Classically Trained: Getting ready for some musical Shakespeare

Editor's note: This column is the third in a series about Bradley Zint's participation in OC Can You Play With Us?, an initiative where he and other Orange County amateur musicians will play alongside the Pacific Symphony professionals. The columns will run through May.

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LAGUNA WOODS — For weeks I've been playing my French horn by myself.

It has been hours in the practice chair, playing to the monotonous tunes of scales, arpeggios, lip slurs and other simple exercises.

Sadly, it's been a symphony of one amounting to a symphony of none.

My daily buzzing isn't much within the horrible acoustics of my practice space: my bedroom and living room (and once in our newspaper's conference room).

All such practicing in such spaces is for the Pacific Symphony's OC Can You Play With Us? initiative. For it, I want to be prepared for my amateur and professional musical colleagues, and the audience.

It's fun to practice, though it is work. And going at it alone only goes so far. Then came Saturday, April 14.

When I walked onto the Geneva Presbyterian Church's campus in Laguna Woods, a few signs directed the musicians to the first and only reading rehearsal for OC Can You Play With Us?

But, at that point, I didn't really need them. The hundred or so musicians who had arrived before me were already warming up. The collective cacophony of their efforts could easily be heard from the parking lot.

The noise was the inadvertent guide leading me to the rehearsal room and eventually to my seat as one in a section of 10 French horns.

That's a lot of French horns in just about any setting, professional or amateur.

So many would-be godly voices. And they struggle to be that way on stubbornly difficult instruments.

That afternoon was the first time I had played in a group setting in several years. It was also the first time I'd sat within an orchestra in nearly a decade.

It was great to be back where brass players buzz, woodwinds blow and string players apply bow to string.

Once seated, I put this year's OC Can You Play With Us? repertoire on my stand: Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet."

The Russian composer wrote the music in the 1930s. It was for a ballet interpretation of the iconic Shakespeare story.

Prokofiev's score is complex and difficult. The music for the story of star-crossed lovers calls for bluster and subtlety, splendor and atrocity, triumph and pain. It's not for the faint of heart, playing- or listening-wise.

But it's great stuff, among the greatest of all music, ballet or otherwise.

Prokofiev himself thought highly of it too. He arranged suites of it to be played on its own, without the dancers and sets.

I found it surprising that "Romeo and Juliet" was chosen, although according to Pacific Symphony staffers Molly Pontin and Alicia Frye, it's what the people wanted.

Pontin and Frye are both with the orchestra's Education and Community Engagement department. They said a survey taken last year showed "Romeo and Juliet" on the top 5 "dream list" of things to play.

I would've voted for it too, so I'm glad to see it on my stand.

It's really an old friend to me. I played parts of it in high school as part of a regional honor orchestra. Now, nearly a decade later, I'm playing the same "Romeo and Juliet" part I did back then: Horn II.

In high school I was led by Jung-Ho Pak, then the conductor of the San Diego Symphony. Now in front of me is Sharon Lavery, conductor of the Downey Symphony Orchestra and an assistant professor at USC.

She brought energy and experience to the podium that afternoon. And a good sense of humor.

The horns, as glorious as we may think we are, missed our entrance on the very first piece of the day — as in when we were supposed to play something, but no one did. Not a note.

Whoops.

"A little more horn, please," she said with good-hearted sarcasm.

I guess it was stage fright.

Soon enough, all four parts of the horns came in at the correct times, and we made overbearing, unsettling chords with the rest of the orchestra. It was the beginning to the section known as the "Dance of the Knights," which depicts the Montagues and Capulets. The pompous-sounding brass trading off heavy-handed notes arouses imagery of the two feuding families stomping about while heavily clad in armor.

After rehearsing some of the other "Romeo and Juliet" selections together — including one where the strings are required to play so fast that Lavery said she could "see the smoke" — the sections split out on their own.

The brass headed off to practice with David Stetson, a trombonist with the Pacific Symphony. We were in a small room for an awfully big brass section. Stetson, who's played with the orchestra since 1994, led us in all our loud glory.

We made some mistakes and progress here and there. All the while, he gave us a few tips about what it would be like to play on the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall stage, and what Carl St.Clair might want from us.

But we won't know for sure until we get there.

There are some 200 amateur musicians participating in this year's OC Can You Play With Us? That's double last year's participation, Pacific Symphony officials say, which is why they've made the event into four sessions over two nights: 7 and 8:30 p.m., April 30 and May 1.

Tickets to the concerts are free. You can visit http://www.pacificsymphony.org to get them.

I'm assigned to the 7 p.m. May 1 session. I'll be there, golden horn in my hands and a smile on my face, ready for some musical Shakespeare.

BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BradleyZint.

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