Not to toot his own horn
James Sommerville on making it as a classical musician
James Sommerville, principal horn in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is one of the lucky few. Not only was he pretty certain of the career he wanted to pursue early on, but he made it happen.
“You have to be very honest with yourself about whether you love it enough to put in the work when it’s not easy. Becoming a master at any creative endeavour takes years and not just putting in your time, but putting in your mental energy every single time you go into the practice room,” Sommerville says.
Sommerville knew he wanted to pursue music out of high school at
I learned about world music and jazz and rock music too.”
University of Toronto Schools. That path led him to the University of Toronto where he was taught by revered musician Eugene Rittich.
His first professional gig was with Symphony Nova Scotia, followed by the Montreal Symphony, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Canadian Opera Company, before he landed a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1998.
Looking back, Sommerville says he was fortunate to learn music from John Fautley at University of Toronto Schools because of his broad approach to music.
“So while most people in symphony orchestras typically have pretty narrow training in classical repertoire and drilling their instruments, I learned a lot of different instruments, and I learned about world music and jazz and rock music too,” says Sommerville.
He also credits Fautley for his open-minded approach to music and creative approach to solving problems on the instrument musically. He also mentions that his exposure to music and piano lessons in his childhood helped too.
“There was always a lot of music around the house. My mother used to write pop songs, so there was a lot of folk music and pop music around all the time,” Sommerville says. “And I think it’s like a language, like a real language if you’re exposed to it young enough because it’s easy to soak up music and become sort of fluent in it.”
One of his fondest memories of his career was that he was the inspiration behind American composer Elliott Carter’s creation of his 2006 Horn Concerto. Sommerville performed it in 2008 as a soloist in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw, a concert hall known for its unusual structure.
“The entrance to the stage involves walking down this very long steep perilous staircase in front of the whole audience,” Sommerville says, “so I remember coming out, and the orchestra is down there waiting, and the audience is clapping, and I’m mostly trying not to fall.”
On his way down, he says he was “thinking about this incredibly hard concerto that I’m going to have to play when I get to the bottom of this flight of stairs!”
He and the Boston Symphony Orchestra also played Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 20, another memorable moment. They’re currently recording the Shostakovich symphonies.
Sommerville started with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1998