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February 28, 2022Stephen Laifer -
The story of Julie Landsman’s final audition round in 1986 for principal horn of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (the MET) is legend among horn players.
“In my final round, I competed against two other horn players,” recounts Landsman, who is a longtime member of Local 802 (New York, NY) and more recent member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). “The MET holds their auditions completely blind behind a screen, which is a beautifully fair system. Audition committees don’t see gender, whether you’re tall or short, or the color of your skin. All they have to work with is what they hear and sense.”
Landsman says the last thing they asked her to play in her final round was Siegfried’s horn call, an infamously fiendish horn solo from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas. “I had been practicing the long call since junior high school, and I knew it was a test of endurance,” she says. “So I played it and held onto the final high C. I wanted to make sure there was no doubt in their minds who to pick.”
Landsman stopped the high note when she heard the committee laughing. “I obviously made the right choice. Ten minutes later, the personnel manager announced I was the winner. They brought me out from behind the screen, and I watched as some members of the all-male audition committee walked to the rear of the room and turned their backs on me. And I made a note to remember which ones did that.”
Landsman’s story is an appropriate anecdote for Women’s History Month, a window back into a time not all that long ago when women in professional orchestral brass sections were still a relative rarity—and more so in principal positions. She says winning the job put her in a situation where she felt she needed to prove herself more than her male colleagues. Her approach was simple: “I just decided to play better than all of them. No pressure!” she laughs. “To me, it was a call to arms. I wouldn’t leave any room for question. I was going to make sure I knocked it out of the park at all times.”
Landsman held the MET’s principal horn chair for 25 years. Winning the audition was the culmination of a real childhood dream, achieved through sheer hard work. “I always wanted to be first horn of the MET,” she declares. “I started seeing MET operas as a youngster, waiting in line at the crack of dawn on Sunday mornings to buy a week’s worth of standing room tickets. Listening to all those great vocalists, I learned about sound and phrasing.”
While she loves both, opera playing has always held more appeal for her than symphony orchestra work, and she explains how the two skills sets are quite distinct. “The sense of community and sound production in an opera orchestra requires a different way of listening. You’re accompanying the singers on the stage, and the sound concept is lighter, more flexible, and transparent. It’s a very different way of playing for a principal horn. Your job is more to let the stars on stage shine—as opposed to being the star all the time.”
She got her start on the horn in 6th grade in her native New York. “The band director looked at my teeth, tested out my ear, and declared I should play the horn. Plus horn lessons were free. My mom, always looking for a bargain, jumped on it.” Landsman made quick progress. “I needed my voice to be heard, and there it was. The horn was a megaphone for my heart.”
Of course, Landsman also had good teachers. “They instilled in me the love and art of teaching, and they changed my life,” she says. Alongside her teacher Howard T. Howard (former MET principal horn and member of the section when Landsman won the audition—and one of the committee members who did not turn his back on her), she singles out the great brass teacher Carmine Caruso.
“I had such a beautiful foundation with both of them,” she says. “And Carmine was like my Mister Rogers: he liked me just the way I was. Having a bit of a bumpy ride growing up, I soaked up that energy. It gave me tremendous depth of appreciation for my students and the fine art of teaching.”
Like her own teachers, Landsman has built an extraordinary career as an educator. She has held a faculty position at The Juilliard School since 1989 and is a frequent guest teacher at the Curtis Institute. She has presented master classes around the world, is on the teaching roster at Music Academy of the West, and most recently joined the faculty at USC’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles. Her students have won prominent positions in many major American orchestras, and three of them—“my girls,” Landsman boasts proudly—have worked alongside her as members of the MET’s horn section.
One of her girls, MET Assistant Principal Horn and Local 802 member Julia Pilant, calls Landsman “a tough straight-shooter. But also one of the wisest, most compassionate, supportive, and down to earth persons I’ve ever known. She is constantly evolving, keeping her open-minded curiosity and desire to continue learning and improving.” Pilant says this sets an incredible example for her students. “Julie was also the first prominent horn player I met who has always been honest about her experiences—good and bad—in all of her different capacities as a professional musician, a ‘real’ person, and a woman in a leadership position in a field that had been dominated by men. Also, ask her about her nickname,” she adds.
“Ah yes, the nickname,” Landsman sighs, and you can hear the smile in her voice. “I once had a student who made little progress despite being supremely talented.” He showed up to yet another lesson unprepared—and Landsman lost it. The ensuing Don’t you know who I am? I’m Julie [expletive] Landsman!! gave rise to the moniker JFL. “Students used to call me that behind my back, but I embrace it now. When I’m pumped up, JFL is very present.” JFL is also now even embossed on her line of Warburton horn mouthpieces.
“Over the years, I think I’ve evolved into a kinder, gentler version of myself,” she says. “I give my heart when I teach, 100% committed, and I love working with each student to crack their code and get them inspired. Kindness and support go so far with everything, but specifically with teaching. When students feel supported, they have a great launch pad for their own careers as performers, educators, and human beings.” Landsman says her teaching is still evolving. “The less I play these days, the more I teach. I believe I have greater need to share my experience and wisdom.”
Landsman is currently taking stock, and while she is slowing her pace, she refuses to use the word ‘retirement.’ “It’s more about working with a balance now,” she says. “What’s most important? Your work, your playing, your students, or your health? Most times in the past I’ve chosen my work. Isn’t that crazy? But the lifestyle at the MET takes resilience, commitment, and grit. I’d base my entire day, week, even my month on what I needed to do to bring my best to work every day. For 25 years. It took a toll.”
Landsman points to musculoskeletal issues which she has been dealing with over her entire career. She embraces yoga, stretching, and Alexander technique, all of which she files under lifestyle maintenance. “I left the MET at 57. In my last three years I really felt the wear and tear. I started Alexander Technique to improve support and efficiency in my playing, and it helped so much that I encourage all my students to work with an Alexander teacher. Without these things, I wouldn’t have made it.”
Reducing her presence at Juilliard and moving to Southern California for her position at USC has helped her redefine her pace. “Santa Barbara is paradise found,” she says. “I’ve shaken up the whole bottle during this pandemic: I sold my New York house and bought my dream house in California with a pool. I swim every day, and being submerged in the water is a spiritual event. I walk my black lab on the beach. And I can also teach outside.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a grieving process of letting go of who she was. “I think often about the decades of playing that made me fulfilled deeply in my soul. But I’m now transferring that to my teaching and my friendships.” Gratitude for the life she has led is a big component. “I wake up in the morning and write down things I’m grateful for,” she says. “Gracious acceptance.”
The easier West Coast lifestyle has also given her time to think about her position as a leading role model for her students, particularly women. “Carmine Caruso taught me an old Italian expression about not messing where you eat. I encourage my female students to keep their boundaries clear. Nowadays this idea is evolving, with changing concepts around gender.”
In the current atmosphere of greater faculty accountability around both gender discrimination and inappropriate interactions with students, Landsman unsurprisingly has some thoughts. “We all need to operate from a place of deeper respect,” she says. In the academic world, she believes administrators need to step up and take greater responsibility for the safety of their students, promptly removing them from places where they are at risk—and also removing the faculty members in question. In the orchestral world, Landsman supports fully screened blind auditions as a way to ensure anonymity for all candidates. She believes such protection can be achieved through collective bargaining. “I’ve been a proud member of Local 802 since the mid-70s and I’m now a proud member of Local 47,” she says. “I continue to appreciate all the protections the union offers us.”
Landsman obviously still misses the job, and live opera at the MET. But she says she loves the MET’s high-definition live broadcasts in movie theaters. She most recently attended the MET’s 2021/22 season opener. “It was right after their lockout, and it was an emotional night.” It was also the debut of Black composer Terence Blanchard’s opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones. “Such a tremendously powerful evening, being there and feeling that energy.”
The teaching, she says, will carry on as long as she is able. “Because of COVID, so many things were canceled. Right now, I’m honored to mentor many of my current and former students, and it’s a privilege to stay in their lives. My goal is always to raise students who are better than me.”