A young horn player could become “a real legend”

When the Cleveland Orchestra brought Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to Carnegie Hall in 2019, its conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, lowered his baton and paused in front of the Scherzo.

An unassuming young man moved from the brass section to the front of the stage, where he stood as if he were a concerto soloist. He raised his instrument and let out a call: a dynamic, warm herald of a bright new day. When the movement ended, he simply resumed his seat.

It was an unexpected interlude. Few orchestras follow the practice—which goes back to Mahler’s life—of placing the horn so prominently, near the conductor’s desk, in the Scherzo of the symphony. More surprising, however, was the sound coming from this player, which hardly anyone in the audience had heard before. His solo tour, delivered with a clarity that even veterans struggle to achieve, had the makings of a major artist’s arrival. But who was he?

A quick glance at the program provided the answer: Nathaniel Silberschlag, who, at just 21 years old, had recently taken the seat of principal horn with Cleveland, one of the most talented and renowned orchestras in the country. And the concert was among his first with the ensemble.

But because of the pandemic, it was also his last at Carnegie in a long time. The Clevelanders didn’t return until June 1 — when the Silberschlag horn sounded again, in the soft but dignified opening theme of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony. Now 23 and after a two-year probationary period, Silberschlag is an official and titular member of the orchestra, with a long career ahead of him there if he chooses.

“It’s no joke when I say that when I practiced in my basement growing up, my parents, out of encouragement, would yell, ‘That sounds like the Cleveland Orchestra over there! ‘ Silberschlag said in an interview before last week. concert. “The tradition of this orchestra, the tradition of this horn section – it’s as cliché as it gets, but it’s a dream come true that I did it here.”

SILBERSCHLAG IS BORN in what he called a “very, very musical family“. That might be an understatement. There are well over a dozen professional musicians and numerous Juilliard School graduates among his relatives. His grandfather was Sol Greitzer, a violist who performed under Toscanini and held the principal seat of the New York Philharmonic for over a decade (appointed by Pierre Boulez). His parents met as members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. And his older brother, Zachary Silberschlag, is Principal Trumpet of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.

An offer to teach at St. Mary’s College in Maryland brought Nathaniel’s father and mother to that state, where he grew up in Leonardtown. The rural Chesapeake Bay location belied a busy life; he follows his parents on work trips, most often to Italy. Because of this, he became, he said, “a sophomore dropout” and was home-schooled – at a rapid pace that saw him take college classes while many many teenagers were starting trigonometry.

Silberschlag started the piano at 3 years old, then the horn at 4 years old. His first teacher was his father, but around the age of 12 he met Julie Landsman, a longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera and a member of the Juilliard faculty. “Her parents were very concerned about my skills as a teacher,” she said. “But I found him to be bright, driven, personable and talented beyond belief.”

With Landsman, he learned extra-musical practices that were essential to his youthful success: meditation and visualization. “You train your brain and wire it for this goal, and at some point you put yourself in a meditative state,” Silberschlag said. “You train your brain to push negative thoughts out and keep positive thoughts in, and focus on your goals.”

He visualized the auditions so that when he did them, they felt familiar and non-threatening. And he had one goal in mind: work with the Cleveland Orchestra, whose recordings were the first he achieved throughout his childhood.

A major milestone was reached when he was accepted to Juilliard. It was just before a Passover Seder, which with Silberschlag’s extended family can involve impromptu performances or name games. One parent joked, “OK, you came in. Let’s hear what was so good.” Thus, without warming up, he played his audition – a virtuoso concerto – on the spot.

At age 19, near the end of his third year at Juilliard, he won the seat of Deputy Principal Horn with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. By way of congratulations, he was offered a drink. “And of course,” Silberschlag said, “I had to confess and tell them, ‘Well, I’m not 21 yet, and unfortunately my dad is, like, in the car waiting to take me home.

In his senior year, he said, “I was living on Amtrak.” He commuted between Juilliard and the Kennedy Center several times a week. At one point he was performing in a series of “Tosca” at the Washington National Opera while preparing for a studio recital, orchestral concerts, papers, and a school graduation.

He was also busy auditioning for Cleveland. The position of principal horn in the orchestra had been vacant for several years. Welser-Möst invited guests, including the principal horn of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who declined an offer due to the relocation it would entail. Gifted players didn’t seem like good candidates for the group. “When you hire someone, don’t make it a compromise,” Welser-Möst said, “because it will always be a compromise.”

Welser-Möst sought advice from Landsman, who told her she had this guy, “the greatest talent I’ve ever seen”. Silberschlag was therefore invited to play – first for the conductor, then for the audition committee. It went through Mozart and Strauss and ended with the Long Call solo from Wagner’s “Siegfried”.

“The last two bars of that, you’re still sitting around biting your nails thinking, ‘Is this person going to make it or not? “, Welser-Möst said. “It was the first time that it seemed like it was not a problem. And I looked at everyone there. They all had their mouths open. not believe it.

Listen to Silberschlag play and you’ll quickly know what won them over. Landsman described her sound as rich, creamy, and colorful; it is also tenderly human, with the singing quality of a cello. And, Welser-Möst said, “every time he plays, every note has meaning and is tied to the overall expression of a movement or an entire piece.”

But the members of the Cleveland Orchestra, as Welser-Möst said, must be not only good instrumentalists, but also good musicians – invested in the ensemble as a whole and able to navigate the dynamics of a team (something Silberschlag had experience with, after years of playing baseball, his other passion, which might have gotten more serious if it hadn’t been derailed by injury). Hence the trial period, which lasts two years.

At no time did Welser-Möst worry about the youth of Silberschlag. “If someone has potential, then the experience comes by itself,” he said. “And it’s not a matter of age; it’s a question of maturity. The experience came quickly. One of Silberschlag’s earliest appearances was in this symphony by Mahler. Unsure of what to say when Welser-Möst asked him if he would agree to play at the front of the orchestra, he simply replied: “Would you like me to sit or stand?”

The solo itself wasn’t stressful, but the journey to center stage was — “a long time to think about yourself in silence while everyone else is quiet as well,” Silberschlag said. He tapped into the walking meditations he learned from Landsman, who was at the Carnegie concert, and recognized what he was doing from his seat. At the end of the performance, he drew the first solo bow. Next comes Michael Sachs, the principal trumpeter, who abandons his own bow to head towards Silberschlag and raise his arm like a fighting champion.

Probation was halted when the pandemic halted performances in March 2020, and again when concerts resumed with almost exclusively string repertoire, as these players could remain masked, unlike brass and woodwinds. Silberschlag had to take a long break from the orchestra. He ended up spending much of his time in Maryland, where he practiced in his parents’ basement.

It was there that he logged on a video call one day for his final tenure meeting. He was part of it. “When you play against Mahler Five in your second week and you succeed like him, sorry, that’s a no-brainer,” Welser-Möst said. But, he added, other players also follow Silberschlag’s sound with ease, which is a natural sign of leadership. He has a running joke with Silberschlag about checking in every once in a while to ask, “Has your head got any bigger?” But the answer, as recently as last week, was still no.

With the possibility of five more decades in Cleveland, Silberschlag said, “I couldn’t be happier to have been able to be in this orchestra as soon as I did so that I could spend as much time as I could. physically in the orchestra. ”

After listening to the set’s recordings obsessively, he is now himself on them. And he started teaching, sharing a studio at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Richard King, Silberschlag’s predecessor. He has, Welser-Möst said, everything it takes to be a role model, not just a great artist.

“The potential with him,” Welser-Möst added, “is to become a true legend.”

Corina C. Butler