Joseph Eger, a French horn player, conductor and advocate for progressive causes whose work sought to promote harmony in both senses of the word, died on Jan. 13 at his home in Durham, N.C. He was 92.
His wife, Dorita Beh-Eger, confirmed the death.
A distinguished horn soloist in the mid-20th century, Eger later turned to conducting; in the 1960s he served under Leopold Stokowski as an associate conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra.
In the 1960s and ’70s Eger founded several groups designed to conscript music and the other arts in the service of social change. The best known of these, Symphony for United Nations, a nongovernmental organization associated with the United Nations, was established in New York in 1974.
Comprising a fluid, ever-changing roster of professional musicians and other performers, the group has put on concerts throughout the world, including benefit performances for victims of the Chernobyl disaster and Bosnian refugees.
It gave its last performance, in San Francisco, with Eger conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in 2010. Beh-Eger said she hoped to revive the group under a new conductor.
Joseph Eger was born on July 9, 1920, in South Manchester, Conn., and reared in and around Pittsburgh. After studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he played in orchestras throughout the United States.
By the 1950s he had embarked on a solo career, something that few players of the French horn, with its temperamental constitution and limited solo repertory, have been able to do.
“When you ask a hornist to name a famous hornist from that time, the name everyone would give was Dennis Brain," said Kate Pritchett, an assistant professor of French horn at Oklahoma City University, invoking the celebrated English player, who died in 1957. “And Joseph Eger was very much the American equivalent." (Pritchett wrote a doctoral dissertation on Eger’s work.)
As a soloist, Eger appeared on some of New York’s principal concert stages, including Carnegie Hall. Reviewing his performance of Mozart’s Third Horn Concerto at Town Hall in 1956, The New York Times wrote that “his playing of the difficult cadenza in the first movement elicited from yesterday’s audience a subdued gasp of admiration."
In the early 1960s, the slip of a tool while Eger was in the dentist’s chair gave him a lip injury that ended his playing career. He switched to conducting, studying under Pierre Monteux.
In the ’60s and afterward, Eger founded a series of professional and semiprofessional ensembles in Manhattan, among them the West Side Symphony and the New York Orchestral Society, that gave free concerts in city parks, housing projects and other public spaces.
By the end of the decade he had begun presenting concerts that fused classical music with rock and featured psychedelic spectacles by Joshua Light Show.
In the early ’70s Eger founded Aware, New York, a group intended to promote social harmony in the city through live multimedia performances. The next year he founded the Yoga Symphony, which sought to infuse Eastern music and spiritual practice into Western concert halls.
Eger’s first marriage, to Dixie Blackstone, ended in divorce. Beh-Eger, whom he married in 1990, is his only immediate survivor.
Among his recordings is a critically praised 1957 album, “Around the Horn" (RCA Victor), which includes solo pieces and a lecture by Eger about the French horn.
He was the author of a book, “Einstein’s Violin: A Conductor’s Notes on Music, Physics, and Social Change," published in 2005.
Eger’s musical philosophy was perhaps best expressed by a concert he conducted at Alice Tully Hall in 1972. The program included “Wind Piece," a composition by John Lennon and Yoko Ono that called for huge electric fans to be stationed in the orchestra, blowing the pages of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at random on players’ music stands.
The players played whatever page was open at any given moment. The result, as The Times described it, was “chaos."
But that, Eger said, was precisely the point. “You can drop bombs on people," he told The Times afterward, “and blow their pages apart, so to speak, but the people will remain. London didn’t fall apart during the blitz, and New York won’t fall apart now."