Meet the Musician: Principal Hornist Geoffrey Pilkington

Photography by Danielle Cho

Where did you grow up and did you come from a musical family?

I am originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, where I was fortunate to be exposed to music at an
early age. While my parents did not pursue music, they have a shared love for it; in fact, they
met each other in choir at their high school! My mother played violin for the youth symphony,
which I later joined, and my father also played the french horn. I sang in choir and studied piano throughout my childhood, and eventually took up the horn in middle school.

Where did you go to school to get your musical training?

First of all, I would never have made it this far without the extraordinary fortune of studying with Carolyn Wahl, hornist with the Florida Orchestra. It was through her guidance that I was
exposed to music in a way that led me to devote my life to it, and was fully prepared to audition for any university or conservatory by the time I was ready to graduate high school. I was able to realize my dream of attending the Juilliard School in NYC, and study with former principal hornist of the Metropolitan Opera, Julie Landsman. I spent my final year of undergraduate work in London, attending the Royal Academy of Music, through an exchange program.

Photography by Danielle Cho

What is your position in the orchestra and when did you join?

While I was studying in London, I took a leave of absence from my classes to audition for the
Washington National Opera, which I joined as 4th horn in 2004. Almost exactly 10 years later, I
auditioned for the Principal Horn vacancy, and officially started in that capacity in 2014.

We are currently performing Verdi's Don Carlo. The opera opens with a giant horn soli. Can you tell us about that and how you prepared for such a big section feature?

I’ve been aware of this famous quartet from Don Carlo since high school, and have always
wished to have the opportunity to perform it! Our section met outside of work several times to
conceptualize our approach and iron out the intricacies with intonation and balance. The
quartet begins in exact unison, and branches off into harmony in the middle section, before
ending once again in unison. It is a challenge to have four horn players match sound and
intonation to sound as one, and move together without delay; we have enjoyed tackling this
challenge together. Each part is written in a different transposition, which is to say that none of
us are playing the notes we see printed on the page, and we are all transposing in different keys from each other. So to look at the score for the quartet, it doesn’t even look like we are playing in unison! It is a thrill to open the opera with this magnificent quartet, and in particular for me, to do so with my colleagues that I have enjoyed working with for many years!

What has been your most memorable experience with the KCOHO?

I have many great memories over the 14 years I have been a member of this orchestra, but the
Ring Cycle stands out among them for sure. I remember the first time I heard music from the
Ring; I was in High School, listening to Gotterdammerung with Solti and Vienna. I was transfixed with the horns and how great the writing was, and how LONG the piece was!! I could
not fathom anyone being able to make it through that entire opera and still have any chops to
play another note. At some point I found out that was just one of four epic operas that make up the Ring Cycle!

Within the Ring Cycle of endless horn solos and section tuttis, there is a single moment that stands out. It is the most extensive, difficult solo written for my instrument in any genre. It lasts over two minutes and is completely unaccompanied. I sat on stage, just outside of the view from the audience, and had to line up my phrases with the singer on stage. I have worked on this piece for many years, but it is quite a different experience to perform it in the context of a 5 ½ hour opera!! While I was waiting to play my solo, I could hear the stage manager speaking into her microphone to cue the singers to come to stage left for their next entrance, the stage-hands running around making noise while doing their part, random extra people from the company standing around while I play my solo, and of course, listening to the orchestra perform the music leading up to my solo. It was quite a lot to take in at once, and took enormous concentration to keep focused on the task at hand. I will never forget the feeling as I began to play the call, followed by the sense of accomplishment and relief when it was finished!! The summer after performing the Ring Cycles, I traveled to New Zealand and had the experience of bungee jumping from one of the highest platforms in the world. The moment leading up to the jump, and the second that I leapt off the platform most closely reminded me of the sensation of playing that Long Call!

To have the opportunity to perform the entire cycle as Principal Horn with the Washington National Opera has been a dream come true! I will forever cherish the memories of the pre-production rehearsals, listening to this great orchestra rise to new heights and knock it out of the park, working with a fantastic team of horn players (about 13 in total involved in the project!), and the absolute rush of adrenaline I experienced playing the famous Siegfried Long Call solo off-stage!!

What do you like to do when you aren't playing horn?

I enjoy spending time with my wife, Kathryn, and our two boys, Gavin and Colin. We have
explored all the best playgrounds, water parks and trails in the area, and have started planning
our first camping trip as a family. Outside of music, my other great love is food and coffee! I
have been roasting my own coffee beans at home for the past 10 years, and enjoy learning all
the different methods of brewing the best cup of coffee to start my day. Additionally, I have a
Big Green Egg charcoal grill/smoker, that I love to cook anything from fish to BBQ on. I would
prefer to make a nice meal at home to enjoy over a bottle of wine with family and friends than to go out to a restaurant.