderful time, I moved to New York halfway through the year. Then I thought, “Here I am in New York, now I can play the horn.” That didn’t work so well, either. I decided to get a Masters Degree at the Manhattan School of Music, thinking (correctly, as it turned out) that it would be useful to meet other players my age and to meet the faculty.

From there, it was a slow process of working my way into the New York music world. I joined a brass quintet (we later became a sextet, with the addition of a drummer) called the Meridian Arts Ensemble (below), and we started getting busy. We won a few competitions and began making a name for ourselves, touring in Europe, Asia, South America, and of course in the US. We released a CD, then another, then more, and now we have 10. We wrote music, arranged music and recorded music.

At the same time, I was becoming busy in New York, playing orchestral concerts, chamber music, and subbing in Broadway shows. There was a lot of work in New York at the time (in the ‘90s), and at one time I was subbing on eight different Broadway shows.

My first teaching job was at Princeton University. I knew the orchestra conductor there (I played in an opera he conducted that had a HUGE solo horn part), and the horn teaching job opened up at the perfect moment, when I was on his radar. Later, I was hired to teach at The Hartt School. Now I was teaching conservatory students, and I had a lot to learn about helping young players get better.

I also had a lot to learn about staying awake behind the wheel of my car, driving to Princeton (80 minutes each way) and Hartt (over two hours each way) every week and performing almost every other night of the week. One day, I recorded the a horn concerto in Westchester County for 6 hours, drove back to the city, and played Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at night.

About three years ago, I was hired to teach at Manhattan School of Music in their new Contemporary Performance Program. I took over the next year as Chair of that program. Even though I had let Princeton go, I was at Hartt two days now, and at MSM the rest of the time (including serious email time at home), while continuing to freelance.

It was time to look for a job with a saner lifestyle. I applied for the few that came up, and got lucky with this one at UW.

I am so glad to have ended up here. I am playing with the faculty brass quintet, the Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below, with Grabois’ predecessor Doug Hill on the left) while continuing with Meridian, and these two experiences will feed off each other beautifully. My commute is nine minutes on the bike instead of two hours each way in the car. I can collaborate with the excellent faculty, as I will begin doing this week.

In plain layperson’s terms, what makes the horn so difficult to play?

Imagine a piano keyboard, 88 keys evenly spaced. Now we’re going to stretch the bottom of the keyboard and squeeze the top, so the total length will be the same. The bottom notes are about 3 inches wide, very easy to land on with a finger. The top notes are about a quarter of an inch wide, and it’s almost impossible to hit them without nicking their neighbor. Now, imagine that you sit down at this keyboard blindfolded.

This is what it is like to play the French horn (below). The notes are closer and closer together the higher you go, and you have to play entirely by feel.

Do you have favorite pieces, solo works, chamber music or passages from orchestral works?

Some pieces are fun to play; some are fun to listen to; some are both. One of my most enjoyable experiences was playing the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. It has HUGE horn parts, which are beautifully written for the instrument (Strauss’ father was a famous horn player), and it is a beautiful opera to watch and hear.

There are pieces that I enjoy playing that are hard to hear, for example the brass quintet written for Meridian by Milton Babbitt, the eminent composer who just died last year. It is the hardest piece I’ve ever played by far, and getting through it is like running a marathon. But only the listener with the most open mind can get through its 18-minute duration without some serious fidgeting.

Basically, I love playing the horn, I love new sounds, I love the sound of the instrument, and I like the way it feels to play. It is a hugely physical experience playing the horn, and when it goes well, there’s nothing like it.

What would you like to say about your debut at the 35th Karp Family Labor Day Concert and what would you like the public to know specifically the work by Robert Schumann (below, in a photograph ca.1850) you will perform?

I played the piece last year, having not heard it before then. The orchestration is quite unusual: two solo piano parts, two cellos, and a horn. The horn provides some oomph as well as that soaring sound that no other instrument can make. It is a very approachable piece, with really fancy and fun piano parts.

I am told that the Labor Day Concert is a Madison institution, so I will enjoy having this be my first concert as a faculty member.

Was there an Aha! moment in your youth — perhaps a performer or piece, a live performance or a recording — that told you wanted to be a professional musician and a horn player?

I decided to be a horn player after my first summer at Kinhaven Music School, when I was 16. My high school classmates at home were not exactly excited by classical music, but at Kinhaven I discovered the joys of playing chamber music and orchestral music with like-minded colleagues.

I have always been fairly nerdy, and that worked fine among classical musicians. I also discovered that it was satisfying to make progress on the instrument, and I am still trying, every single day, to improve and learn new things.

Is there more you would like to say?

I am having a great time meeting people in Madison, and I am looking forward to developing musical and personal relationships with my fellow faculty members and with my students. And everything I was told about the Farmers’ Market is true!

Here is Daniel Grabois performing a contemporary work:

Posted in Classical music

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