James Sommerville is a French horn soloist of international reputation and the current principal hornist for the legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra. He is also the inspiring and inspired conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and thus a major force in classical music of the city. The date of this unpublished interview is December, 2009.
1) You are James in published biographies and Jamie too when you are talked about, and each name suggests a distinct personality. Which do you prefer? Why?
Jim, I’d like to say there’s a deeper, psychological significance to it, but the truth is really just haphazard. I grew up being called Jamie – like a lot of WASP households, it was a normal diminutive – and it has more or less stuck, but “James” crops up, especially in more formal situations.
2) You have been a member of several orchestras, as a French horn player, including the Boston Symphony, the Montreal Symphony, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and others. Please evaluate the skills and unique qualities of conductors James Levine, Seiji Ozawa, Charles Dutoit, Richard Bradshaw, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and any others you found to be of major musical significance or influential on your conducting.
One thing that I have found to be very interesting about Music Directors is how each time one leaves a long-held position, the one who follows is so clearly different from the last. In many cases, there is a clear, diametric opposition. So the TSO went from Gunther Herbig, a very traditional, kappelmeisterisch leader, to Jukka-Pekka, who is very much a conductor ‘ in the moment’ I would say, with an extremely varied, quicksilver, expressive baton technique and then to Peter Oundjian, who again is more traditional, physically, but expressive, intelligent, and knowledgeable. In Boston, we went from Seiji, who showed everything with his hands – probably the most fluent and musically clear technique I will ever see – and said very little about the music; then to Levine, who consciously eschews a lot of traditionally demonstrative flourishes, but rehearses very verbally, and has clear ideas of what he wants musically and how to articulate them to the ensemble. All of these approaches, of course, can be very successful in the right hands and setting. I guess the overarching lesson I’ve learned is that you need a sophisticated and objective self-knowledge to conduct well, to know what kind of musician and communicator you actually are (as opposed, perhaps, to what you would like to be), and then exploit your strengths, and avoid your weaknesses!
3) I like so much about your conducting, such as the way you give compositional details presence as, at the same time, you create a dynamic sense of balance in the orchestra’s playing. Now I don’t mean you put you on the spot, but please discuss the attitude, skills and goals you bring or try to bring to your own conducting.
It’s hard to steer clear of clichés with a question like this! I think the key ingredient in every conductor’s approach is thoroughness of preparation – knowing every aspect of the score as well and deeply as he/she possibly can. And of course, the only way to be motivated enough to do all that hard work (at least for me), is to have a deep love for the repertoire you are studying, a profound respect for the composer’s art, and an awareness of the responsibility that we musicians hold in presenting these works to the public. Because, of course, a painting, a sculpture, a novel, exists independently, of both its creator and its interpreter, in a way a musical score does not: It is the task of the performer to (I would say literally) bring the music to life for the public.
4) Why do you enjoy conducting, as you so obviously do?
I find it gives me a new perspective on the masterpieces I have been performing for so many years. I have used the analogy before, that playing an instrument in an orchestra can feel like walking through a darkened church or palace, knowing what lies around you, but shining a powerful flashlight on the one direction that takes you where you are going. Conducting is like gradually (through study) illuminating for yourself the whole structure, in all its details. As such, the nature of performance is also less sharply focused, but hopefully with more scope and sense of the proportion and content of the gestalt.
5) What do you like about the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra?
The greatest thing about the HPO is it’s most important resource, the musicians. They are such an amazing group. Many of them have been through a lot of hardship and sacrifice with this ensemble, and yet they continue to invest themselves in its present and future with a passion that, in my experience, is completely unique. That and, of course, there is so much talent and musicality on the stage, that it makes conducting much easier than it sometimes is elsewhere!
6) The French horn is certainly an instrument of distinct and appealing tonal qualities and it is uniquely essential in countless compositions. So what should a listener know about this special instrument in order to appreciate it and you as a soloist?
I think what attracts me still to the horn, as you point out, is its amazing range of sonorities. The horn is considered a member of both the woodwind and the brass sections, in part for that very reason: That the sounds and dynamics possible on the horn can blend perfectly with both groups, and indeed with the strings as well. Added to that fact (or I suppose because of it), the horn has a solo and chamber music repertoire that, although not the equal of that for the violin or the piano, I would say comes in a strong third, in terms of the breadth and quality of the music written for us over the centuries.
7) What can tell us about French horns with the two kinds of valves and those without as in Mozart’s time.
Essentially, the valves, which were developed around 1815 and came into common usage a couple of decades later, allow the player to instantly lengthen or shorten the horn, whereas before that we had to use the right hand and the embouchure to change pitches. While these techniques allow for great virtuosity and expressiveness (as evidenced by the masterpieces of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven etc. for the solo horn), the new technology allowed hornists to more easily play in the styles which were evolving in the Romantic period: more extensive and faster modulation to distant keys, a generally longer, smoother approach to melodic line, a greater emphasis on extremes of loud and soft playing. All of these attributes were easier to achieve with the valve horn, and musical technology always has a way of changing with the demands of the art of the times.
8) I remember reading a laudatory review of your recording of the four horn concerti by Mozart in the British press and you were compared as equal to the legendary recordings that Dennis Brain made with Von Karajan. You also played one of these famous concerti recently as a soloist with the Hamilton Philharmonic. So please tell me what it is about these four compositions that a lover of music would appreciate and enjoy.
Mozart’s Horn concerti certainly demonstrate Mozart’s effortless mastery of melody, of drama, and his amazing understanding of the capabilities of the instrument. What continues to draw me to them is the personality contained in the writing. Mozart always composed solo music (and solo song and opera for that matter) with a particular player in mind, and he tailored the demands of the piece to his soloist. The concerti were written for a dear old family friend, Ignaz Leutgeb. Leutgeb was also the butt of many of Mozart’s practical jokes, some of which are contained within this music – scatological annotations in the score in Italian, witty little musical jokes scattered everywhere. But with all this tomfoolery, they remain so beautiful and generous, and it is clear the Wolfgang really admired and loved Leutgeb, in spite of the pranks!
9) It’s obvious at any given classical music concert that grey hair prevails in the audience, so I have several questions here. First, please give me some ways that young people would benefit from hearing a live concert by your orchestra? What’s in it for them?
I think the same thing that is ‘in it’ for anyone: It is emphatically not true, in my experience and belief, that young people are incapable of understanding, or appreciating, or responding emotionally to great art of all kinds. It is arguably true that we have not done enough to demystify what we do, and there is undeniably an aura of snobbery and stuffiness around art music that we need to do a better job of dispelling.
10) You introduce many compositions from the stage in words of great sensitivity and passion, so name five composers (yes, only five) whose music you could not live without and in each case please tell me why.
I’d like to answer this a bit differently if you don’t mind. There is one composer who I appreciate more deeply than before as a result of having taken up conducting: That composer is J S Bach. This may seem odd on the face of it, since we don’t play a lot of Bach in the HPO, but we do as much as I can squeeze in to our programs appropriately. Although I have, of course, studied his works for decades, and performed many of them, I have above all been startled by the depth of emotional response that his music creates in me whenever I conduct it. I think it is the perfect marriage of intellect and emotion that he brings to every major work; The incredible mind behind the music is visible on the page, but to perform a Bach concerto, a cantata or a mass brings you into direct contact with the passion, with the depth of feeling in his music, and it is often an overwhelming spiritual experience.
11) Would you name a few, as they say, underrated or not too well known classical compositions you like and explain why they should be given wider attention.
I think I would rather say that we all tend to stick a bit too closely to the “canon” as it were, the few hundred standard orchestral works that march through the concert hall regularly. Although there is no denying that the greatest masterpieces always have something new to show us, I think everyone (and I include musicians in this) would benefit from expanding their horizons and listening to the new and untried. Most particularly, I feel that many listeners have fears or preconceptions about contemporary music, music by living composers. Although it is true that some of the languages today’s artists use in their composition are unfamiliar, there is great beauty, passion and energy in the concert hall now, coming from young composers who have articulate, fresh artistic voices with a great deal to say. Any listener, with whatever amount of experience, who brings open ears to a concert of new music, should be able to find something inspiring and moving there, if we as performers and programmers are doing our jobs well!