By Eric Dundon
When the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performs its annual New Year’s Eve Celebration concerts on December 31, 2021, one long-standing tradition will be broken: not all of the repertoire will be a secret.
The SLSO will give its first of five world premieres of the 2021/2022 season during the concerts: a horn concerto by Missouri composer Stefan Freund, performed by SLSO Principal Horn Roger Kaza. Voyageur Fantasy celebrates Missouri’s musical history, performed during the state’s bicentennial.
The concerto takes inspiration from melodies sung by the first French Canadian settlers of the state.
This interview with Stefan Freund and Roger Kaza was condensed and edited for clarity and length.
SLSO: Roger, the idea for a piece that featured horn came from your partner, Kate Klise. Can you talk about the genesis of the piece?
Roger Kaza: It was completely random, really. We were at her house in the Ozarks—a very remote part of Missouri—and she had this little magazine published by her electric co-op. I was leafing through, and there was an article about the Missouri bicentennial. Out of the blue, she said, "You know, it would be cool if the SLSO did something to commemorate it and have you as the soloist," and I thought, that is the most random idea. No musician would ever come up with a thought like that. She pestered me all day long and finally, I wrote a letter to our Music Director, Stéphane Denève, that said, "What do you think?" And I pointed out this bizarre little coincidence that the horn was invented around the exact same time that Europeans first sighted Missouri. And to my surprise and amazement, he thought it was a great idea.
SLSO: Did you have any ideas in your head about what this piece would be or what it would do for your instrument?
Kaza: Not really. The initial thought was, well, we should hit a little bit of all of Missouri's musical styles and Stefan [Freund] wisely talked me out of that idea. Ultimately, it was much better to have a clean focus—just tell part of Missouri’s musical story while alluding to the other parts.
SLSO: Stefan, how did the collaboration between you two develop?
Stefan Freund: Roger talked to Julie [Thayer, a member of the SLSO horn section], and said, “I have this opportunity to have this concerto written for me” and maybe he said something about Missouri. And Julie told Roger, “Well, if you want a Missouri composer, that's Stefan Freund.”
SLSO: And that’s how the relationship started?
Freund: Yes. And I read one of Roger’s initial emails to the SLSO team, which mentioned some of these things about the horn and about the musical legacy of the instrument and its connection to the state of Missouri—the Germans, brass bands, Civil War music, going beyond that to this century. I thought it was interesting to think about all those things together. The development of the state, the development of its people—immigration of course has been a huge part of the story of our state.
SLSO: What made you gravitate to this idea of a piece that incorporated multiple musical styles?
Freund: I'm originally from Memphis and thought that I grew up in a place with an incredibly rich musical tradition—blues, Elvis, B.B. King.Then I came to Missouri and learned about all of the amazing musicians that have come from Missouri. Telling a story like this is something that I think fits me well, because of my interest in Missouri history, Missouri culture, Missouri music, and continuing to tell that story. I think it's something that we really take for granted.
SLSO: Voyageur Fantasy draws significant inspiration from the musical traditions of French Canadian trappers and settlers of Missouri. Of all the musical styles that Missouri offers, what drew you to this music?
Kaza: I've always been a fan of Missouri's history before Lewis and Clark and the Louisiana Purchase. I think it's been a neglected part of our history. These voyageurs were some of the earliest European explorers and they were the ones who brought back these lucrative pelts that St. Louis' fortunes were built on. I thought this is a story that would be worth telling. So I sent Stefan a CD of voyageur songs that I think I bought on eBay.
Freund: We both love the connections in this piece. There’s the French connection to St. Louis and to Stéphane [Denève]. The 250th anniversary of the City of St. Louis was in 2014. The region has a lot of French influence, but we don't talk about it so much. It was cool to bring that part of St. Louis history out.
SLSO: Stefan, was there anything you were particularly inspired by or moods you wanted to evoke?
Freund: I had the idea that I wanted the piece to start off slowly, representing the voyageurs waking up. They've been drinking the night before. They're groggy, it's cold, it's misty. Anyone who's camped before knows. It's just miserable waking up in the morning to that cold and knowing that you have to get up work hard, just like the voyageurs did. That was imagery that I had.
Kaza: I noticed the piece starts with that allusion to the canoe song, but it's still a bit mysterious. In fact, it really doesn't become obvious until the very end. I love how it goes to this swing section, yet there's a tempo relationship.
SLSO: Did Missouri’s natural setting also provide inspiration?
Freund: I liked that sense of rolling along, flowing along—almost like a river, the Mississippi or Missouri. That fits well with a bluesy feeling, too.
SLSO: The horn can be a precarious instrument. Roger, did you have concerns with the creation of a new concerto for horn?
Kaza: I knew we were going to perform the piece twice in the same day. I was concerned that if Stefan had written an incredibly demanding part, I had my work cut out for me physically. I was delighted that he wrote it in a way where the horn can keep playing for a long period, because it's not sitting in the high range or sustained.
SLSO: Stefan, you’re a cellist. The range is similar to the horn, but also has such different capabilities. Can you talk about some of the challenges about writing for horn?
Freund: I really believe that the horn is the most difficult of orchestral instruments to play. And I think it's probably the most difficult instrument for which to write, too. There are so many possibilities. You see in my piece that there are some longer arching kind of lines, there are more articulated rhythmic figures.There's a cadenza that goes all over the place. And another thing I love about the horn is all the techniques you can do with it—flutter tongue, mutes. Roger's going to do this half-stopped technique.
Kaza: Classical musicians tend to be a little strait-laced. And Stefan has asked me to get out of my comfort zone here and be a blues musician. When I was a kid, I used to play some blues piano, so I love that aspect of it.
SLSO: Roger, what do you like about the piece as a soloist?
Kaza: Once you work on it, it's eminently playable. Stefan composed the piece to go through some interesting keys, to which the horn doesn't normally go. Also, I was happy there weren’t any big John Williams-type, soaring, Hollywood melodies, because that really isn't who we are as a state. I think capturing the blues and the jazz and bebop elements are unusual for the horn. It's not like any other horn concerto that I've played, so kudos.
Eric Dundon is the SLSO’s Public Relations Manager.