Dave Lee talks to Hugh Seenan
For many years Dave Lee has been numbered amongst London’s most exclusive inner circle of horn players, regularly crossing all the boundaries between classical/ commercial, pop and jazz genres. He has been Principal Horn of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with periods in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. His film and TV recordings include Michael Kamen’s score for the TV series Band of Brothers with its heart rendering horn solos and Dave Arnold’s score for the feature film Stargate.
His special relationship with the group Morcheeba is highlighted in their best selling album Big Calm, one of many pop artists he has played for. He has been around the world and back again with the Nyman Band and for many years he has been Andrew Lloyd Webbers principal horn having played in London’s West End Shows Only a Sunday, Aspects of Love and Whistle Down the Wind. I think we get the point – Dave has been there and done it all.
As if all those achievements where not enough, he has recently crossed another boundary into uncharted territory with the release of his solo album Under The Influence. This is an unusual and unique CD. “The idea for it started with some arrangements I did of some Queen numbers for a little event I did in Walthamstow with Chris Davies [of the Royal Opera House] who was at the time a peripatetic teacher in the area. He had something like 30 – 40 horn pupils, and we thought why not put on a concert? It went on from there; a couple of the Queen arrangements worked really well, and lent themselves to the horn, so I decided to go down that route”. Whilst he was thinking about arrangements, Dave played on the London Horn Sound recording and thought that the light stuff worked well. Also, his contacts influenced things “Michael Nyman is rock and roll classical music to me and some of his music would sound great arranged for horn and sax, I’m a great fan of David Bowie and Pink Floyd, which I also thought would work well”.
The next impetus was his association with the group Morcheeba. Dave was involved with their first two albums, which involved arrangements for strings and solo horn by Steve Bentley Klein. This further encouraged him to take the horn into new areas; he wanted to change the sound and perception of the horn. So his CD has Maxwell-Davies’ Sea Eagle for solo horn, Michael Nyman for horn and piano, multi-tracking for horn and for horn and saxophone, then horn with synthesiser, and string quartet with horn. “And then I thought it would be nice to add a voice. Essentially, it’s what we do a lot of the time professionally – we do all of what’s on the album at some point. The idea was to mix it up, and to try and get the spectrum of what we do for a living – from classic 70s rock, through Nyman and Arvo Part to Maxwell Davies”.
As Dave himself says, this CD is a distillation of his career to date. “I have always hated being put in a box as a classical player or anything else. To me it’s all music. And if I’m in one box, I always want to be in another – the grass is always greener…”
He seems to have had no trouble in jumping from one box to another in his 33 years as a professional player. His first position was as co-principal/third horn in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, at the rather tender age of 18. Taking this job, he was faced with the kind of choice that not too many 18-year-olds have to make. He had got his A-levels out of the way at 15 or 16, and stayed on for an extra year at school to take an extra subject, and to assess what to do. “I applied to the Royal Manchester College of Music, as it was then, and got a scholarship there. I was also offered a place at the London School of Economics to study economics and history. At the same time, in that particular year, there was something like 10 horn jobs advertised”.
He applied for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, bumping Tim Brown, who gave him a trial and told him he should go to London. He also applied for the BBC Welsh, which job he was offered, and the BBC Northern Ireland, and the BBC Scottish. Of all of these, he decided to go for the Scottish at the princely sum of £36 per week – “which was double what my father was earning as a train driver. And the BBC was a job for life then – it’s funny how things change. This was a foot in the water that was very hard to resist. Although I did miss out on three years at college, which I regret, I do think college is very important, because of the amount of growing up you do during that time. Instead of that, I ad to work out day to day professional problems as they came along. I feel as if I’ve been at college all my life”.
He recalls his first live broadcast with the orchestra. “The fourth horn was a great character who had been with the orchestra for ages – no-one knew how old he was, but he was long past the official retirement age – all his papers had been lost by the BBC during the war. My first gig was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, on third horn. The rehearsals had gone well, but the first entry in the actual concert was a very exposed unison B natural for third and fourth horns. When it came to this the fourth horn came out and with the most perfect lip thrill, hitting every note but the B natural. My first thought was that everyone listening was going to think it was me.” However Dave accepts that this is all part of gaining professional experience. Everyone makes mistakes and horn players especially have to live with it.
The next step was to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra as principal horn. Dave had auditioned for Maurice Handford, and was appointed by him but when Louis Fremaux became the principal conductor he felt he had to put his own stamp on him. “My lack of college experience had been fine on third horn in Scotland, but now I was principal horn in a new and strange environment, and I had to learn quickly. It took a couple of years to sort things out. But I have very fond memories of my time in Birmingham”.
After three years with the CBSO, he moved to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He really had the bug for playing nuw, and got the urge to move to London. The RPO wanted a principal horn, after Jim Brown and Ian Harper left the orchestra. He auditioned, and was promised the job and enough work to justify leaving the CBSO. But it didn’t quite work out like this. Although they had offered him a principal job, they then decided he needed some more experience so they offered him the co-principal horn position with the view to having a more experienced principal horn sharing the job with him. Although he enjoyed working with guest principals Alan Civil and Jeff Bryant, whom he greatly admired, he was then offered co-principal horn in the LPO. With its secure work at Glyndebourne Opera and a roster of great conductors he thought it would be a great move. He remembers playing first horn in a recording of Brahms Serenade No 1 with the great Sir Adrian Boult. However he was not really happy with his lot and he was still seeing the profession through rose tinted spectacles. He was searching for the right job and after a period working with Sadlers Wells touring ballet he was eventually appointed principal horn with the BBC Concert Orchestra. “I had a very good time in the Concert Orchestra. I was able to be myself, and they have a big, wide repertoire – classical and light stuff. I had always listened to Friday Night is Music Night when I was at school”. At this time Dave made a broadcast with the BBCCO of Villanelle by Paul Dukas in its rarely performed version for solo horn and orchestra.
During this period circumstances evolved to direct him towards what was to become the other big part of his career. Just before joining the BBCCO, he took on a Lloyd-Webber show, Tell Me On A Sunday, which was fixed by Sid Sax. Sax was the major fixer (contractor) in London at that time and this led on to work with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, film sessions, and so on. From that point on, Dave was a regular for Sax. “I was back into a regular job as the film and session work kicked off”. These two conflicting directions inevitably caused increasing problems during the three years he was with the BBCCO, and the commercial side won. Notwithstanding this, he describes his time with the BBCCO as roaring.
At the time of his leaving, the West End show Chess had been running for about a year. After depping for a while, he got this show, and then, before it finished, was offered Lloyd-Webber’s Aspects of Love. There has been a change in attitude towards West End shows over the past few years. They are now highly paid jobs with very difficult horn parts. They have also become a staple diet for really top trumpet players like Derek Watkins, John Barclay and others.
This ran for three years, towards the end of which the principal position at the Royal Opera House became vacant. Why did he decide to go for that, when he was free-lancing so successfully? “Because I wanted to prove myself, and because I wanted to play The Ring and Rosenkavalier – I had always fancied opera, because it was one thing that I hadn’t done. Also, Strauss and Mozart’s best music is in their operas”. Dave did a trial under Christoph von Dohnanyi playing Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and was subsequently offered the principal job. “I enjoyed it very much, but ultimately the conflict between the job and the free-lancing came up again The Opera House job demands 100% both physically and mentally, and I was juggling that with free-lancing, and the Nyman Band. I enjoyed opera very much, because of the theatre connection – you can really subject yourself to the story. But the classical discipline and free-lancing just doesn’t mix. I had too many plates spinning at once, and this conflict was exacerbated, because the Nyman Band is very well paid gig, it quite different line in horn- playing, and the Nyman Band is like a family – I have a very strong bond with the players there”.