Daniel Katzen blows a mean shofar. As a professional French horn player, you might expect he’d be a natural on the ram’s horn. But that’s not the case, says Katzen, associate professor of horn at the University of Arizona. “Brass players find it particularly challenging to play the shofar,” he says, “because we are used to blowing into specialized mouthpieces.” Katzen recalls that he first shopped for a shofar in Tel Aviv just after the 1973 war when he and his brother were volunteers on a kibbutz in Israel. “I tried nearly 100 shofars,” he says, “and there were only two that I could manage to play, so I bought them both. Those uneven edges at the end are so hard to adjust to; if you don’t play a brass instrument you’d have an easier time of it.”
Katzen was already an accomplished French horn player by the time he arrived in Israel at age 22. During his free time on the kibbutz he spent three hours a day practicing his instrument. “My brother and I went to concerts together in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv whenever we could. One night I went backstage after a performance to introduce myself. The musicians told me that an ensemble was looking for a horn player. I auditioned and got my first professional job with the Israel Chamber Orchestra.”
It was not happenstance that Katzen and his brother attended concerts in Israel. Music had infused their childhood years in Rochester, N.Y. Rochester is home to the prestigious Eastman School of Music, where Katzen attended a preparatory program for local high school students who wanted to pursue careers in music. Katzen benefited not only from training at a top-notch music school, but enjoyed an upbringing that brimmed with music and dedicated parental support for the arts and for all of the children’s endeavors. His mother, Betty Katzen, played piano and always had the radio tuned to classical music. Katzen says she had a great ear and was instrumental in helping him and his siblings prepare for concerts and recitals. The family attended concerts together even when the children were very small. Katzen recalls that as a youngster he saw Igor Stravinsky conduct the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of the conductor’s own composition, “The Firebird.”
When Katzen returned to the United States after his six-month stay in Israel, he earned a bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Indiana. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Northwestern University. His first job after completing his education was with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. This provided Katzen with his first taste of the Southwest, an experience that influenced his decision some 30 years later to move to Tucson.
Katzen eventually settled in Tucson in 2007 after a long career (1979 to 2008) playing horn with the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he rose to the position of second chair. He explains that the BSO was the first orchestra in the United States and possibly in Europe, too, that paid its musicians for full time, year-round work. Katzen says that auditioning for a seat in an orchestra when he was starting out was challenging, but nothing like what it is today. “There would be maybe 50 other horn players vying for a place in an orchestra in my time; there are easily five times the number of competitors now for that one chair.”
Over the 30 years Katzen spent with the BSO and the Boston Pops (which historically has drawn its musicians from the BSO), he had the opportunity to work with many famous musicians, including the legendary Leonard Bernstein, whom Katzen says was “larger than life and over the top in every way. He was a great guest conductor at the BSO, absolutely sincere — a brilliant man and a brilliant musician. I played in Bernstein’s final concert in August of 1990 at Tanglewood [Music Center, the BSO’s summer home].”
Katzen has recorded dozens of CDs with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops Orchestras, Empire Brass and other orchestral and chamber ensembles. He has recorded solo CDs as well, notably a horn adaptation of the Bach Cello Suites.
He has played on the soundtracks of many popular movies, including “Schindler’s List.” Playing on that soundtrack, he says, connects him to Jewish history in a special way. His father, an army captain, who was awarded a Purple Heart during World War II, was in Dachau five days after the infamous camp’s liberation.
When Katzen’s mother, Betty, died in 2009, the family decided to honor her memory with an endowment to the University of Arizona School of Music’s horn studio. The studio has since been renamed the Katzen Horn Studio. In addition to its function as the educational home for horn players at the UA, it hosts concerts and recitals of horn repertoire throughout the academic year.
Katzen’s next public performance will be at the “Mozart’s 259th Birthday” concert, which is the fifth annual Betty Katzen Memorial Horn Recital on Monday, Jan. 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Crowder Hall. For ticket information, contact the Fine Arts box office at 621-1162 or www.tickets.arizona. edu.
Renee Claire is a freelance writer in Tucson.