How did you get into music in the first place?
I was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, near Doncaster and I got into music when my dad signed me up to the church choir. My mum wasn’t musical at all, but as a family we liked listening to music on the radio – shows like Friday Night is Music Night.
Through singing in the Church Choir I gained an appreciation of choral music, particularly Handel’s Messiah which became my first gramophone record. From there I went on to appreciate Tenors like Jussi Bjorling and also Harry Secombe, whom I enjoyed for his love of singing and also because I was a massive Goons fan.
I first went to a church school which taught every pupil to play the recorder and sing Tonic solfa. therefore everyone could read music before moving on to Secondary Education. I then went to grammar school where
I wanted to progress to the Clarinet, taking advantage of the free musical education that also provided instruments and lessons.I was sent home with a French horn and told “see if you can get a note out of that.”
I found out later that it was because I was an only child and the instrument wouldn’t get damaged with siblings fighting over it!
When I was 15, having passed the obligatory Grade 8 exam, I auditioned and joined the National Youth Orchestra under the tuition of the great horn player Alan Civil.
Tell us about your professional career?
I left home aged 17 to join the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in Glasgow as co- principal horn. It was a real culture shock for a young Yorkshire lad. Pubs kicking out at 10pm and drunks on the streets – I’d never seen anything like it!
After 16 months in Scotland, I joined the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in September 1971 as principal horn, under conductor Louis Frémaux, and stayed there for three years. A formative experience for a young lad under Professional pressure.
From 1974 to 1976 I was principal horn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and then the London Philharmonic Orchestra until 1981 as co-principal.
After that I went freelance for a few years working in film and TV with composers like Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen (who I continued to work for the rest of his life, having themes written for me such as Band of Brothers ). Throughout my career I have worked frequently on film and TV and recording with major stars like Paul McCartney, George Michael, Robbie Williams, Morcheeba, Pink Floyd, Shirley Bassey and many others.
In the early 80s I started playing for Andrew Lloyd Webber in concert tours of his music, recordings, videos of his musicals and performing in his theatrical works. I have been his principal horn ever since, with his horn parts being written for me. He let me arrange his Phantasia on themes from Phantom of the Opera – a performance of which is on my Reflections album.
In 1983 I also joined the BBC Concert Orchestra as Principal Horn and found myself on Friday Night is Music Night for the next three years - the programme I used to listen with my parents! i went on to work on Songs of Praise and Highway thus meeting Harry Secombe!
Alongside this work I met journalist Jasper Rees, partner of a London producer of plays and musicals in the West End and Broadway. A lapsed horn player from his youth he decided to start again during the course of his mid-life crisis! He came to me for lessons and decided to make a project out of his progress. He wrote up the lessons and turned the experience into a book – featured on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and eventually a one-man play that was performed to critical acclaim both in London and the USA, called I Found My Horn.
I also played on lots of film soundtracks and toured with the Sadler’s Wells Touring Ballet, until in 1990 I joined the Orchestra at the Royal Opera House as principal horn where I stayed until its (2 year)closure in 1997, when the time felt right to move on.
For 18 years (between 1995 and 2014) I was also a member of the Michael Nyman Band travelling all over the world with possibly the most professional bunch of tourers I’ve ever had the pleasure to tour with! Simply an exhilarating 18 years. I’m surprised I’m still alive!!
Your wife is also a professional musician and fellow member of WSO.
How did you meet?
We met 18 years ago, while working on a British Airways commercial jingle composed by Paul Hart.
What are your three most memorable musical events?
1. The first was while still at school, playing with the Halle Orchestra in the 1960s with Sir John Barbarolli conducting at the Festival Hall. I played 4th horn in Bruckner’s 8th which was being recorded for Radio 3. Barbarolli was elderly and frail then, arms all over the place (the recording took place just 10 weeks before his death) and it was only by looking at the expression on his face, you knew when to come in, for the slow movement for example. If you looked at his arms, you wouldn’t have a clue, but the facial expressions told me all I needed to know. It was a very formative musical experience. The recording was included on a BBC Legends CD years later.
2. The second was in Prague in 1974 with the RPO where I was on trial as principal horn player. It was the first time the German conductor Rudolph Kempe had turned up and we played the Oberon Overture by Weber which opens with a horn solo followed by the Eroica. The Orchestra absolutely played out of its skin – Kempe just brought the magic out of the players. Some conductors have the ability to do this, which is what makes them great, and he was the best.
3. The third was when I was with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden under Bernard Haitink. We were performing Wagner’s epic masterpiece The Ring Cycle and we were cloaked in Wagner, but the conductor was so confident and we felt in such safe hands, we just floated through the week. Fantastic!
What have been your most ‘emotional’ musical moments?
Playing Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden – the trio in the last act, the three musical voices. As a professional musician you try and put a lid on your emotions, but there in the orchestra pit you are right in the middle of the sound and it is hugely moving.
Also playing at someone’s memorial. The funeral of the composer Ian Hughes is one that was especially poignant. Playing a horn solo was the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and I did it with tears streaming down my face uncontrollably. The piece can be found as the title track on my album Reflections.
Who are your three favourite composers?
Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.
Who is your favourite horn player?
Alan Civil. I learned more from watching, listening and playing with him than I learned from any teacher. He was very un-PC and a bit of a rogue – a real Falstaffian character who liked a drink, and that characterised his playing, which was full of personality. He played on lots of film scores and was a noted authority on Mozart. He sadly died too young due to his ‘excesses’, but I loved the man and I loved his playing.
On the long running BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, guests are asked to choose the eight musical pieces they would take with them if they were cast away on a desert island. What eight would you choose?
1. Strauss - Four Last Songs – the very last songs you would want to hear. Also the famous horn solo at the
end of September.
2. The Trio in the last act of Der Rosenkavalier– for reasons previously mentioned.
3. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here album. I never heard this in the 70s when it was first released. It wasn’t until the 1980s when I was in Dublin staying with a mate, a fellow horn player and he put it on. Just hearing that opening to Shine on You Crazy Diamond and I was hooked. It was just ‘me’ – symphonic rock and I loved it. So much so, that I’ve recorded it on my album. I went on to listen to everything Pink Floyd ever did!
4. David Bowie – Low album. There’s an instrumental track on the B side, Warszawa, written with Brian Eno, which I just love.
5. Colin Towns – Mask Symphonic album. Colin was a composer from Canterbury, who wrote a lot of music for TV and film, especially children’s shows. He played keyboard in Ian Gillan’s band in the 70s. On Mask Symphonic – there is a track that I love called Dreaming Man with Blue Suede Shoes. This was one of the best recording projects I’ve ever been involved in, featuring huge names from the Jazz world. All these famous musicians together producing this amazing music. Any track would make it. An amazing sound concept fusing jazz big band with symphonic orchestra.
6. Bruckner’s 9th – that opening movement in D minor - just superb!
7. Sibelius – 5th Symphony. The perfect symphony to my mind. It opens with horns and has these huge blocks and climaxes that come screaming at you like shards of ice, then the sun comes bursting through. I get shivers up the spine listening to it and playing it.
8. Mozart – Jupiter Symphony. The last movement is the ultimate, most joyous exhibition of profound musical genius. I love it!
Do you have any musical regrets?
None really, other than I wish I’d done more concertos – but there’s maybe still time. It’s something I’m looking at, expanding the possibilities – nothing big but working with semi-pro orchestras – maybe doing a few festivals. The main point in all of this business is to enjoy playing your instrument wherever it takes you. You make your own luck and I’ve realised that if you want something to happen the best way is just to go out and try it.
Any plans to retire?
None. I aim to play until I drop. I’ve kept myself reasonably fit and in many ways I feel I’m playing better than ever. I’m more relaxed these days, I’ve cut back on what I do. For the past four years I’ve played in the West End (Les Miserables) to pay the bills, but I’m not tied in the sense I have to play every night. I can have time off to do other things. I’ve eased off, so no more 10am sessions in London. I enjoy my lie-ins these days and have a generally more relaxed approach to my playing.
What are your hobbies and pastimes?
I enjoy holidays with my wife (Liz who plays viola with WSO) and I enjoy cooking, growing my own veg, and sport. I am also very active in the Musician’s Union and have recently been elected chairman of the Executive Committee so I do a fair bit of travelling and meetings in relation to that.
Finally, do you enjoy playing with WSO?
Very much. It’s like orchestras used to be! Everything has got very dour and serious these days. Let’s just say, there’s no place for larger than life characters like Alan Civil, but with WSO we can still have a laugh and some banter and a bit of social interaction. Playing with WSO is like a day out by the seaside with music and friends. It can be on a bit of a knife edge sometimes with not enough time to rehearse and John Gibbons sets us some real challenges with his musical choices, but that only adds to the experience. As professional musicians we can all play the better known pieces, but by seeking out more unusual and less familiar works, John puts us to the sword sometimes and tests us. It’s fantastic when the Orchestra rises to the occasion and we have produced some truly memorable performances. You can feel the energy flowing and I’m sure this must come across to the audience. Long may it continue!