When Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets was picking a band instrument in fourth grade, she asked her mom if she could play the French horn, and her mom said no, it was too expensive. Now, after hearing the French horn quartet Genghis Barbie perform at the Miller Theater last night, she is deeply regretting not pushing her mom to let her pick that instrument anyway.
At a rehearsal of the CU Wind Ensemble last Monday, my friend Brent told our saxophone section that, at a particular point in the piece he had composed, they needed to express their love of saxophone in the way that they played the melody. It seemed like a ridiculous direction to me, as I laughed about it with my stand partner. But near the beginning of Genghis Barbie’s concert at the Miller Theater last night, I suddenly understood exactly what Brent was talking about.
Genghis Barbie describes itself as “the leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience.” It is a group of four classically trained French horn players who play pretty much anything that can be arranged for four French horns – which is a more versatile collection of music than you might expect. The group consists of Rachel Drehmann (a.k.a. Attila the Horn), Danielle Kuhlmann (a.k.a. Velvet Barbie), Leelanee Sterrett (a.k.a. Cosmic Barbie), and Alana Vegter (a.k.a. Freedom Barbie). Not only do they excel at their instruments, they love their instruments – and they demonstrate that love through their performance.
Last night, the group performed at the Miller Theater in the theater’s series of free pop-up concerts. Unlike most concerts, however, this one was dedicated to its theme: prom night. The theater had elaborate, romantic decorations of pink and red, all of the ushers and attendants wore “prom queen” sashes, and there was a selfie station with tiaras, flowers, and cardboard French horns for audience members to pose with. The event also boasted a free open bar. The theater was packed, with people sitting on the stage as well as in the theater itself; this event was more popular than the average Miller pop-up concert.
The four “barbies” entered, all in long dresses that would not have been out of place at a high school prom, and immediately began to play. Their first song was Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” and their gorgeous harmonies and majestic tone would have put Freddie Mercury to shame. It truly sounded as though the performers were singing through their instruments.
As the concert progressed, Genghis Barbie performed songs ranging from Janelle Monae’s “57821”, to “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, to a piece from an opera by Bizet, to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” In each number, I was impressed by pretty much every aspect of their performance. I’ve played in concert bands and wind ensembles for years, and I’ve learned to distinguish the good horn players from the merely mediocre – and these women excelled in every way. Tone, blend, articulation, dynamics, expression… all were the stuff of legends. They played both louder and softer than I knew French horns were capable of, and were able to play quick fanfares and trombone-like slides. It was clear that the performers had been classically trained from the precision of their notes, but it was also clear that they were having more fun than is traditional for classical performers to show during concerts.
At one point in my notes on the event, I wrote, “literally is this what heaven sounds like.”
In between numbers, the horn players joked and told stories. Alana Vegter told the audience that she was a prom queen herself, and said that “this is probably the only prom my kids will ever let me attend with them.” The “barbies” also asked French horn trivia questions, and gave free CDs to audience members who correctly answered them. I learned that Mozart wrote four horn concertos, and that horn players put their hands in their bells in order to center their sound. (Adjusting their hand positions can bend pitch.)
Genghis Barbie also engaged their audience with colorful light changes and other prom-like effects, such as a disco ball and bubble machine. They invited people to clap, sing, and even dance along. But nobody ever dared to take on the dance floor – perhaps because we were all too enthralled to do anything but sit in awe. It was abundantly clear that the four women on stage were having the time of their lives expressing their love of music and their love of French horn – which made them the perfect ensemble to be featured at a Valentine’s Day concert. I only hope that I can channel a similar feeling the next time I play my clarinet.
Horny for horns via Betsy Ladyzhets