Welcome to the 6th installment of our blog and program note series, Meet the Musician. This program commenced at the beginning of the 2017 season as a means of bringing the audience closer to the musicians of Omega. Since you see them play in many of our concerts they are delighted to share the music making experience with you, as well as sharing some of their own thoughts on their passion for music and what they do when they are not performing with Omega Ensemble.
For our latest profile we welcome Omega’s French horn master, Michael Dixon. When not playing the French horn Michael is a composer who uses microtonal music and also teaches the French horn. Michael has had an impressive career as both composer and performer regularly appearing as a freelancer with the freelances and is a regular with the Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with most orchestras in Australia including the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and Ludovico’s Band on natural horn. In 2015 Michael founded CHIME Music College and in 2016 was a co-founder and the curator of Sydney Microfest which featured new music.
Samuel Cottell caught up with Michael to talk French horn, chamber music, and microtones.
1. When did you first start playing the French horn and what initially drew you to it?
I started learning piano from my grandmother at the age of 7; violin for a year or so; then at age 9, trumpet from my father who played trumpet, taught all brass instruments, composed, arranged and conducted. When I was 11, dad bought a French horn with the intention of practising it to get a better feel for teaching horn. When I opened the case to look at it I fell in love. There was no going back and dad never got to play it himself. By the age of 13 I wanted to be a professional horn player and achieved my dream 3 years later.
2.What do you enjoy most about playing chamber music and how does it compare to orchestral playing (which I know you also do a lot of )?
I love the responsibility, the intimacy, the sheer necessity of being constantly musical. It's a great joy to have such a vital role in the recreation of each piece of music. One's perceptions must be alertly attuned to what every other musician is doing. The collaborative process is marvellous.
Orchestral playing has a different emphasis. One must shift between subsuming one's artistry to the conductor's vision and being musically generous especially when playing principal. The rewards are sometimes enormous. In chamber music I love being more directly involved in the recreation of each composition.
3. What have been some of your most memorable musical experiences and why?
So many and many included Omega Ensemble performances that have gone beautifully such as the Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, John Adams Chamber Symphony, the Mahler Symphony No.4 performance, and the Spohr.
The performances I remember most fondly are the ones where a real rapport has occurred. I also love performing music with my sister. We performed a new piece of mine and I couldn't have expected it to go better.
Playing A Turk in Italy overture horn solo here in Sydney a couple of years ago and in Perth 1985. Such a delightful thing to express. Playing Mendelssohn's Nocturne for a ballet in Brisbane. The solo had to be very, very slow yet wonderfully expansive. Peter Rankine's Wind Octet for its extraordinary power and astonishing virtuosity and dozens of concerts with The Queensland Wind Soloists. Playing Telemann's Horn Concerto and really feeling the love in the room, likewise cabaret shows in Queensland with the X-Collective. Playing principal horn with the Canberra Symphony in Shostakovitch 10 and the Planets by Holst and using every last ounce of my will to play those totally exposed solos without blemish. Playing natural horn at short notice with Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in a semi-soloistic role and the exhilaration of it working well. Natural horn in the season of Figaro in Melbourne, Richard Gill conducting and a wonderful cast. Beautiful music making. These are just a few.
4. What do you enjoy most about working with Omega Ensemble?
Making music with quality musicians, gorgeous compositions, a warm audience, being responsible for my part, intuiting how it fits in and intuiting the musical mood of my fellow musicians.
5. The French horn, being a brass instrument, seems an ‘odd’ fit amongst its woodwind colleagues in works for wind quartet and quintet - how does the French horn blend with these instruments and what, in particular, makes it fit amongst the clarinet, flute, and oboe?
The horn has a malleable tone that can blend well, stand out when wanted. Part of the tonal charm comes from having the right hand in the bell. The hand along with the mouth can manipulate tone colour in wondrous ways.
6. One of the pieces on the program is Hindemith’s Kammermusik. Have you played this work before and if so what do you enjoy most about it and what do you makes Hindemith's music so interesting and engaging?
There's such vitality in the Hindemith. I've been playing it for more than 30 years now and still enjoy it. I like his little rhythmic devices and interval devices. He finds a catchy rhythm and melody and shifts things around in subtle ways. It all feels playful. The ostinato in the slow movement is gorgeous and the last movement is riveting.
7. One of the other works is Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds – a rather unusual combination – what do you make of this work, have you played it before and why do you think it is a somewhat neglected Beethoven work?
Oh, a beautiful work. Last time I performed this was in Melbourne on a natural horn and Ben Hoadley played the old style bassoon, a delightful performance. The blending of winds and piano works so well. Beethoven has such a keen understanding of the winds, and piano of course. His understanding of what the instruments could deliver is exemplary.
Perhaps it doesn't have the depth of the late string quartets, yet, like so many of his works, it is immediately recognisable. It has a distinct character. It doesn't break new ground or have the grandeur of the Septet though it does have charm in abundance.
8. Could you tells us about your own compositions and your use of microtonal music. How would you explain this to a first time listener and what initially got you interested in this style of music making?
To me, microtones are the little pitch adjustments we make to make the music feel right, to sound in tune with other malleable instruments. As a composer, I prescribe these adjustments. I ask my fellow musicians to make them conscious and to play the ones I want at specific times. This allows fine tuning to have more clarity. It also allows dissonance to be more spicy. I got involved with subtle tunings along with non-standard intervals because the horn confronted me with such possibilities. Listen to the Prologue of Britten's Serenade. The intervals there can be used in delicious harmonies. Any professionally trained musician can hear and adapt their instrument to play these and other intervals. Even pianos can be retuned! Such rich wonders await our aural perceptions. I have written music with just a few notes in an octave or with up to 60 in contrast with the standard 12.
9. You’re recently set up a unique funding campaign so that you can record and produce new music. Could you tell us a bit about that and what it involves and how it works?
This is Patreon. I am a patron to a hand full of creative colleagues for as little as $1 a month. These colleagues attract a few hundred patrons. Some receive enough to work full time on creative projects. I've called my project The Brass Whisperer. My initial aim is to earn enough to keep one day a week solely for creating music in subtle tunings: Just Intonation. I want to create a wondrous repertoire for brass and some for other musicians - (instrumentalists and singers). I truly love the sounds of these delicious harmonies. It feels like magic hearing them come to life.
You can catch Michael performing in our next concert Beethoven's Quintet on 8 October at the iconic Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House.