Airs, dances, and waltzes: French hornist and conductor James Sommerville

May 31

In casual corroboration of the historian’s hunch that outstanding trajectories are often set in motion by flukes, French hornist James Sommerville encountered his instrument only by chance in high school. Audiences profit from this accident as much as he does. We can’t wait to be in that audience when the Boston Symphony Orchestra principal French hornist performs and conducts an historically diverse program at this MCO concert. It features a trajectory of loosely related and outstanding works from the 18th century to the present, including Mozart, Respighi, Agócs, and Brahms.

To focus on a few of those works: Mozart’s K447 is the third of four horn concertos he wrote for his friend, the French horn player Joseph Leitgeb. Though K447 is considered relatively obscure in Mozart’s repertoire, the charming, bombastic concertos are a near minefield of “stopped notes”, “overblowing”, and technical feats that would have presented special challenges to 18th century performers using pre-modern French horns. It’s almost as though Mozart was “trolling” his talented friend and all future soloists with daunting tests of their musicianship. (The original manuscripts contain many mocking remarks by Mozart, such as: “Mozart took pity on Leitgeb the ass, ox and fool.”) We can’t speak for Leitgeb, but we know that Sommerville will more than rise to the occasion of Mozart’s challenge!

We’re also delighted to present an MCO-co-commissioned Horn Concerto by Canadian composer Kati Agócs, written for James Sommerville as a companion to the Mozart concerto. Heralded as “one of the brightest stars in her generation of composers” (Audiophile Audition), the former Guggenheim Fellow composes “[s]ublime … music of fluidity and austere beauty” (The Boston Globe). We presented excerpts of this work at our online 2021 Spring and Summer Festival, and we can’t wait to present it in full for a live audience at this concert.

Our performance at this concert of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes will offer Sommerville a welcome opportunity to show his considerable gifts as a conductor. Bursting with syncopation and interesting metre changes, the waltzes are also just that: oom-pah-pahing songs meant for popular audiences. Tremendous hits in Vienna (is there a better measure of a waltz’s mark?), the works earned Brahms a fortune — but, alas, not the hand of Clara Schumann, in whose honour it’s thought they were secretly written. Clara’s hands were more than full already with her demanding husband Robert, not to mention her career as one of Europe’s greatest pianists.