YOU’D BE WRONG to think that orchestra musicians simply follow their conductor. Each first-chair player is the leader of his or her section. If there are two flutes, one is senior to the other. This distribution of authority within orchestras stems from those players who demonstrate competitive authority, the leadership qualities essential to running the orchestra. First chair musicians are the vice-presidents of the artistic organization. Their boss is the concertmaster, historically anointed by common practice during the 18th century before there were actual conductors on podiums.
To develop these future professional leaders, Youth Music Monterey County established its YMMC Chamber Players, with Erica Horn as its music director. The program was launched five years ago this fall. Horn had been invited onto YMMC’s board of directors prior to that time. Her clarinet pupil Perry Choi needed an additional challenge. (Choi became one of YMMC’s star players; he has now been accepted into Harvard Medical School.) Horn explains, “In chamber music you have to be forward and committed to convey what’s going on musically, to develop the skills needed for principal chairs.” The idea began to take shape when she asked Choi to identify the other good players in the Honors and Junior Youth Orchestras. “I knew this program was needed,” she says. “It was a matter of finding them and bringing them together.”
Horn took a Bachelor of Music degree in clarinet performance at CSU Fullerton. She was fortunate to have as her teacher Kalman Bloch, then principal clarinet of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “I had the honor of playing next to him on several occasions.” She later studied with eminent players at the Aspen Music Festival and Philadelphia Orchestra Summer Woodwind Chamber Music Festival. She grew up “a military brat” in Mission Viejo, the daughter of Claire, an oboe and piano player/teacher, and Denis, who then was stationed at El Toro Marine Air Station and retired several years ago as manager of the Monterey Regional Airport. “My mom was my first band director, her musical life right alongside mine,” says Horn. “She was always teaching piano lessons. She wanted us to do music but didn’t want to force it. I wish I had been forced.” She says her piano playing is “comically bad.”
While in Southern California she performed with the Pacific Symphony, San Diego Symphony, San Diego Opera, San Diego Chamber Orchestra, San Diego Civic Light Opera, Long Beach Ballet and the Long Beach Municipal Band among many others. Today she is principal clarinet for Ensemble Monterey, often performs with the Monterey County Pops orchestra, and maintains a private studio. She has substituted with the Santa Cruz Symphony.
While in high school, Horn took a year as an exchange student to Northern Germany, staying with a host family that included a musicologist. When asked, she will recount some “incredible experiences.” One was hiking through the woods at night to a tiny wooden church with a “wonderful little organ” and a musician who improvised in the style of JS Bach. “It felt like living in another time.”
Though music and family take her highest priorities, Horn’s interests are wide flung. She graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in acting as well as music. “I’ve always had a big interest in visual arts and doing photography. The right person at Pottery Barn saw some of my photographs and I wound up doing photography for them for seven years.” She met her husband, conductor Jung-Ho Pak, at a Young Musicians Foundation orchestra summer camp based at Mount St. Mary’s College in the LA community of Brentwood. That was in 1994. They found mutual interest in food, “more than music,” she says. “I didn’t see him with a professional orchestra until much later.”
When she did see him in that capacity, she decided he was a musical genius. “He rescued the San Diego Symphony from oblivion,” she says. They were married in 1996, have a 16-year-old daughter who is currently studying with opera singer Susanne Mentzer.
YMMC students must take the initiative to get into the Chamber Players program. They must audition before being accepted. “I have taken students of lesser skill who display a musical passion,” Horn says. She notes that some professional musicians are so preoccupied with perfection that they grow a protective shell. “When you’re really playing music as it should be you are emotionally exposed, vulnerable. When you make a mistake it hurts,” she says. “Part of what we do with the chamber players is to spend enough time with the music so it has a chance to evolve for them beyond a mindset of perfect execution and into art. If you teach the students how to connect with the composer’s vision then they can begin to make it their own, to replace that anxiety about getting it right with a personal relationship with the music.”
To that end, Horn has established a bond with Amy Anderson, artistic director of Chamber Music Monterey Bay, which provides an opportunity for the YMMC Chamber Players to work with visiting professionals, including members of the Juilliard Quartet, the Escher Quartet and others. Pianist Jon Nakamatsu and Astred Schween, formerly with the Lark Quartet, have also supported Horn’s students at YMMC. At any given moment there are between seven and ten members of the Chamber Players. She sifts the literature for music that “allows them to shine,” that challenges but does not overwhelm them. Echoing her earlier history of acting, she is mindful that a well planned concert should “make a cohesive show.” She says she is a student of music no less than they are. “There’s never a ‘good enough.’ This work is about relationships.”