When the Cleveland Orchestra brought Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to Carnegie Hall in 2019, its conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, lowered his baton and paused in front of the Scherzo.
A modest young man walked from the horn section to the front of the stage, where he stood as if he were a concert soloist. He raised his instrument and let out a cry: a cheerful, warm herald of a bright new day. When the movement ended, he just sat back down.
It was an unexpected interlude. Few orchestras follow the custom – dating back to Mahler’s life – of placing the horn so prominently near the conductor’s stage in the symphony’s Scherzo. More surprising, however, was the sound that came from that player, which hardly anyone in the audience had heard before. His solo spin, delivered with a clarity even veterans struggle with, had the arrival of a major artist. But who was he?
A quick glance at the program yielded the answer: Nathaniel Silberschlag, who was only 21 years old as first horn with Cleveland, one of the most accomplished and legendary orchestras in the country. And the concert was one of his first with the ensemble.
But the pandemic also made it his last at Carnegie for a long time. The Clevelanders didn’t return there until June 1—when Silberschlag’s horn sounded again, in the soft but dignified opening theme of Schubert’s “Great” Symphony. Now 23, and after a two-year probationary period, Silberschlag is an official, permanent member of the orchestra, with a long career ahead of him if he chooses to.
“It’s no joke when I say that when I was practicing in my basement growing up, my parents, out of encouragement, would yell, ‘It sounds like the Cleveland Orchestra down there!'” Silberschlag said in an interview for last week. week concert. “The tradition of this orchestra, the tradition of these brass – it’s as cliché as it gets, but it’s a dream come true that I made it here.”
SILBERSCHLAG IS BORN in what he called a “very, very musical family”. That might be an understatement. There are over a dozen professional musicians and many Juilliard School graduates among his relatives. His grandfather was Sol Greitzer, a viola player who played under Toscanini and held the headquarters of the New York Philharmonic for over ten years (appointed by Pierre Boulez). His parents met as members of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. And his older brother, Zachary Silberschlag, is the first trumpet of the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra.
An offer to teach at St. Mary’s College of Maryland brought Nathaniel’s mother and father to that state, where he grew up in Leonardtown. The rural location in Chesapeake Bay belied a well-traveled life; he followed his parents on work trips, mostly to Italy. That’s why, he said, he became “a dropout in the second grade” and was homeschooled — at a rapid pace that required him to attend classes while many teens would begin trigonometry.
Silberschlag started playing the piano at the age of 3, then the horn at the age of 4. His first teacher was his father, but when he was about 12 he met Julie Landsman, the Metropolitan Opera’s regular horn player and member of the Juilliard faculty. “His parents were very concerned about my skills as a teacher,” she said. “But I thought he was brilliant, motivated, handsome and incredibly talented.”
With Landsman, he learned extra-musical practices that have been crucial to his youthful success: meditation and visualization. “You train your brain and wire it up for this purpose, and you put yourself in a meditative state at some point,” Silberschlag said. “You train your brain to keep the negative thoughts out and positive thoughts in, and purposefully.”
He visualized auditions so they would feel familiar and non-threatening when he did them. And he had one goal in mind: a job with the Cleveland Orchestra, whose recordings were the first he achieved during his youth.
A big step came when he was admitted to Juilliard. That was right before a Passover Seder, which with Silberschlag’s extended family may involve impromptu performances or name-die-tune games. A family member joked, “Okay, you’re in. Let’s hear what was so good.” So without warming up, he played on the spot from his audition – a virtuoso concerto.
At age 19, toward the end of his third year with Juilliard, he won the place of assistant principal horn with the Kennedy Center Opera House orchestra. As a congratulation, he was offered a drink. “And of course,” Silberschlag said, “I had to confess and say, ‘Well, I’m not 21 yet and unfortunately my father is sitting in the car waiting to take me home.”
During his senior year, he said, “I lived on Amtrak.” He shuttled between Juilliard and the Kennedy Center a few times a week. At one point, he starred in a performance of “Tosca” at the Washington National Opera while preparing a studio recital, orchestral concerts, papers, and college graduation.
He was also auditioning for Cleveland. The orchestra’s main horn position had been vacant for several years. Welser-Möst invited guests, including the conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, who turned down an offer because of the move it would entail. Gifted players didn’t seem to fit in well with the group. “If you hire someone, don’t make a compromise of it,” Welser-Möst said, “because it will always be a compromise.”
Welser-Möst sought advice from Landsman, who told him she had this man, “the greatest talent I have ever seen.” So Silberschlag was invited to play – first for the conductor, then for the audition committee. He raced through Mozart and Strauss and ended with the Long Call solo from Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’.
“The last two measures of that, you’re always biting your nails and thinking, ‘Is that person going to make it or not?'” Welser-Möst said. “This was the first time it sounded like it wasn’t a problem. And I looked around at everyone there. They all had some kind of open mouth. They couldn’t believe it.”
Hear Silberschlag perform, and you can quickly see what persuaded them. Landsman described his sound as rich, creamy and colorful; it is also tenderly human, with the singing quality of a cello. And, Welser-Möst said, “when he plays, each note has a meaning and is connected to the general expression of a movement or the whole piece.”
But members of the Cleveland Orchestra, as Welser-Möst said, must be not only good instrumentalists, but also good musicians – invested in the ensemble as a whole and able to navigate the dynamics of a team (something Silberschlag had experience with). , after years of playing baseball, his other passion, which could have gotten more serious had he not been derailed by an injury). Hence the probationary period, which lasts two years.
At no point was Welser-Möst worried about Silberschlag’s youth. “When someone has potential, the experience comes naturally,” he said. “And it’s not about age; it’s about maturity.” Experience came quickly. One of Silberschlag’s first appearances was in that Mahler symphony. Not quite sure how to react when Welser-Möst asked him if he would be willing to play at the front of the orchestra, he simply replied, “Would you like me to sit or stand?”
The solo itself wasn’t stressful, but the journey to the front of the stage was — “a long time to think about yourself in silence while everyone else is silent too,” Silberschlag said. He used the walking meditations he had learned from Landsman, who was at the Carnegie concert and recognized from her seat what he was doing. At the end of the performance he took the first solo bow. Next up was Michael Sachs, principal trumpet, who gave up his own bow to walk to Silberschlag and raise his arm like a champion fighter.
The probation period was interrupted when the pandemic halted performances in March 2020, and again when concerts resumed almost exclusively with string repertoire, as those players could remain masked, while brass and horns could not. Silberschlag had to take a long break from the orchestra. He ended up spending much of his time in Maryland, practicing in his parents’ basement.
There, one day, he logged on to a video call for his final tenure meeting. He participated. “If you play Mahler Five in your second week and you succeed like he did – sorry, that’s a good idea,” Welser-Möst said. But, he added, other players also follow the sound of Silberschlag with ease, which is a sign of natural leadership. He has a running joke with Silberschlag about checking in every now and then to ask, “Has your head gotten bigger?” But the answer, just last week, was still no.
With the possibility of five more decades to come in Cleveland, Silberschlag said, “I couldn’t be happier to be in this orchestra as soon as possible so that I can spend as much time in the orchestra as possible. †
After listening obsessively to the ensemble’s recordings, he is now on it himself. And he started teaching, sharing a studio at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Richard King, Silberschlag’s predecessor. He has, Welser-Möst said, everything it takes to be a role model, not just a great artist.
“The potential with him,” Welser-Möst added, “is to become a real legend.”