Jamaica Plain Resident Was Born to Play Horn

James Sommerville started out on piano but went for the ringed brass. He is, among many other things, principal horn at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Jamaica Plain resident James Sommerville lives a rather busy musical life. Locally he’s principal horn with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and teaches individual horn lessons through New England Conservatory. In his native Canada, he’s conductor and musical director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. He also appears as guest soloist around the world and works with the chamber ensemble the Andalucian Dogs.


Is it called the French horn or just the horn?

We usually just call it the horn. It’s just one of those odd nomenclature things. No one really knows where it came from, but it was only in England that they called it the French horn.


Has the horn always been your instrument?

I started out on piano when I was 7 or 8 years old, then I sort of backed into horn. When I went to high school in Toronto we were all kind of herded into a room for the first music class and asked to choose an instrument. I was near the back of the line so that’s kind of all that was left. I didn’t know how to play it but I thought it looked very cool.


Is there a large repertoire for the horn?

We don’t have a huge number of solo concertos like the violin or the piano. We have the Mozart concertos. There are two by Richard Strauss that are amazing, a couple by Joseph Haydn. There’s a lot of baroque music, which is really virtuosic and exciting – Vivaldi, Telemann, Leopold Mozart, Bach. As far as modern composers, there’s Gyorgy Ligeti, who I think is fantastic. His music is difficult to play and it takes a lot of concentration. Some of it is very dissonant, but he resolves dissonances in emotionally satisfying ways. It’s very rewarding.


What were you listening to as a kid?

In high school I was listening to a lot of Gentle Giant, Robert Fripp, lots of progressive rock stuff.


How did classical come into the picture?

When I was finishing high school I had this vague notion that I wanted to be a musician. But at that point I hadn’t narrowed down what part of it. Then I went to University of Toronto and I was steered in that direction. My first job was in Halifax, Nova Scotia, then the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and I won an audition with the Montreal Symphony.


You’ve been with the BSO since 1998. What was your audition like?

It was very drawn out and stressful (laughs). It stretched out over about six months and I played four or five different rounds. Some were behind a screen, some were sitting onstage with the orchestra, some were actually playing in concerts. I had to run the gamut of everything that the job would demand.


How do you work the Hamilton Philharmonic into your schedule?

I’m up there nine or 10 weeks of the year, so as long as I have enough notice I can kind of squeeze things in without too much stress.


You conduct there. Would you like to conduct the BSO?

It’s hard to think about that. You develop a relationship with your colleagues in one way, and then to sort of stand up and wave a stick is a different kind of relationship. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t. I would like the opportunity if it came up.


What do you do when you’re not playing or conducting?

I hear chamber music at the conservatory as much as I can, and I go to the opera as much as I can. In the summer we do a lot of bicycling at Tanglewood.

To hear another interview with Sommerville, check the photo section above right and click on the YouTube interview he did for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


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