The French horn has a fearsome reputation. One of the most difficult of all instruments, playing it has been described as driving at high speed down an oil-slicked road.
Playing the horn is so difficult, said legendary horn virtuoso Barry Tuckwell, that a player must approach every performance "as if your life depended on it."
So what is it about the horn? (Forget the "French" since it really isn't French, just as the English horn, a cousin of the oboe, isn't English.)
I asked German hornist Marie Luise Neunecker, guest artist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss' Horn Concerto No. 2 at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday at Music Hall. The concerts, to be led by music director Paavo Järvi, also include Bruckner's Symphony No. 5.
Neunecker's answer sounded a bit like Yoda teaching Luke Skywalker to use the light saber.
"To get the right note is not a matter of intellect," she said, from her home in Berlin. "You must feel the note. You must hear it in advance and trust your feelings, because if you put your lips in a tiny, little other tension or position, then already the next note is coming."
The "next note" is the next one in the overtone series.
Acoustically, a tone is a composite of other tones, which can be produced by the player in various ways. Horn players do this with their lips to alter the column of air that produces the sound.
Again, since other wind instruments do the same thing, what's so special about the horn?
Indeed, the horn is a bit odd. If unwound, it would be 12 feet long, from the funnel-shaped mouthpiece to the bell, which points backwards.
Horn players have to respond quickly, Neunecker said.
"You can't think in the moment you play. You just have to trust you are feeling what is right."
Neunecker, 50, who teaches at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin, began playing the horn "late," she said.
"My first instrument was the piano. In church we had a little wind ensemble, and I played the trumpet when I was 12 until 19. Then I started the horn. I liked its warm sonority. Four years later, I went in an orchestra" (at the Frankfurt Opera).
It was "fast," she said, "like destiny."
An orchestra musician for 10 years (1979-89), she was principal hornist of the Bamberg Symphony in Germany and the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Frankfurt.
During that time, she played solo "a lot" and also taught and played chamber music.
Motherhood forced her to cut back, she said (son Moritz and daughter Sophie are now 18 and 16).
"I liked very much playing orchestra, but it cost too much time. Teaching jobs in Germany are very highly paid - you are a state employee - and I thought to be secure, it's good (to be) teaching. You can better combine your duties as a mother."
The repertoire for horn, though smaller than instruments like the violin or piano, "is not so bad," she said. "We have four Mozart concertos, two Haydn concertos and two Richard Strauss. Also Hindemith, Gliere and the wonderful Britten Serenade." Gyorgy Ligeti wrote his 2001 "Hamburg" Concerto for her, which she premiered and recorded for Teldec.
Although this weekend is Neunecker's CSO debut, it is not her first time in the city. She was here earlier this month to rehearse with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (CSO guest Jan. 13 and 14). She and Aimard performed in New York's Alice Tully Hall Jan. 15 as part of a Ligeti mini-festival presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Visit Mary Ellyn Hutton's website Music in Cincinnati.