Something In The Air: Tim Thorpe

5th February 2010

Watford and the surrounding area has produced a surprising number of French horn players. Think Adrian Leaper, now an eminent conductor; think David Pyatt, Principal Horn of the London Symphony Orchestra; think Michael Thompson, former Principal Horn with the Philharmonia, and now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

There must be something in the air. Now there’s another name to add to the list: Tim Thorpe, Principal Horn of The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and currently the youngest Principal Horn in any of the UK’s major orchestras. Jill Glenn meets him.

Tim Thorpe is 26 – young to be principal of anything – but his musical life already spans 20 years. His is a classic story of falling in love with music, of music springing from almost nowhere at an early age and consuming his life. His mother sang in the Philharmonia Chorus; his father enjoys music, but neither plays nor sings; his sister played violin and flute, but not with the same passion. This child with his single-minded focus must have been a revelation. I’m reminded of Jacqueline du Pre, who, when she heard a cello for the first time at the age of four, apparently said “Mummy, I want to make that sound”. Her life was never the same. Tim’s coup de foudre came later – he was eight – but like her, after he’d heard his instrument, the French horn, at a concert at Cassiobury Primary School, nothing else would do. Forget the piano, which he had begun at six; forget the violin, which he’d taken up a year later. French horn. Or nothing.

His parents gave in. Life in Oxhey Road, Watford, developed a distinctly musical bias. Tim finally abandoned the piano after Grade 5, the violin after Grade 6. The French horn had him in thrall. By the age of 11 or 12 he knew that playing it would be his career; by his mid-teens he had a place at the Purcell School. His parents weren’t convinced about a move from mainstream education to a specialist music establishment, but Tim persisted. “I just wanted to be surrounded by music all the time.” He belonged to a local youth orchestra and progressed to the County, then the National and finally the European Youth Orchestras. He even had a few lessons, at one stage, from David Pyatt, although, ironically, they’re now in competition for solo work.

Predictably, Tim went to college, to the The Guildhall School of Music & Drama; less predictably he left two years on, when the chance of the third horn in the Philharmonia came his way. “I’m not academic,” he says, adding that analysing, deconstructing, deliberating are not for him. He likes to feel his way into the music, to interpret more naturally. Even so, he regrets, I think, that it wasn’t possible for him to combine the job with finishing the course, but the conservatoire life is very rigorous. The choice wasn’t really a choice. His ultimate purpose had always been to work, after all. He’d suffered from nerves in his second year, even considered giving up, but he’d come through that, and considers himself the stronger for it. Now was his chance. And, yes, it was scary, he admits. “You prove yourself on the stand”.

And he has. A year later he was appointed Principal Horn of The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, where he remains to this day, loving it – the life, the place, the music.

He’s full of anecdotes too: the time he had to play Dvorak’s New World Symphony at sight, in performance, because Leonard Slatkin said “You all know this, see you tonight” and ended the rehearsal… “very character-building”, Tim recalls; the time Rostropovich, a long time hero whom Tim now describes ruefully as “a terrible conductor”, gave him a few words of praise as he played first horn in the Bruck violin concerto; the time the Philharmonia played Happy Birthday to him on his 21st when he was on trial for the third horn job.

Away from the rehearsal room and the concert hall Tim loves sport: plays badminton, squash and golf, watches football and rugby. As a teenager he even played the latter too, but when he changed schools he encountered a clearer focus on what would-be musicians could and couldn’t do. Table tennis, he recalls, is as violent as sport gets at the Purcell School. He took a rugby ball in one day. It was confiscated. It’s a measure of his commitment to the musical career he had already long been planning that he took the restrictions on board. He describes himself, at 15 or 16, as ‘very driven’. Behind his smile and his easy relaxed manner I sense that he is very driven still, for all his talk of consolidation.

He’s managed now to take up football again, in a five-a-side game with other musicians, who all know how to be careful of each other. It sounds very decorous.

He’s a film buff, too, and a gadget fan; loves his PSP, his iPod, his 42” television ( “Before I even had a bed in the house I had the television installed”). We deviate from the main stream of our our conversation for a good ten minutes, in fact, while we debate the merits of the iPhone v the Blackberry.

He certainly needs some useful gadget to help him out with diary management. Along with his BBC National Orchestra of Wales commitments, Tim has a flourishing career as a soloist. He teaches at the Royal Welsh College of Music, too, and can fly off at a moment’s notice for recording sessions or appearances anywhere in Europe or even further afield. Keeping track of all his dates and duties must be hell. I wonder how managed to fit in the recording of his first CD, Midsummer, released a few weeks ago. He never really answers the question. Instead, we talk about the variety of music he’s included – from Mendelssohn and Bach to Piazzola and Morricone, all arranged for the horn by John Hutchinson. It’s a great selection, a real delight to listen to, and should serve Tim’s purpose of promoting the French horn as a solo instrument very well. He’s almost evangelistic about this.

His next challenge is judging the Brass finals of this year’s BBC Young Musician of the Year. “I’ve got to pretend I know what I’m talking about. On the telly.” He laughs.

Despite the dizzying heights to which he’s rising, though, he remains loyal to his beginnings. His favourite piece, to this day, is the Brahms Horn Trio, the first horn music he ever heard. “I still adore it.” Some things go deep.

Tim Thorpe’s CD – Midsummer – is available via his website:

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