Chamber music: Violin Sonata & Horn TrioBy Stephanie Eslake

This March, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra musician Greg Stephens will perform what he claims to be “one of the best pieces for horn in a chamber setting”.

It’s certainly an ambitious undertaking – considering it’ll be his first time tackling the Brahms’ Horn Trio in E-Flat.

The work is an offering in the Brahmsiana Festival, and will be brought to life at Mona along with fellow performers: TSO violinist and concertmaster Emma McGrath, and pianist Jennifer Marten-Smith.

 If you think Emma and Jennifer will take a backseat in this brassy work, though, Greg has a few words to enlighten you.

“All three of us have plenty to do, and the seemingly odd combination of violin and horn works incredibly well – the two sounds blend easily, but also offer contrasts in register and timbre,” he says.

“The piano is by no means an accompanying instrument – it’s vital to melding it all together, and emphasising that luxurious Brahms sound.”

It’s no wonder Greg says he’s “excited to be finally playing it”, when considering his history with the instrument.

He studied French horn at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (and went on to teach at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music), and he’s also performed with Australia’s major symphony orchestras.

When Greg learnt about the opportunity to showcase chamber works as part of Brahmsiana, his “mind immediately turned to the horn trio”. And with Emma and Jennifer’s shared enthusiasm, their little group was formed.

“It has everything: sweeping melodies, flashy technical passages, and extremes in dynamics,” Greg says of this music.

“But I’m also glad that, even though it’s called his ‘Horn Trio’, violinists and pianists are also keen to play it.”

Greg was just 14 years old when he first picked up the horn – around the same age as Brahms had once been when he too learnt this instrument during his youth.

“His knowledge and deep appreciation for the instrument is abundantly clear in this work, and all four symphonies, which we at the TSO are playing around the same week,” Greg says.

Brahms wrote the trio in 1865, and it can be performed on a horn with or without valves – though the composer apparently favoured the latter. (“Thankfully, I’ll be sticking to the modern horn for this one!” Greg adds.)

Beyond his technical interest in the work, Greg also has a personal connection. After finishing his studies in Sydney, he undertook a post-graduate degree in Karlsruhe – a German city not far from Baden-Baden, where the horn trio was composed. Understandably, it’s a town Greg liked to visit during his time in Europe.

Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 3 in D minor will also be on the March program; it’s the final sonata he wrote for that instrument. Though the instrumentation found within these compositions may be minimal, Greg observes that “the seeds of symphonic works seem to come from such music”.

“It can be a cliché to say that a symphony orchestra is just a glorified chamber group, but it’s very accurate,” he explains.

“In the orchestra, you need to be listening and responding all the time to players around you – exactly the same way you would in a small chamber group.

“So preparing for the concert has not been much different; although the rehearsals have felt more laid-back and relaxed!”

The performance will take place in Mona’s Nolan Gallery. It takes its name from artist Sidney Nolan and his 46-metre-long Snake artwork, around which the architecture of this space was designed.

The two artists – Brahms, a 19th Century German composer; and Nolan, a 20th Century Australian painter – may present quite the creative juxtaposition to audiences. But in this artistic union between the TSO and Mona, Greg also finds a surprising connection: “We’re all essentially doing the same thing: conveying expressions of the human mind.”

Philosophy aside, the aesthetic is rather impressive, too.

“With the dark walls, the timber floors, the lighting, and the surrounding artwork, there’s already a wonderful atmosphere created.

“And to have such beautiful music fill that space makes the experience even more special.”

Greg Stephens

Violin Sonata & Horn Trio will be performed at 7.30pm March 7 in the Nolan Gallery as part of Brahms Chamber Music at MONA.