The musical life
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Principal Horn, Alec Frank-Gemmill, gives Baillie Gifford an insight into life as a Professional Musician
When I interviewed Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) Principal Horn, Alec Frank-Gemmill, he was bidding on a rather unconventional item for his home, especially considering he lives in a top floor flat. That item was a sauna.
Being an inhabitant of a top floor dwelling myself, it’s the last thing I would want to negotiate up four flights of stairs, so naturally, I asked Alec to elaborate: “I thought if I could build a sauna in my spare room, I could practise late into the evening without annoying my neighbours,” Alec explains. “At the moment, I don’t start playing before 9am and I tend to stop practising early in the evening. But on those evenings when I could just keep playing, it would be good to have somewhere that provides an extra layer of sound proofing. Somewhere like a sauna.”
A Cambridge scholar, Professor at Guildhall School of Music and Drama and Principal Horn at the SCO, Alec has dedicated his life to his craft. Rather than opting for a purely practical musical education, Alec studied music at Cambridge University before going to music college: “My degree focused on everything but playing my instrument; history, analysis, sociology, musical interpretation. It was very academic, but I was able to play in local orchestras and concerts, which allowed me to practise playing the horn in that environment,” Alec says.
Three years at Guildhall School of Music and Drama followed, after which Alec moved to Zurich where he divided his time between studying music and playing the horn at Zurich Opera House: “I enjoyed my time in Zurich – playing with the orchestra showed that I could build a career as a professional musician,” says Alec.
Unsurprisingly, the road to being hired as a professional musician is far from straightforward. Orchestras tend to work with musicians on a trial period before offering them the position on a more permanent basis. Alec’s appointment with the SCO played out slightly differently: “I auditioned for the SCO while I was playing with an orchestra in Innsbruck. I decided I wanted to leave Austria, and I had auditioned for jobs in Belgium and Denmark and been offered each appointment.
“I was on the cusp of moving to Denmark to work for the Copenhagen Opera Orchestra when the SCO offered me the job. I imagine they wanted to hear me play for a few more weeks, but I think they decided it was worth the risk considering the other offers on the table,” Alec explains.
Alec has been the SCO’s Principal Horn since 2009 and was drawn to playing for the orchestra for a number of reasons: “I chose the SCO because I liked the repertoire they were playing and stylistically they were quite similar to the Zurich orchestra. The sound of the SCO and its reputation meant that it was quite an honour to be offered the job.”
In addition to his position with the SCO, Alec recently took up the role of Professor of Horn at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “I work with fourth years and post-grads and they’re at a level where I can guide them. I try to gear my teaching towards both improving students’ practical technique and their knowledge of music in general. I think that approach is more inspiring.”
Alec is drawn to playing music from a particular era and adding to its authenticity by choosing the horn the composer would have favoured at that time. “If I’m playing Mozart or Beethoven, I would prefer to use the natural horn, which is one without valves. I find that I can understand the music and reproduce what I think the composer wanted to hear quicker because I’m using the technology they had at the time. I do like playing music on the modern horn, but it’s different. It’s not as historically informed.”
The Brahms Series was sponsored by Baillie Gifford and Alec admits he was excited by the prospect of performing the series: “Brahms wrote some famously brilliant horn parts, so I was really pleased when I heard we would be playing the series.”
To be able to say your day job is a Professional Musician is a dream for many, but how does Alec perceive this? “The one thing I have faith in but I can’t quantify or understand is music. It doesn’t make any sense to me that a collection of noises can lead to something so profoundly amazing when put together. That’s what makes me do what I do. The knowledge that I’m part of something that inexplicable and that magical.”
You can find out more about the Scottish Chamber Orchestra by visiting their website.