There are some things you should know about the English horn. The English horn is neither a horn, in the strictest sense, nor English, in any sense. Its other common name, cor anglais, is French. The English horn isn't French either. The English horn was born in Silesia,* in fact, out of the fortuitous addition of a pear-shaped bell to the oboe da caccia, or "hunting oboe," an instrument favored by Bach. Lastly, the English horn is not to be confused with the totally unrelated French horn (which is also not French but definitely a horn).**
Jason Smoller is also neither English, French, or a horn. He is an American who found his voice in the English horn and is performing Pēteris Vasks' Concerto for English Horn and Orchestra on Saturday, January 28, with The Chelsea Symphony.
As the son of academics (medieval history and medicine) Jason lived in Boston, New York, California, and Arkansas before attending Brown (where he majored in French and music theory). He moved to Paris with the love of his life, Rachel, then returned to the east coast before moving back to NYC. Now the associate director of external affairs at the New York Pops by day, he is also an in-demand English hornist and oboist. Although possibly all English hornists start on the oboe, what he loves is the mysterious cor anglais, which he tries to play as much as possible in New York City. In addition to The Chelsea Symphony, he also plays with the Greenwich Village Orchestra, where he will be performing Sibelius' Swan of Tuonela one week after his TCS English horn solo debut!
While Rachel and Jason lived in Paris for a year from late 2012 into 2013, Jason exhibited the early stages of characteristics that carry through in his life today: a love of music and a proactive demeanor. "You can play music anywhere and I made that true," Jason said. This attitude led him to actively seek work that first resulted in a three-month stint as the English hornist for Dvorak's Eighth Symphony with a local French orchestra. (Note: Dvorak 8's English horn part is a majestic two and a half measures in the first movement.) Regardless, his persistence paid off, and he was later able to play more and count rests less with the orchestra.
Although Jason had played with TCS prior to Paris (his first concert was Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in April 2011 just before his departure), he was contacted again after his return and has been a regular member since. "You get the feeling that everyone is invested, everyone comes together to make music the priority," he noted of his experience with the group.
The Vasks performance is not Jason's first time as a soloist - he'd made his solo debut with the Brown University Orchestra on the Martinu Oboe Concerto in 2008. Playing with TCS as a soloist is a fulfillment of a personal goal - although he said will be happy to return to the orchestra as a section player after, he said. The English horn is Jason's voice, an instrument with which he feels an emotional and visceral connection. In choosing the Vasks for this performance, he noted how well-written the piece is for the instrument. "It feels like the composer knows the instrument - it's relatively new music written in a clever way. He is not doing things for the sake of newness, he does things for a reason." In the third movement cadenza, for example, the clicking of the keys is not an extended technique for the sake of itself, it's employed with a musical reason. The same goes for the aleatoric fourth movement, in which Jason astutely remarks that the chance, or improvisatory, elements are "used to allow individuals to express themselves in a group setting."
Pēteris Vasks has been recognized internationally and his works are influenced by composers such as Lutoslawski, Penderecki, and Crumb as well as the folk music of his native Latvia, clearly exhibited in this concerto. Contrasting elements are at play between the two cinematic elegies, the folk music-inspired second movement, and the fourth movement postlude. In preparing for this performance, Jason stated, "getting into the sound world of Pēteris Vasks is its own exercise."
A man of many talents (including his household’s head pizza maker), Jason owes much to his teachers including Steve Taylor, Tom Stacy, and his childhood teacher, Beth Wheeler. What he should also be credited for is his own strength as a musician and keen sense of how to navigate as a musician.
Don't miss the NYC premiere of the Vasks English Horn Concerto for this special one-night only performance - Saturday, January 28 at 7:30pm at St. Paul's Church, 315 W. 22nd St.
Special thanks to the International Double Reed Society, American Latvian Association Cultural Foundation, Council of Latvian Organizations in New York, the Latvia Centennial, Latvian Cultural Association TILTS, and the Permanent Mission of Latvia to the UN for their generous support for this performance!
*Silesia is a historic country made up of present-day Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
**The author of this article may be a French horn player with biased views on the definition of the word "horn."