Neil Kimel, 2nd Horn Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Symphony 

CLAUDIA: Can you describe the first time you ever went to hear a symphony orchestra play a live concert?
NEIL: I think the first time I heard a symphony orchestra live was a youth concert with the Chicago Symphony. Nice way to start! I happen to be in a box seat and I was so impressed by the experience. I don’t have specific memories, but every time I play at Symphony Center I think of that first concert and the path that got me to where I am today.
CLAUDIA: Did they have a music program in your elementary school when you were growing up?
NEIL: Yes, I began playing the French horn in 5th grade with a stellar band director.
CLAUDIA: How old were you when you started taking private lessons?
NEIL: 10
CLAUDIA: How did you choose the instrument you play professionally?
NEIL: I knew nothing about any of the instruments. The day I went to select one, it just happened to be band instruments. I liked the aesthetic look of the horn with all of the curves, asked what it was, made a (horrible) sound on it and took it home to the amazement and confusion of my parents.
CLAUDIA: What or who was your guiding influence as a music student?
NEIL: I had amazing guidance from day one with my aforementioned band director, youth orchestra conductor, high school band and orchestra conductors, my private teachers Daniel Gingrich of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and his wife Mary, my college professor Barry Benjamin and talented colleagues from way back until the present who still teach me and push me to grow every day.
CLAUDIA: How many hours per day did you practice as a student? How many hours of playing do you do now in a typical work week of rehearsals, individual practicing and concerts?
NEIL: As a student it wasn’t….a lot, but it grew as my interest did. This past week with Final Fantasy and my regular job, I had 31 hours of rehearsals and performances plus private practice of at least an hour or more a day.
CLAUDIA: Where did you go to school?
NEIL: I went to the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee where I earned a degree in Cinema and a minor in English while I took private lessons with my horn and played in the Symphony Orchestra and Wind Ensemble for practical experience. I still do not possess a music degree to this day.
CLAUDIA: What was the your first performing job with an orchestra?
NEIL: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as a substitute and the Milwaukee Ballet as a permanent member.
CLAUDIA: Did you listen to and study only Classical music now?
NEIL: I still enjoy listening to classical music and opera even away from work, but my wife opens my ears up to contemporary and more pop music and jazz.
CLAUDIA: What are some of your favorite movie soundtracks?
NEIL: That is how I really immersed myself in symphonic music as a teenager. John Williams’ talents made me listen over and over and over to his music from the Star Wars saga, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark and countless more films that I can still hum every note of every time I see these films.
CLAUDIA: Who are your favorite composers?
NEIL: I am a huge fan of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. Not only his music fascinates me, but his life is a constant source of interest to me. I also love the works of Wagner, Strauss, Neilsen, Dvorak, Elgar, Beethoven, Janacek and many more.
CLAUDIA: What made the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy performance memorable for you as a performing artist?
NEIL: This is my second performance of music from Final Fantasy and the thing that always stands out to me and my colleagues is the vitality and excitement of the best crowd a performer can imagine. The mere mention of a title from Final Fantasy 4 will bring a roar from adoring fans. Nobuo Uematsu is a rock star to these concert-goers and they know every note of what we are about to play. No pressure! These concerts get a young audience into a concert hall and listening to a symphony orchestra. Nothing makes me happier than to see this and to get the reaction the fans give with numerous, exuberant standing ovations.
CLAUDIA: Do you usually get an audience of this demographic for your season subscription concerts?
NEIL: At Lyric Opera of Chicago, we do get some audience members of this average age or younger, but nowhere near the number of what we had this past weekend. I hope the fans of sword and sorcery and fantasy explore the Ring Operas of Richard Wagner so they know there ARE works out there that are set in this realm with special effects of dragons being slayed, swords, fire, giants, flying horses, gnomes and much more. They Ring Cycle is also the ULTIMATE marathon lasting 15 hours over 4 nights!
CLAUDIA: What types of opera or symphonic music do you think the enthusiastic fans of Nobuo Uematsu’s music would like as well?
NEIL: In addition to the aforementioned operas, they could listen to the tone poems of Strauss and Dvorak for the visual story-telling they create in the listeners’ minds, as well as the music of Mahler for the massive orchestration they are used to hearing. Try his 6th Symphony for the extreme human emotions he portrays as well as the marches and love theme, and the ultimate roller-coaster ride of its 30 minute last movement that reminds me of Final Fantasy at times. I know they will love it.
CLAUDIA: How do you think a symphony orchestra or opera company could encourage the Final Fantasy fans who seem to love the live music experience to come to their performances?
NEIL: Nobuo Uematsu needs to write a Final Fantasy opera! Seriously, I think if these gamers look a bit outside this world into opera they would see that operatic music is the ultimate soundtrack for what happens on stage plus we closed the second show in Chicago with an operatic piece so Uematsu-san is already challenging his audience with this medium. I also want to reiterate that like the music we played for you, operatic and symphonic music often works in the same way: Musical themes or “motives” represent characters, places, or objects you see, many styles are covered (Spanish like the Flamenco piece, marches, love themes, battle scenes, or jazzy like Chocobo, etc.) and the stories are often epic and exciting. Forget that orchestral or opera music is often thought of as “old”, “boring”, “stuffy”, or “for old people” and give it a try.