The British Horn Society 1980-2013

A Third of a Century of the Best of British Horn Playing

John Humphries

The International Horn Society was founded in 1970 and began holding annual workshops at American universities, but despite its name, it was perceived as very much the “American” Horn Society by onlookers on this side of the Atlantic. Among their number were Willi Watson and Dick Merewether, both then working at Paxmans, and, feeling that the British professional horn playing scene had never looked rosier, they decided that something needed to be done to promote the instrument in the UK.

One evening at the 1st International Brass Symposium, held in Montreux in 1976, Willi and Dick, together with Bob and Jim Paxman had dinner with Barry Tuckwell, who was then President of the IHS. By Willi’s own admission, he became quite passionate about the need for something British and Barry agreed with him, saying that he would like to introduce him to someone of like mind the next day. This person turned out to be John Wates who had quite separately had similar conversations with Barry.

The seed was sown, but, at the time, John was working in Paris and it was not until 1979 that John, Willi and Dick met again and decided that the time for action had come. This meeting was in Paris at a French government sponsored horn event where the British artist involved was Alan Civil. At the time, Alan was unquestionably the most influential horn player in Britain – Barry Tuckwell was now mostly working across the globe as a soloist – and Willi felt that Alan’s support was imperative. His support was freely given and Alan duly became the BHS’s first President.

In late 1979 John Wates facilitated the formation of the British Horn Trust and by unanimous decision, Yvonne Brain and Patricia, Countess of Harewood were invited to be trustees. They were obvious choices, Yvonne as the widow of Dennis, our greatest ever horn player and Patricia was not only Barry’s sister but had studied the violin at the Sydney Conservatoire where she had become friends with Dick Merewether. Indeed it was at her suggestion that Dick gave Barry his first ever horn lesson!

The name “Horn Festival” was decided upon, a date was set – Easter Saturday, 1980 – and the Guildhall School of Music was chosen as the venue. The Paxman team sent out hundreds of brochures and broadcast the forthcoming event throughout the profession and to all the teachers they knew. Willi and Chris Tout, his right-hand man at Paxmans, helped by newest staff-member, 17 year old Timothy Jones, received increasing numbers of applications and dealt with countless phone calls enquiring about the Festival. John and Willi were interviewed by BBC Radio and LBC and there was a growing excitement. Not long before the great day arrived it became obvious that the audience capacity of 350 allowed by the Guildhall was going to be exceeded. A hundred chairs were hired and early on the Easter Saturday these were loaded into a truck by Willi and the Paxman team and surreptitiously taken to the GSM’s concert hall. The final number attending that first ever BHS event, including tickets sold at the door on the day, was between 500 and 550!

Barry Tuckwell, Alan Civil and Frank Lloyd were the principal soloists and they were joined by Anthony Halstead who was largely employed as a pianist rather than as a horn player on the day. Alan Civil and Barry Tuckwell shared a recital – they played a duet version Saint-Saëns evergreen favourite, The Swan – while Frank Lloyd’s recital included a more modern classic, Alan Abbott’s Alla Caccia, the composer rising to acknowledge the audience’s applause at its conclusion.

Apart from setting a precedent for bringing the finest horn playing talent to play for the society’s members, the occasion was notable for the debut of a perennial BHS favourite, the Massed Blow, and on that occasion the 350 and more horn players blew their way through Alan Civil’s wonderful arrangement of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. The sound of the 30 or so first horns reaching for and mostly getting (!) the highest notes was something that most participants had never heard before and still resonates in the inner ears of those who were there. Willi also recalls a photoshoot involving the massed horn choir standing on the drained bed of the Barbican’s lake. At the crucial moment, Alan yelled, “Are you ready? Open the flood gates!”

Buoyed by the success of the occasion, Willi organised a two-day second festival the following year, at the Royal College of Music. An initial official request to the RCM met with a polite refusal on the grounds that the janitor and his staff were unable to work extra time during the Easter weekend, but Willi, who had studied at the RCM, found he knew the janitor from his time as a student, sought him out and soon came to an amicable arrangement that met all the needs of the BHS. He also met up with Julian Baker, Horn Professor at the RCM, to ask for his participation in a Dennis Brain Celebration Concert on Easter Sunday. They lunched with Norman del Mar who promised to put in an appearance after “scraping the rust off my old Alex.” The weather was lovely and as the participants posed for their photo on the Albert Hall steps on a beautiful Spring morning, all seemed right with the world. The soloists this time included the charismatic Ifor James, who was to become a BHS favourite for many years, and the youthful Michael Thompson.

Notable performances included the world premiere of Humphrey Searle’s Prelude, Nocturne and Chase played by the RCM horn students under Julian Baker on the Saturday and a magnificent arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for 8 horns conducted by Alan Civil at the Dennis Brain Celebration Concert on the Sunday. This, alongside Bernard Robinson’s arrangement of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, which first appeared a year or so later, established the idea of the All Stars horn ensemble which is still a highlight of all of our more recent festivals. At the time it was a completely new concept and raised the bar on what it was thought possible for horn ensembles to play. Those early performances can justifiably be thought of as the grandparents of the London Horn Sound CD of 1999. Frank Lloyd played the Brahms Horn Trio with Tony Halstead at the piano while Tony picked up his horn to play second horn to Mike in the Beethoven Sextet for two horns and strings. Julian Baker played the Mozart Quintet and an informal ensemble concert, open to all participants, was suddenly touched by magic when the 19 year-old Radovan Vlatković performed Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro on a piston-valved Selmer horn.

Very soon, there were regional spin-offs from the main festival. There was a horn day in Birmingham with Frank Lloyd and Tony Halstead as recitalists and John Bimson as guest speaker, while Mike Purton and Tony Halstead played at an event in Hemel Hempstead, an occasion when Richard Watkins was smuggled in as guest first horn with Willi Watson’s Cambridge Horn Club – his first appearance for the BHS. There was a horn day in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room which not only included Sir Lennox Berkeley’s Horn Trio in the presence of the composer but concluded with a stunning performance of the Brahms Trio, with Frank Lloyd on horn and Tony Halstead on piano. The Lloyd-Halstead duo also featured at a day in Cambridge and Frank’s virtuoso rendition of Arban’s Variations on a Tyrolean Theme left us all with jaws dropped. Almost as memorable was the spread: Willi, his wife Lesley and two pupils had spent much of the morning making sandwiches and slicing cake! At around the same time there was also a horn day in Leeds, establishing a distinctive northern voice and marking the beginning of Paul Kampen’s involvement with the BHS which has been so fruitful over the years.

From the 3rd festival onwards for several years, the BHS made its home at the Guildhall and the society provided a lunchtime concert at the Barbican which was open to the general public. Although horn playing highlights included Tim Jones and Richard Bissill playing Haydn’s Double Concerto, and, a couple of years later, Roger Montgomery taking part in Leopold Mozart’s Sinfonia da caccia for four horns, strings and shot gun, there was a lovely moment when at a question and answer session for the general public, a lady asked Alan Civil if one had to tune a horn “like a violin”. Quick as a flash, Alan said very assertively, “No Madam. I haven’t touched my tuning slide in 25 years!” Back in the Guildhall, Ifor James brought the house down when he was just about to attempt the impossible, playing the Neruda Horn Concerto – the piece trumpeters think of as the Neruda Trumpet Concerto – in its original version, on the horn, at the same pitch that trumpeters play it today. The part soars way above top C and Ifor gave it the big build up, explaining just how difficult it was. He played his tuning note and the pianist was about to start the performance when Ifor turned to the audience and said, “It’s going well, isn’t it!” Other lighter moments included performances of the music of Otto Fisch, the German immigrant horn player who, (as imagined by Mike Purton) revolutionised horn playing in Manchester before retiring to Bad Tönbrucke – Tunbridge Wells to you and me. His compositions inspired such passion in the players that in one performance the audience could clearly hear the off-stage performers having a fist fight!

A visitor to one of the earlier festivals was Hermann Baumann, then at the peak of world horn playing, performing Beethoven’s Horn Sonata on hand horn, and he was soon followed by other visitors including Hans Pizka, Michael Höltzel, Frøydis Ree Wekre and Radovan Vlatković. Another highlight from the early years was a performance of a Paganini Caprice by Frank Lloyd, ably supported by his brother David. Those who were there perhaps wonder if it was really as astonishing as they remember it, but a recording was made and yes, it really was that good! The seventh festival featured performances from the legendary Czech brothers Zdeněk and Bedrich Tylšar. A number of voices near the heart of the society expressed the view that British horn players wouldn’t be interested in hearing these players with their strange vibrato and that inviting them would be a huge damp squib. As it turned out, their participation assured the society of one of its biggest attendances for years and perhaps the highlight was a performance of Schumann’s Concertstück in which Zdeněk Tylšar played first horn and Barry Tuckwell played second. In itself that was a collector’s piece as it was one of the few times Barry ever played anything other than principal in anything.
Barry was a huge supporter of the society and was to be one of the stars at the finest achievement of John Wates’s chairmanship of the BHS: the 1992 International Horn Society’s week-long workshop, held at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. This was a huge and expensive undertaking which John masterminded in conjunction with Mike Purton, who was then horn professor at the college. Somehow John managed to get the Post Office to sponsor the event and almost everybody who was anybody was there. The workshop introduced the fantastic talent of the young American Eric Ruske, and David Pyatt gave one of the first performances since Dennis Brain’s of York Bowen’s magnificent, but unjustly neglected Concerto for horn, strings and timpani. Peter Francomb from the Northern Sinfonia was magnificent in Rosetti, and Hermann Baumann again led the European contribution with the little heard Pflüger Horn Concerto. Perhaps the highlight in a week of extraordinary highlights, was the gala concert, which was broadcast on Radio 3 and included Barry Tuckwell playing Richard Rodney Bennett’s rarely heard Acteon and Richard Watkins, silky smooth in Ernest Tomlinson’s Rhapsody and Rondo. Mike Thompson led a performance of the Concertstück and when the British players were discussing who should give the almost obligatory IHS workshop performance of Strauss 2, it is said that all eyes at once turned to look at Frank Lloyd! Frank did not disappoint and many of those who were there remember one of the finest live performances of the piece that they had ever heard. Yet the following morning, when many could barely make it from their beds after a night of hard partying, Frank gave an absolutely flawless performance of the Lennox Berkeley Horn Trio!

The BHS was still a relatively small organisation with barely 150 paid up members and the Newsletter was simply a folded A4 sheet run off on John Wates’s photocopier, known to the early members as “the parish magazine”. Increasing the membership of the BHS was now essential for the further development of the society and the route to achieving this was via the introduction of “The Horn” magazine. In the autumn of 1992, our first glossy magazine appeared, with a photo of Mike Thompson, on its cover. Looking through those early editions today, they seem packed with an amazing amount of information about horn players and horn playing and as the BHS has always been keen to promote young players, it is amusing to find references to many of today’s superstars long before they were famous! Clearly it did the trick and soon membership had risen to over 500.

In the early days, John Wates’ contribution as Chairman had been absolutely vital to the survival of the BHS, but in 1996, he correctly judged that the society was now well enough established to stand on its own feet and bowed out. The magazine which introduced Shirley Hopkins as the Society’s new Chair reported on horn events in Huddersfield, Monmouth, Hitchin and Walthamstow. The BHS was by now truly becoming a national society. The Festival that year was held at the Guildhall and featured the Guildhall’s own horn professors led by Hugh Seenan, who would become Chairman in 2001. On Shirley’s watch, the Society continued to develop. Significantly, the membership administration was placed on a professional basis with the Charities Aid Foundation, the business of the committee was put on a more formal footing and the BHS website went on-line. There were further successful festivals at the Royal College of Music, and in Birmingham, where Radovan Vlatković started proceedings with a magnificent Britten Serenade in Symphony Hall with the CBSO.
Hugh Seenan’s term of office as Chairman began with the first Welsh festival, featuring New York superstar Phil Myers, and then the following year Hugh’s many Scottish contacts enabled the Society to realise a long held desire to take the BHS to Scotland, with a festival held at the Royal Scottish Academy. The featured soloists that year were Marie Luise Neunecker, the Vienna Philharmonic’s Lars-Michael Stransky, Martin Owen and Angela Barnes. In 2003, the BHS returned to Manchester, where our star soloist was the young Frenchman Hervé Joulain, a player with a wonderful, flexible tone, reminiscent of a Gallic Radovan Vlatković. Peter Damm was our guest at a more intimate festival at Southampton University the following year and his performance of Strauss’s Andante made an apparently minor work seem like a major masterpiece.

Despite increased membership, the society was barely breaking even and urgent action needed to be taken to ensure its survival. Under Ian Wagstaff’s editorship The Horn magazine had become a must-have for British horn players, but while it was produced for the BHS, it was not owned by the society and as such was a cost which became harder and harder to justify. The society’s finances were struggling and Hugh had the courage and vision to go solo, believing we could take on responsibility for producing our own magazine, The Horn Player, though he had a huge stroke of luck in discovering that our very own Paul Kampen was hiding his light under a bushel and already had a proven record as the editor of a successful railway magazine.

Arguably, the new magazine was Hugh’s greatest legacy to the society though he probably most enjoyed organising the two-day festival at the Guildhall to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the BHS. This was another of those occasions when almost every horn player of note turned out. Our President, Barry Tuckwell, made the trip over from his home in Australia to be with us, Frank Lloyd reprised his Variations on a Tyrolean Theme – which had blown the audience away at the first ever horn festival – with just as much technical assurance but with even more delicacy and style, the LSO horn section did a slot, the Guildhall students performed wonderfully and the All Stars did a live version of the arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Caravan from the London Horn Sound CD. Old friends met – always an important feature of BHS festivals – and the event finished with late-night jazz in the Guildhall bar from Jim Rattigan.

This was Hugh’s swansong as he felt that the time had come to move on and the BHS was lucky enough to be able to persuade Mike Thompson to take his place as Chairman. The festival that year returned to Manchester where the Maltese Etienne Cutajar and American Jeff Nelsen were among the soloists. The following year, 2007, Mike organised a festival on his home turf, the Royal Academy of Music, where he is a long-standing horn professor. This was mostly a celebration of British horn playing, and the Gala Concert included David Pyatt in York Bowen, Martin Owen in Gordon Jacob, Richard Watkins in Malcolm Arnold and Tim Thorpe in Britten’s Serenade.

In 2008, we went to Birmingham where Alessio Allegrini was our overseas visitor. This was not his first appearance as a BHS soloist as he had previously appeared at an event organised at Radley College by indefatigable BHS supporter Simon de Souza. A brilliant executant, Allegrini also proved something of a wit on that occasion pointing out that the Italians were taking over London: Antonio Pappano was at the Opera House and Claudio Ranieri (remember him?) was in charge at Chelsea!

Mike Thompson handed over the Chairman’s reins to Roger Montgomery in 2009, though that year the Festival was held at Mike’s old school, Watford Boys Grammar School where it featured the Hungarian Szabolcs Sempléni as our overseas soloist. Roger proved to be an inspirational chairman and in 2010 took the annual festival to Edinburgh, where he showed himself to be a true renaissance man, keeping on top of organising the event while at the same time conducting the massed blow and featuring as one of the soloists. The following year, Roger was able to use his contacts at the Royal Opera House to organise a memorable horn festival at the Floral Hall, Covent Garden, featuring among much else a cut-down version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, narrated by actor and former-Philharmonia horn player Robert Maskell . This ended with the massed forces of the BHS membership and the horn students from the RNCM, the Birmingham Conservatoire and all of the London music colleges playing the final scene from Götterdämmerung – Wagner’s depiction of the end of the world – in a version which left the Floral Hall’s famous glass roof in danger of shattering.

Sadly, Roger simply did not have enough hours in his life to balance all his commitments and the Floral Hall event was to be his last. Fortunately, as so often seems to happen, when the apparently irreplaceable needs to be replaced and all seems to be lost, we found that the ideal replacement was already waiting in the wings. BBC Symphony Orchestra horn player Chris Larkin, a committee member since the very earliest days of the society, originally agreed to take on the position of Chairman only on a temporary basis until someone (as he thought) better could be found. He proved to be such a natural at it, that eventually even he realised what the rest of us could see all along, that his calm wisdom was perfectly suited to the role, and he agreed to take on the job officially.

With new blood on the committee and, with the society’s finances never looking better in better shape, largely due to Treasurer Rob Spivey’s sterling efforts, the future looks bright. Only this morning the latest edition of The Horn Player dropped through my letter box and in it I spotted a report on a player taking his place in his profession whose name I first saw in an edition of the magazine some years ago. Look out for the names of the youngsters: the British Horn Society really is the place where you hear about the movers and shakers in the horn world first. Let’s raise a glass to the next third of a century!