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The Chamber of Musical Curiosities: Ep 8

Category: News & Views: Podcast

In this edition of the podcast, Paul Kildea sits down with French-born, Australian-based French Horn player, Nicolas Fleury. During the episode, the pair discuss some of the most iconic pieces played on the horn. Nicolas explains some of the most interesting technical and non-technical facts about a few of his favourites, such as Mozart’s Horn Concerto and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

They touch on Nicolas’ passion for the horn and explore his journey from a young music student into an internationally renowned artist. Paul also gets Nicolas to discuss his love of playing in regional Australia, the Australian lifestyle, and living in Australia despite coming from the other side of the world. Fleury joins pianist Amir Farid and violinist Emily Sun on Musica Viva's upcoming concert tour in June, which features works from Mozart, Brahms and a world premiere from Australian composer Gordon Kerry, commissioned for Musica Viva by Julian Burnside AO QC.  Learn more and book tickets here.

Listen to the full episode below.
 

Paul: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I'm Paul Kildea, the Artistic Director of Musica Viva Australia and I'm here today with Nicolas Fleury, the French French Horn player. I have to say it twice Nicolas, and you'll explain why in a moment, but welcome. 

Nicolas: Thank you for having me today on the podcast and looking forward to discuss the exciting June coming ahead. 

Paul: Well, that's where we'll land. But I thought we'd do it in an interesting way, which is of course, in June you're going to tour Australia for Musica Viva in some fabulous repertory and that makes us all very excited. But the way I thought we'd get to know you a little bit more, and indeed the program that you're going to be presenting, and some of the colleagues with whom you'll be working, it's just to talk about some of the great horn pieces in the repertory. I'm going to throw some names at you and I just want you to riff on them about how you first encountered them, when you've played them, what they've meant to you, and what they've done in terms of your progress in your career, to the state where now you’re principal horn in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra here in Australia, but you know, with a flourishing career all throughout the world with an amazing, I think, very sensitive profile as a beautiful chamber musician. So I've picked just a list of some of the pieces that I love and I just would like to know what they mean to you. And I suppose the starting point for that would be, of course, the Mozart horn concerti. And so why don't you talk a little bit about what they have meant to you? 

Nicolas: Well, of course, when we hear that, all horn players would think straight away about the audition piece. It's the piece, either the second or the third or the fourth that you always play when you have to do an audition to get into something. So straight away, my first thought, when you say that is, “Oh, stress”, because you've got to play most perfectly to go through the first round. But actually, my first teacher was absolutely wonderful. Like, teaching us this repertoire quite early on, to try to not make it such a big deal and just have fun playing this very fun, quite incredible music, full of jokes, full of humor. So he was very good at just making it what it is, which is just amazing modern music. 

Paul: I suppose you should talk about what the horn was in Mozart's day and the use of crooks and therefore the key of some of those concertos. Because for non-horn players and non-musicians, this stuff is endlessly interesting. 

Nicolas: Yes, of course. Back in the day there was no vowels whatsoever. So every kind of sound and notes we would make, we would use the lips, and the natural harmonix, and the right hand in the belt to correct some of those natural harmonix, which are not effectively in tune. So it was a very challenging instrument to play, of course. And you know, Mozart, he had this amazing friend called Joseph Leutgeb and he wrote all his concerti for him. He was phenomenal, very natural at the horn, and also a very normal human being. As in, he had a job, he owned a cheese shop. And yet he used to play the horn for fun. And so Mozart, in his concerti, wrote all these jokes for his good friends. And it's always good to remember that. As challenging as this is today to play perfectly, it was not aimed to be that way. So it's always a good thing. So of course it's a crook in E Flat Major lots of the time, because that crook allows a beautiful singing melody in the second theme, usually in very beautiful tones throughout the instrument. Because when we put the lower crook in it means effectively the tube is much longer And when the tube is longer such as one in C, then it's less beautiful clearly. And if the crook is not shorter when we get closer to a trumpet sound, which is not very good for horn concerto. So most of the time it's the 4 concerti. Actually three of them are written, one in E Flat with the E Flat Crook. The first one is one in D. Which is a little bit too long in my opinion to make a good clean noise. 

Paul: But when Ricard Strauss was writing his horn concerti in the early 20th century, he had access to the full rotary valve. But I think at least one of them is still in E Flat. And is that an homage to Mozart? 

Nicolas: I think it's a tonality that works really well on the horn. And there's of course motor growth, like four of his big work for horn. There's a quintet. And also the concerto in E Flat. And I think there was this tradition that horn in E Flat sounds pretty amazing throughout the range actually. So a lot of the concerti, also the Strauss 2 Concerti, how - in E Flat, which is a beautiful tonality that works very well. I know it's very annoying for some of the string players. 

Paul: I'll put them to one side. So what's your relationship been with the Strauss concerti, because to me those are just, you know, magnificent works as well. 

Nicolas: Yes, it's - to be fair, the first CD I got, I got two actually, I got wonderful horn players. One is Marie Louise Neunecker, was playing Russian music clear and all of his works, and the next one was Radovan Vlatkovic playing the horn Strauss concerto. So from a very, very early age, I’m talking 7, 8 years old, that CD was in my CD player and I was listening to it constantly. Yeah, listening to Radovan Vlatkovick play Strauss 1 and Strauss 2 when I was 7, 8 years old was a massive plus for my ambition and also passion about the horn. 

Paul: We'll talk a little bit about that ambition, if you wouldn't mind. Because of course, I remember when Mary Louise jumped on the scene in 2000 or the late nineties, I think, you know, and she seemed very young then. But of course, you're very young, and you know, you managed to squeeze quite a lot into your career so far. 

Nicolas: Yes, so I was pretty lucky to study in a great place called London at the Royal College of Music, where, you know London, there’s so much going on there, so much going on, and a lot of possibility of work, a lot of orchestra, lots of art in general. So I was pretty lucky to join the Aurora orchestra very early on when I was 21. And then that was a stepping stone because that orchestra is a chamber orchestra. So then I joined the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, then the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and then the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. So my career is pretty orchestra orientated, but I always managed to be invited for festivals here and here and to carry on doing some chamber music, which is such an important part of the horn repertoire. That's why I'm delighted to be with Musica Viva in June.

Paul: Well, let me throw you the absolute antithesis of chamber music and talk about the horn and Ein Heldenleben. 

Nicolas: That's interesting because that's the piece I haven't yet played on Principal Horn. I've played pretty much all the Rich Strauss tone poem, which are amazing but Heldenleben, I have never done it on the first horn chair yet. And it's also very interesting because we've played so many of the excerpts of that piece, because it's such a challenging piece that you have to learn the excerpt and perform the excerpt to get the job pretty much. But I haven't yet had the luxury to perform it on the first chair. 

Paul: Uh, well, I look forward to that. It's funny when you were talking about the Mozart horn concerti as audition pieces, I just straight away went to that opening solo in Heldenleben and thought, man, you must have the kind of same response to that, that, you know, it's, it's hard to disassociate yourself from the experience of when you're normally playing that piece from just the sheer joy and craft of the music itself. 

Nicolas: Yes, of course. It's so well orchestrated that solo at the start is with the celli. And so, you know, you can just have a bath of sound in the celli and just play your line along with them. So it's a much easier thing in contest -  in context, sorry. But yeah, as I said, I'm yet to do that piece and I remember doing the Alpine Symphony thinking, wow, it's much easier in context, so it's going to be the same as Heldenleben when it comes around. 

Paul: Yeah, well talk then, if you wouldn't mind a bit about the Britten Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings. Because that's another of those pieces that must just loom. And even though Britten is a very English composer, even for a young French musician, that piece, who, learning the horn, that piece must have just been one of these, you know, mountains that you had to climb from a relatively young age. 

Nicolas: Absolutely, the Britten serenade is, I would say one of the most inspiring work for the instrument. It's just so amazing to do it, and I had a chance to do it when it was first performed in the Wigmore Hall. And wow, it's just a phenomenal piece, incredibly challenging. But at the same time, Britten has this capacity to always make it doable. It's quite amazing all the horn part he ever wrote, whether it's in his opera Peter Grimes or different things. They're always super challenging, super rewarding at the same time. So it was, of course, it's a big deal to play the prologue and epilogue by yourself first onstage and offstage on the natural harmonics of the instrument that are supposed to be out of tune. So usually when I do that piece, I do it on the natural horn because it makes it very obvious to the listener that it's supposed to be like that. And then of course, you have some incredibly challenging moments in all the middle movements, particularly the first one: Da da dada da di da da. 

Paul: Ah, the Tennyson. 

Nicolas: Yes, absolutely. That's something you need to allow time to learn. So I, I didn't learn it quickly. I took a lot of time before I tackled that piece. I think the first time I actually took the part out and practiced it, I probably was in my late teens. So 18, 19 years old. Not before that. I thought I'm not ready yet to tackle that piece. Although I was listening to it a lot. And there's a version that - by Marie Louise Neunecker that is phenomenal. I think.

Paul: Yes, with Ian Bostridge, I think. 

Nicolas: Yes, absolutely. 

Paul: It makes me laugh because, of course, the first performance of it, in 1943 wartime Wigmore Hall London, you know, bombing in the, in the East End etc. But one of the reviews talked about that epilogue and the prologue and just saying, you know, if only Dennis Brain could have played with better intonation. Um kind of missing the point. 

Nicolas: That is sometimes to prove that the critics don't know it all. 

Paul: That's right. Did you have a kind of relationship with Dennis Brain’s playing at all.

Nicolas: He always and will always be, the meister. It’s a kind of quality of sand, of legato, of staccato. There's something amazing with Dennis Brain is when you put his Mozart horn concerto recording, when he plays it seems to be a little slow and a little, you know, I wouldn't say dull because his playing is never that, but you ought to think, oh, you could actually play a little bit faster and more exciting. And then actually you put the metronome in to find out what tempo he is using and it's actually a lot faster than you think it is. And somehow he makes it sound so classy and effortless. And, so that's something I get very inspired by when someone can play the instruments, such as the horn with such class and effortless. Wow, you've done it all when you can play the horn and make it sound easy And he was one of them. 

Paul: Yeah. And of course when he died tragically in a motorbike accident in the 1950s 

Nicolas: In a car accident I believe.

Paul: It was car, was it?  Ok. And his great friend and admirer, Francis Poulenc wrote of course, that elegy for horn and piano and I just wonder where that sits. I find it a very beautiful and haunting, and an incredibly touching piece. But I just wonder where that fits both in the French imagination, but also in the imagination of a horn player. 

Nicolas: It's a beautiful piece that take a bit of time to enjoy. I think the first listen is usually not as good as the 2nd, 3rd or fourth or 10th, in my opinion, the hundreds. But it's a piece I performed for my final recital in London. So it's a piece that somehow speaks to my emotions when I play it. You can really do things with the music. 12: 09 ??? to make it incredibly exciting. During the beginning, when he's pretty much describing the crash and then so lyrical and beautiful to try to get inspired from Dennis Brains flying and what you would have done with this piece. So, yeah, it's a piece we all value a lot as horn players. And I'm a big fan of Poulenc’s work in general, particularly the Stabat Mater and the Gloria, which are two massive piece for orchestra and choir. But I do love like harmony. So yeah, that piece, is a piece I keep close to my heart for sure. 

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Paul: Another work, which is sometimes a little bit of a curiosity is the Schumann Konzertstuck for 4 horns and orchestra and I want to know your thoughts on the piece and, but probably it's a good way of using a piece of music to talk about the original hunting associations of the instrument that you're now so expert in. 

Nicolas: Yes, well, of course the history makes a horn. I'm going to come into the Schumann Konzertstuck in a second, but it's an instrument that always advocates hunting. It's always been like that. It will always be like that because that's the root of the instrument itself. And composer always kept that in their mind from I can name so many, but from the, the Rite of Spring, the strong call of the horn from the bargainer. Obviously Siegfried Horn Call. It always be and will always be that. In the Konzertstuck, it's particularly exciting because obviously it's written for four horn soloist and orchestra. So the full horn section comes at the front to perform this such exciting base, which is incredibly hard and demanding physically, particularly for the first horn part. But there's a lot of great players who make arrangements to share a little bit more evenly the difficulties throughout the four horns instead of just everything in the first horn and the other three just playing the two tea parts a little bit. But it's a very exciting work which I have the, the luxury when I was young to tackle with lots of ambition. I don't know if I did too well in it, but it's it's something it's good to tackle with the daring of youth. I think.

Paul: Completely. I wonder if just because of the time that you've spent in London, both as a student and as a professional, whether you got to work with Olly Knussen at all. And I think of him because, of course, Colin Matthews in his own horn concerto, played with the idea that Britten had played with, this idea of, you know, moving antiphonally from offstage, but also writing for other horns in the horn concerto, which you kind of - normally composers try and avoid putting up the solo instrument against the tutti instruments of the same brand.And I just sort of think that Olly was such a kind of beautiful spirit and sadly died a few years ago. But his own horn concerto is an amazing piece and I just wonder if you have tackled either Collins or Olly's concertos. 

Nicolas: I haven't tackled that concerti, but I have the luxury to work with them quite closely because I used to be in the orchestra and also an emerging artist with a lot of sinfonietta. So I perform lots of their pieces and actually they, talking about pushing the boundaries, those guys push the boundaries of the horn technique and limits. It's quite astonishing and it's been a long time since we have that range, for everyone it’s the same range, but somehow they push it. But they push it in a way that it's doable again. So it's almost in the following Britten, you know, always asking for more, always asking for more. So no, I haven't yet learned this concerti properly and maybe in the future I'll have the opportunity to do so with the MSL. Wouldn't that be exciting? 

Paul: Be thrilling, because they're both amazingly well crafted works and Olly did have that thing of just trying to pair everything down to the tiniest sounds and sonorities even though he might be at one stage writing for a large ensemble, so that would be terrific. I'll throw another couple of works at you as we kind of slowly wind up. And one of them is the Beethoven horn sonata, which I don't think one hears a lot. 

Nicolas: Actually. It's one of the species that you learned fairly early on in your horn career. I remember learning it, I was maybe 12, starting to be comfortable on the instrument. And I thought, oh, that's my teachers thought it's a challenging, yet beautifully crafted piece of music of course. So yeah, that's in the F major, the F crook is in, which is a very nice crook to play the natural horn because of course, that piece was written for natural horn, which is such a nice crook to play on. It's my favorite crook to play on, just F crook. It's a very challenging piece, again, it seems to be a thing about horn playing. Everything is a little challenging somehow. So again, when I try to play that piece, I always try to make it as dancy as a violin would do it. Or maybe even a clarinet. 

Paul: Yeah, perfect. Well, the last piece I want to throw at you is the main reason that we're talking today. And it's of course, the Brahms horn trio, which we've paired with the Ernst Naumann arrangement of the Mozart horn trio, the arrangement from the quintet, and the joy that I have in getting to program you. Because of course, as I said, at the very beginning of the podcast, you're now the principal horn in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. So talk a little bit about Brahms if you wouldn't mind. Talk a bit about the joy of being able to do a full national tour in a country you probably don't know very well yet. And then also that whole decision about coming and accepting a chair, Principal Chair, so far from home and so far from a lot of the contacts and experiences and people and you know, collaborators and composers with whom you have worked in the first 10 years of your professional career. 

Nicolas: Yes, of course. That Brahms horn trio is the chamber music masterpiece for our instrument. I would say. It's just so well written. I mean, Brahms really knew how to write for that mellow sound of the horn, an instrument he learned when he was younger. It's just a privilege to play symphonies in the MSO and stepping up into a chair music setup like that. It's just always a joy. It's a piece I’ve performed many times and every time differently. So that's why I'm really looking forward to team up with wonderful people, Emily and Amir, and we don't know each other yet, we know of each other's playing. So there's an amazing kind of sense of, as you’re known, but yet we know it's going to be such an amazing collaboration, all of the three of us, and I'm sure we'll be great friends after that wonderful tour. So, yeah, I'm so looking forward to tackle that piece which I haven't done in a little, in a little while, maybe a couple of years and of playing it in those amazing cities of Australia. It's amazing for me because it's a great way to discover the country somehow, because I know Melbourne pretty well and Sydney pretty well. 

Paul: And also, the funny thing is all the halls in Australia are very different. And if you talk to a Queenslander, the hall in Queensland is the best. If you talk to a West Australian, the hall in West Australia is the best. But they all have different characteristics, but they are actually all very beautiful and international musicians or visiting musicians always go, wow, I love this for this reason, I love that for that reason. So, I'm really pleased you’ll do that. I'll add, just before you talk a bit about that whole decision and the process of moving to Melbourne, I will just say something that I loved when, when I first started talking to you about the Brahms and a potential tour and having admired your playing for a while. We had a very nice series of conversations just about colleagues and with whom you might collaborate. And there's something gloriously natural and very musical, but also very generous from you and both Emily and Amir about working together and just kind of going, okay, the shorthand is clearly that we're all, you know, similar musicians, we all kind of shape and think the same. So it's one of those arranged marriages about which I feel very confident and hope that, as you say, you end up, you know, just great friends from the sheer frequency of performing this, this big program together. So, yes. What about the whole, how we get to have you in Australia and how you landed here in Melbourne, in this wonderful city and orchestra? 

Nicolas: Well, i mean the first thing to say is that working in Australia is a very different thing from working in London. I loved my years in London between 18 and 30. But then I thought, is that sustainable working like that? Because the London orchestras work so hard, very little rehearsal time, lots of concerts, lots of performances, lots of tools, lots of sessions, recording sessions. So yeah, when you're in your 20s, it's heaven. But then when we think, can I have a long career, suddenly on the instrument that I play, which is a very physical instrument. Maybe not. So I had to reconsider whether I could see myself in 10, 15 years in that job. And my thought was like, I don't think I can do it. I think I'm gonna burn my lips so you know, tired my muscles. So when an opportunity came to do a pre trial in the MSO, an orchestra which I have been in as a guest before, I thought absolutely. Australia is always a place I love touring. I came here three times before that and I always thought, wow, wouldn't it be nice to live here? So then the opportunity came in and I stepped into the orchestra on the first rehearsal and it was the full body of the Firebird with Jukka-Pekka Saraste, which was great and I had so much fun playing that and the orchestra seems to enjoy what I do too. So, wow! So I gave everything I had in that month of pretrial and the position came to me and it kind of, I remember the phone call I got from the MSO offering me that then trial position for six months leading to the full time job. And I was so happy, so happy, a massive smile on my face and then I thought I've got to try it out. I have to try it out. And the six months of trial were amazing. I mean, the camaraderie, the lifestyle of Australians, which is great. It’s actually a lot closer to the French lifestyle. So, so all in all, it was a no brainer when the job was offered to me fully that it was going to be a yes and a new life here. Of course. I miss things from London, I miss the odd session for a movie or for an artist. I miss occasionally to perform in the Royal Albert Hall for the Proms. But that's something I can go back and do because the diary allows me occasionally to take a week off to go back to London to do some work. So, all in all, it was the best for me. The tough situation is with family, but you know, thank God for FaceTime and Skype and all these things and we stay in touch as much as possible. So yeah, it's a pure joy and I have not regretted it at all. 

Paul: I was thinking slightly about that, just when you mentioned the French lifestyle and there is something kind of, you know, beautiful and sybaritic about it and - which does compare favorably with the Australian lifestyle, this enjoyment of people, food, entertainment, which is actually really hard if you're slogging it in London trying to make a living and I just hope that we can reproduce as much. I mean I have a line that I just wish that Australia had been discovered by the French and and all the architecture had been built by the French. But we have at least certain aspects of the French lifestyle which I like to hold on to being over here. So I hope that you get to experience the same thing that you enjoy this big brown land that we're about to send you around and that you get to meet the audiences. I remember a year ago when Garrick Ohlsson was here from the States and he did his first concert in the Perth Concert Hall and just afterwards came off stage and just said, that's one of the most attentive and brilliant audiences, you know, that I've ever played for. And then that was the first concert and on it went, you know, 1 after another. So there's a passionate and gorgeous audience waiting for you in each of these towns and concert halls. And I wish - I can't wait to hear it and to see you playing together. And I'll say thank you Nicolas Fleury for beautiful thoughts and ideas and primarily for beautiful music making. 

Nicolas: Well, thank you very much. I cannot wait to discover the country, to discover those audiences and I'm looking forward to share a glass of wine with them all after the concerts.

Paul: Nicolas, thank you.