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Musician Profile: Keith Green, Second Horn

Keith Green is the quintessential orchestral “wing-man.” He plays Second Horn in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s famed horn section. The rich, charismatic sound quality that characterizes the SFOO horn section is anchored by Keith’s ability to blend seamlessly with Co-Principal Horns Kevin Rivard and Mark Almond. Keith says, “Opera is chamber music. There’s so much movement and connection. You’re following the conductor, listening for the singers. I have a different first horn every other night. It’s uniquely challenging and rewarding to be able to adapt on the fly to whatever is up on stage and whomever I’m playing second to.” He sees his section as a family, about people first. For Keith, playing in an opera orchestra is about endurance and camaraderie. “Opera is more of a marathon than a sprint. We look out for each other. The music flows from taking care of each other, personally. We love each other in the horn section.”

San Francisco Opera Ring Horns, 2018. Top row, left to right: Keith Green, Meredith Brown, Mark Almond. Next row down: John Ring, Geoffrey Pilkington. Next row: Bob Reardon, Brian McCarty. Bottom row: Bill Klingelhoffer, Kevin Rivard.

The youngest of six, Keith grew up in Belleville, Michigan. His parents worked in auto manufacturing. In fifth grade Keith started playing the trumpet. From there he experimented with alto horn and baritone. He took up the horn in high school, as no one else was playing the instrument. He had an early love of marching band and jazz band, in which he played trombone. He has fond memories of a jazz quartet/wedding band formed with his high school buddies in which he played trombone, trumpet and soprano saxophone! But he kept going back to the horn. Eventually Keith enrolled at Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University as a Music Education major. While Keith was there, San Francisco Symphony Principal Horn player, David Krehbiel, came to give a masterclass that served as eye-opening inspiration. Keith was hooked on orchestral playing and switched to a Performance major. In 1980, Keith came to San Francisco to study with Krehbiel, while earning his Master’s degree at San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Left to right: Keith Green, Larry Ragent, Bill Klingelhoffer, Mark Almond

Keith began working in the Bay Area freelance community and won a series of one-year contracts with San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera. In 1990 Keith won the Second Horn position in the city’s Ballet Orchestra. Four years later, after a grueling four-day audition, Keith was appointed Second Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra by Music Director Donald Runnicles. “For me the opera audition posed a unique challenge. Besides learning the music, there was a lot of library work, plus digging through vinyl recordings. I had to play excerpts within long operas like I knew them, without the benefit of ever having performed them,” Keith explained.

During his early years in SFOO, Keith developed a fondness for the works of Richard Strauss. “Early on we did a Strauss festival that included Capriccio, Rosenkavalier, and Salome. Twelve hours of Strauss that I had never even heard before — I was blown away and felt like Strauss’s symphonic writing made even more sense to me.” Ask Keith what opera is his favorite to play, and he will tell you anything by Mozart. “The writing, the stage, the story. The horn writing is so pure and transparent.”

Keith Green, Bill Klingelhoffer, Brian McCarty, and Kevin Rivard serenading San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Frances Chung

Mostly, Keith loves the Opera Orchestra’s tight-knit sense of community. “The opera vibe is a family vibe. Because we have so many amazing conductors from all over the world we have to be very adaptable. The one constant is us. A lot of the energy has to come from us. We have to be respectful and treat each other like a family. We have to help each other get to the final curtain together.” 🎵

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