In the spotlight: Alec Frank-Gemmill
How are you looking forward to your performances of the Mozart?
It is always a great privilege to play a concerto with my SCO colleagues. Plus this time I will be working with Ben Gernon, which is a first for me – although not them! We have many friends in common and I’m sure we’re going to get on socially and more importantly, musically, very well.
With its familiar melodies and favoured place in the repertoire, how do you keep the music fresh, both for you and the audience members?
The reason that Mozart’s 4th concerto is famous is because it’s great music. Hence playing it is a pleasure every time and there are always new things to discover. As you grow up and gain experience you bring new ideas back to pieces that seemed totally familiar before. My approach to Mozart since playing the 2nd concerto on the natural horn earlier in the year has been to put in as much humour as possible. So there will hopefully be a bit of irreverence. I sense that is what Mozart wanted. After all, he wrote the concertos for his friend Leutgeb, whom he teased incessantly.
It’s often mentioned that the original score for the piece was multi-coloured and there are various reasons given for this. Do you think it was just, well, banter?!
This is all part of Mozart’s humour. It’s just a bit of fun. One looks in vain for a secret, structural, profound message in the colour coding!
You mentioned the natural horn previously. Why are you choosing to perform the piece on the modern instrument?
The piece sounds just as good on the modern horn, just utterly different. For the audience it will sound more familiar on the modern horn, which might be seen as a positive – or perhaps negative if you are trying to challenge perceptions… I will hopefully shake things up a bit with the odd reference back to the natural horn and its wild hand-stopped sounds. I’m always looking to make pieces sound new and fresh but I don’t always choose to do so simply by using the less familiar, natural horn.
With some music, the instruments enable an interpretation that would be impossible using modern technology. I can’t play Mozart’s 4th horn concerto on the modern horn and mimic the natural horn completely because it is a different beast – which is fine. There is room to play the piece, and almost all pieces, on either instrument. There is a whole tradition, starting perhaps with Dennis Brain and his unsurpassable recordings of the Mozart concertos, of playing these works on the horn and my interpretation on modern horn will feed off and into that. On natural horn it could not be part of this history.
How would you compare the sound of the modern horn to its older equivalent?
The natural horn is a wild, uncivilised and frequently ugly version of the modern horn. The modern French horn has a breathtakingly beautiful sound all the time! Some people prefer sugary puddings and other people are more into natural yoghurt with granola.
You are equally comfortable performing as a soloist or a member of the orchestra. How would you describe the sensation of taking centre stage to someone on the outside looking in?
It’s an entirely different feeling to sitting at the back, as we horn players usually do. However, we all practise on our own and we have all studied the solo literature. So in a way it is just the most obvious thing to do – although if all my colleagues start standing up and taking centre stage during the concerto it will become a bit awkward. ;)