Alec Frank-Gemmill, horn player

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

People always answer this question with statements along the lines of “at the age of 3 I saw a viola da gamba and I just knew that playing this instrument would be the most important thing in my life”. It wasn’t like that for me at all! I really liked my horn lessons at school and my teacher, Marcus Bates. Meanwhile, I also started enjoying music lessons in the curriculum and this led me to choose to study music at university. The place I went to was very academic, so I then really felt like going to music college for a bit of light relief. But after just a week studying the horn full-time I realised I found it profoundly boring. The problem was that, while I enjoyed playing the horn as a means of learning about music, I didn’t enjoy playing the horn as an end in itself. Luckily I had already begun a sideline in early music: at the suggestion of my school recorder teacher, Ann Murray, I had started attending masterclasses held at the Abbaye aux Dames in Saintes, France. As well as being introduced to funny old horns, I learnt a huge amount about style and meaning in music. I remember playing (a terrible old Vienna horn) in Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony under Philippe Herreweghe like it was yesterday. Incredibly inspiring experiences like this have kept me excited about music and still do.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the Proms on the natural horn was an incredible challenge. Not many people seemed to realise it. That is perhaps the greatest challenge of playing the horn in general: often people only notice what a challenging thing you are doing when you screw up.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m extremely proud of my first ever recording (of anything, even as a member of an orchestra), which was Weber’s Concertino with the SCO. My approach to the piece is perhaps a bit daring in that I use numerous ornaments from a contemporary arrangement I’d found in a library in Berlin. This solves the problem of the Concertino’s endless repeats – you can provide some (stylistically appropriate) variety. My teacher, however, was not happy about it! For her, ornamentation in the 19th Century is never okay. I love that she was so annoyed with me.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think that I perform the classic, German chamber music repertoire best. Perhaps we all think that about our readings of these pieces… But I’ve spent a great deal of my time immersed in string chamber music, through attending festivals like Prussia Cove, as well as working with gifted pianists like, for example, Alasdair Beatson. These experiences have shaped my approach to Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, the Brahms Trio, Mozart Quintet etc.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I think that the ups and downs of my off-stage life probably provide some kind of fuel for my antics when on stage. But the jury is out as to whether leading a very dull home life would make for better or worse performances.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

We horn players have limited repertoire options. I put my energy into new music, transcriptions and less well-known (often early) works. If I am permitted to schedule one of these more novel items in a programme or festival then I’m also willing to repeat the standard repertoire. Otherwise I just turn the work down.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

The Musikverein in Vienna is fantastic. I’m not sure why but the slightly smaller size of the hall plus the large amount of wood in the staging seems to project my sound exactly how I like it. We once played Beethoven 5 there and a very tiny elderly Viennese lady was sitting only about 2 metres behind the horn section. She stayed behind at the end of the concert and I was expecting a dressing down (since we hadn’t been using valves, let alone Vienna horns). But she said we were “Die grossen Helden” [the great heroes]. This kind of feedback in this venue felt like a big deal. [I should mention that my colleague on 2nd horn, Harry Johnstone, had played an absolute blinder and the credit is all his].

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I wish I knew. Having worked all over Europe, I sense that some countries have classical music firmly within their culture. Austria is one obvious example but Estonia is another. There is absolutely zero sense in these countries that classical music is “other”, “difficult” or “not for me”. I would love to normalise classical music like this in every part of the world.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

This anecdote is not for the squeamish. Once on a tour in Lucerne I started feeling dodgy in the afternoon. The rehearsal was fine but then I started to deteriorate. Unfortunately there weren’t any spare horn players around able to play Beethoven’s 6th Symphony without valves. So I just got on with it. Perhaps the slow movement, with its undulating rhythm that represents water flowing in a brook, is what set my stomach off. In any case, by the time we reached the Scherzo I knew I was going to vomit. I ran off-stage just as the strings got under way, was sick (demurely) and managed to sneak back on just in time for the horn solo. Orchestral musicians often shuffle their feet when they appreciate someone’s playing. Although it wasn’t brilliantly executed, that solo got the loudest shuffle I have ever received in my life!

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Making something sound exactly how I want it to.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Shower regularly! No, they’re usually au fait with that already. I find that the musicians I really want to listen to again and again are those who have something to say musically. Technical perfection is fairly pointless if you are not presenting what you mean with your music.

Brahms Chamber Music – A New Perspective with Alec Frank-Gemmill, Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (violin) and Daniel Grimwood (piano) is released on SACD on 30 October on the BIS label. At the heart of the album’s repertoire is the Horn Trio, Brahms’ only chamber piece for the instrument with which he was so closely associated, complemented by transcriptions of two other chamber pieces so as to give a voice to the horn – Sonata in E minor Op.38 for cello and piano and the Scherzo from the FAE Sonata for violin and piano.

Alec Frank-Gemmill was a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme from 2014–16, often appearing as a soloist with the BBC orchestras, including in performances of rarely-heard repertoire by Ethel Smyth, Malcolm Arnold and Charles Koechlin. He was Principal horn of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra for ten years and took up the same position with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in October 2019.

With the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Alec performed concertos by Mozart (on the natural horn), Ligeti, Strauss and Schumann. His recording of Strauss’s First Concerto was recently named Disc of the Week on the BBC’s Record Review programme. He has also recorded three albums for the BIS label, thanks to the support of the Borletti–Buitoni Trust. He is very active in the early music scene and has been a member of Peter Whelan’s Ensemble Marsyas since its inception. Whether on modern, classical or baroque horn, he is highly in demand as a chamber music partner and appears five times at Wigmore Hall this season alone.

For the last few years Alec has been shifting focus to conducting. He has taken lessons and attended masterclasses with Mark Heron, John Wilson, Sian Edwards and Paavo Järvi. Alec has conducted concerts with orchestras throughout the UK, often appearing as both soloist and director.

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