Musicians Called the Clinker-Prone French Horn 'the Wild Beast' Until Barry Tuckwell Tamed It
Deplaning at dusk after a flight from London, Barry Tuckwell did not stop at his hotel but taxied directly to the Manhattan apartment of Benny Goodman. There, Tuckwell opened his music case and, while getting down to business, spread some old newspapers around the floor. Inelegant as that seemed, Barry is no less a king of music than Benny. What Tuckwell rules over is the so-called "wild beast of the orchestra"—the French horn. The newspapers were to catch wayward spit, which goes with his specialty as surely as, with most rival performers, polish does not. Tuckwell, 47, is the world's leading virtuoso of perhaps the most difficult instrument in the orchestra. The French horn is some 21 feet of coiled brass, valves, crooks, sockets, slides, keys—in short, booby traps. "Playing the horn," says its maestro, "is like driving a very fast car on an oily road. You have to anticipate the things that may go wrong."
Since 1968 Tuckwell has been traveling from his London base up to 200,000 miles a year—including as far as Borneo—seeking to restore the French horn to the solo position it held, much like the violin and piano, until the early 19th century. His trip to New York to perform at Lincoln Center and in duet with Goodman at the prestigious Century Club was just the first leg of a year-long tour. Despite all the one-night stands (he plays 200 concerts annually), the musician finds time to teach master classes in Europe and recently at Harvard. He has cut 24 albums (his Mozart horn concerti are steady best-sellers) and he edits forgotten scores to expand the repertoire. "Most French horn concertos are compact," he says. "People with short listening endurance can sustain interest."
Since his first performance at 15 in his native Melbourne, Australia, Tuckwell has kept audiences' attention. Perfect pitch was in his genes—his mother was a pianist, his father an organist. Initially, Barry started on those instruments and the violin, but he realized early he would never be top rank. Then, at 13, a friend introduced him to the French horn. "It was an important age to find something," he recalls. "I was not bright academically and I was on the verge of being a juvenile delinquent."
Tuckwell immediately mastered the cantankerous instrument, and by 15 had joined the Melbourne Symphony. Four years later, after periods with the Victoria and Sydney symphonies, he moved to Britain, and then, at 23, he became principal horn of the Bournemouth Orchestra. Later he moved up to the London Symphony, before resigning to keep up with his schedule as a soloist. "The horn is physically taxing to play," Tuckwell explains, "and you can ruin your facial muscles. The ones who survive know how to pace themselves." Today his income is in six figures, and he is the only full-time solo horn player in the world.
His mustache "is not an affectation," Barry points out. "It's functional—to avoid irritation on the mouth. My lips get sore from shaving and playing." Fifteen years ago he developed an allergy to the nickel-plated mouthpiece and now uses a plastic one. He rehearses several hours daily, often in hotel rooms. "I turn on The Gong Show," Tuckwell explains. "I can hear my music in my head. People are not annoyed by television. They expect it, but they are annoyed by horn playing."
The only dissonance in Tuckwell's life, he claims, is too much time on the road: "Travel is one of the most overrated experiences in terms of glamor." He lives in London with second wife Hilary, a pianist, and a violinist son, Thomas, 5 ("He appears to have talent"). There are a son and a daughter from a previous marriage.
Is modern music tolerated around the house? Tuckwell played classics with Benny Goodman, but he admires boogie-woogie. It is the 1970s material, not only disco but also classical, that Barry dismisses as "crap. What disturbs me today is the indiscriminate praise of new works. In the 19th century critics didn't write kindly of Schubert. Critics today are worried they may overlook someone like Schubert." That, like everything with Tuckwell, is esthetic prejudice, not arrogance. Does he compose himself? He laughs, "Why add to the ranks of third-rate composers? Today a critic will say that something reflects society if it is not beautiful. To me," he elaborates on his credo, "art means beauty. If what I produce is ugly and destructive, then it's not art."
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