Titanic. Avatar. Braveheart. Field of Dreams. Some of the biggest movies of the past 30 years have told their stories with the help of sweeping, colorful scores by the late James Horner. He entrusted some of their most poignant moments to the French horn: In Field of Dreams, for instance, the horn lent its glow to the first sight of the ballpark in the cornfield.
As the great horn parts accumulated, two veterans of Horner recording sessions, David Pyatt and Richard Watkins, began longing for something even juicier. They envisioned a Horner concerthall piece spotlighting the horn.
“His writing for horn was so unique, it needed to be done!” Pyatt recalls. Thus was born Collage: A Concerto for Four Horns, for which the Houston Symphony gives the U.S. premiere March 31-April 3. The orchestra’s Principal Horn, William VerMeulen, and Associate Principal, Robert Johnson, will share the solo roles with British guests Pyatt and Watkins.
Collage joins one of the orchestral repertoire’s tiniest niches: the four-horn concerto. The only example from a major composer is Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück, or Concert Piece, a blockbuster that VerMeulen and his Houston Symphony colleagues played in 1997 under conductor Christoph Eschenbach. Whereas the Konzertstück includes “incredibly virtuosic” horn parts, Watkins says, Collage sets a different tone.
“None of the parts require fiendish technical virtuosity,” Watkins explains. “It’s more a display of the instrument’s beautiful lyrical sound.”
Watkins, former principal horn of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, juggles a busy solo career with teaching at the Royal Academy of Music; Pyatt is the London Philharmonic’s principal horn. Like generations of top London musicians before them, they’re experienced hands at recording movie soundtracks. Pyatt says his favorite among the Horner scores he played is Iris, a 2001 biopic about British novelist Iris Murdoch; its chamber-ensemble score interweaves Pyatt’s horn and Joshua Bell’s violin. Watkins singles out Horner’s “typically lush, romantic score” in For Greater Glory, a 2012 war epic set in Mexico.
“His music gets to the emotional heart of a film, without complication or irrelevance,” Pyatt says.
At the time For Greater Glory was recorded, Watkins says, the International Horn Society—which promotes the instrument’s performance, study and repertoire—had been backing him in commissioning works. He turned to Horner.
“I thought James would be an ideal choice, with his obvious love of the instrument,” Watkins says. “Although he never played professionally, he studied the instrument. James was thrilled at the prospect, and several weeks later suggested a concerto for four horns and orchestra.”
There was one hitch, says VerMeulen, a former member of the Horn Society’s advisory council. Commissioning Horner to write a concerto was expensive, and the Society couldn’t quite cover the bill.
“I said, if I can get my orchestra to pitch in, can we secure the North American premiere rights?” VerMeulen recalls. “That in itself took some negotiating. The whole reason James was doing this was as a favor to his film horn players. He didn’t want it to be just a plain old project that any orchestra could get.”
But the deal fell into place, and the Houston Symphony gets “bragging rights. This is a big deal,” VerMeulen says. “The Schumann piece is such a singularity that having the North American premiere of another high-profile concerto for four horns is a huge feather in Houston’s cap.”
Horner gave the four-horn form his own spin, Watkins says, by treating the soloists as independent voices rather than a block, as in Schumann’s Konzertstück. Dividing the horns across both sides of the stage added a spatial element—most powerfully in the opening, where the soloists enter one by one “to stunning effect.”
Watkins, Pyatt and two other Horner veterans premiered Collage in March 2015 with the London Philharmonic. They recorded it in London last May, less than a month before Horner died in a crash of his private plane.
Now Collage arrives in the United States. Joining celebrated colleagues to introduce a major composer’s work will be a career milestone for the Houston Symphony’s Johnson.
“I dreamt of soloing with the Houston Symphony when I attended weekly concerts as a youngster at Rice University,” Johnson says. “For my dream to be realized in this fashion is beyond what I even imagined.” —Steven Brown
Don’t miss the exciting North American Premiere of James Horner’s final concert work March 31, April 2 &3! Click here for tickets and more info.