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Richard Sebring, Principal Horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Richard Sebring, holding a French horn.
Marco Borggreve
Richard Sebring

When Richard "Gus" Sebring was appointed as Principal Horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he had already been fulfilling that role for a number of months following the retirement of James Sommerville. But that doesn't mean it was a simple case of promotion from Associate Principal to Principal. Orchestral auditions, especially for major orchestras like the BSO, are notoriously rigorous and usually take several months.

In this case, a rare vacancy in a cornerstone position within one of the world's top orchestras resulted in a pool of over 150 candidates from around the globe. After the field was narrowed to 30 in blind auditions, a final group of three played for a committee of orchestra musicians and Music Director Andris Nelsons, with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, with the horn section, and with the entire brass section.

Sebring, now the 14th musician to hold the Principal Horn position, is originally from Concord, Mass., and, as the BSO's Associate Principal Horn, was Principal Horn with the Boston Pops. Upon his appointment, Andris Nelsons said in a statement, “I am thrilled that Gus will be filling this important vacancy. His sensitivity and supreme artistry is only matched by his collegiality, leadership, and wonderful chemistry with his fellow BSO musicians. I look forward to more extraordinary work together with him and the BSO’s incredible horn section.”

I talked with Gus Sebring about hearing the BSO while growing up, what his work with the Pops has meant for his approach to his work, the centrality of Symphony Hall to the orchestra's sound, and much more. To hear our conversation, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT (edited for clarity):

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Richard Sebring, Gus Sebring, now Principal Horn of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Gus, thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Richard Sebring A pleasure. Nice to be here with you, Brian.

Brian McCreath You have been in the orchestra since 1981, and now as of, I guess, about a week ago, as we're speaking, you are Principal Horn. That's a long stretch to be in the section and then take over as principal. But I want to ask you first, just to go back to 1981 with me, who was Gus Sebring at the time? How would you describe the musician you were when you joined the Boston Symphony?

Richard Sebring Well, I was 24 when I came into the orchestra in the fall of ‘81, and I came in as Third Horn. And at the time there was some turmoil in the section. I think Chuck Kavaloski, who was Principal Horn at the time, had some back issues, and there was a world tour coming up five weeks into my first season. And so, Seiji [Ozawa] asked me to play a lot of Principal Horn. So, I played principal on, I don't know, Beethoven Nine, Beethoven Eight, Beethoven Six, Schubert “Unfinished,” The Rite of Spring, I think,a bunch of things that were on that first tour. It was a tour of Japan and Europe. And so, even as Third Horn, I came in and played a lot of principal at that point. So that's who I was. I was a young kid who had one year of experience playing principal in the Rochester Philharmonic. And prior to that one year of experience, freelancing in Boston, playing in the opera company and various other jobs around town.

Prior to that, I had been to three different schools in order to get a bachelor's degree because I was more or less teacher-chasing, wanting to study with who I wanted to study with, and that seemed to work out well. So, I was at Indiana for a year, and then NEC for two years here in Boston, and finished my degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. So, I kind of hopped around a little bit [Brian laughs]. But the spring that I graduated from the University of Washington, I was accepted into the Tanglewood Music Center.

Brian McCreath Were you taking just all of the auditions, or, when you were principal in Rochester, did you sort of target, when you heard of an opening in the BSO, did you say, "Oh, I really want that job."

Richard Sebring Well, I can back up and say that I grew up here. I grew up in Concord, Mass. And so my dad used to bring me to Tuesday night concerts. And, you know, I remember sitting with his big Nikon binoculars and watching the bassoons and whatnot [Brian laughs]. But I didn't really have great aspirations to be a classical musician at the time, although I did play in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, which is now BYSO, for four years. And in fact, did three major tours with them, and first played the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony in Symphony Hall as a farewell concert for one of those tours, so…

Brian McCreath In this big horn solo.

Richard Sebring Yeah. So, you know, so there was that background that was more or less in place from doing that, that really does serve as a very solid background if you are going to pursue classical music as a career. You've got that weekly thing, that my parents were good enough to not only listen to me practice, or not practice [both laugh], or give me a boot in the rear to practice [both laughing again], but they were good enough to also pack us up and drive myself and my friends in every Saturday morning for rehearsals. And that kind of discipline, I think, doesn't get forgotten. It doesn't go away. So I did have that background. But then I, as I say, jumped around schools. And so when I ended up at Tanglewood, I had a fairly good range of experience, I think, and some very good teaching. Christopher Leuba in Seattle was just a wonderful teacher for me. He had morning class every morning, five days a week. Friday morning was solo class, Sunday night was ensemble, and we had a weekly lesson.

Brian McCreath Wow. That's a lot.

Richard Sebring So the only day we didn't see him was Saturday [both laugh], and it was relentless. At 8:30 every morning, you had to play an excerpt. He recorded it. He slowed it down to half speed. He cut us to shreds in front of our peers, so that sort of made us more or less bulletproof. And at the same time, while I was in, I guess in the middle of my college career, I began taking auditions. That was your original question. So I had been taking auditions right along. And when I was in Rochester, two members of the BSO section, retired, Ralph Pottle and Dave Ohanian. So there was a third opening and a utility opening. So I was in Rochester and I was like, "Oh, there's jobs in the Boston Symphony." I'd be home, you know?

Brian McCreath [laughing] Yeah, right!

Richard Sebring And so I auditioned, and the audition went on until the next summer, and I ended up as the Third Horn. So I came in that fall as a Third Horn.

Brian McCreath Okay. So it wasn't as though there was a specific goal always to get into the Boston Symphony, but the fact that it was where you grew up certainly added to it. And you must have been familiar with the sound of the Boston Symphony. Coming to Symphony Hall to do an audition maybe was a little less foreign to you as it might have been for some other players.

Richard Sebring Well, yeah. I mean, I think mostly being at Tanglewood and hearing the orchestra, that was just a hugely memorable experience, just to be out on the lawn and hear the Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto with Serkin, you know, and you just . . . you don't forget that either, you know, it's just somehow the music, just . . . especially at Tanglewood, which is such a magical venue, that it just makes a very, very big impression on a young musical brain. And so that sound was in my ear. And of course, when I thought of the Boston Symphony, I thought, "Yeah, Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, you know, that amazing orchestra." Sure, I'll take that.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And as you said, Charles Kavaloski, Chuck Kavaloski, was the principal when you came into the orchestra. Was there an understanding of the character of the Boston Symphony horn section that you felt like you needed to really lock into and really learn when you got into the orchestra?

Richard Sebring Well, it's interesting because when you first sit down to play in the Boston Symphony, what you realize is that everyone is supremely competent and that things just don't go wrong very often [Brian laughs]. And so people play in time and they play in tune, which makes it really easy, and it's really much easier to play in a great orchestra than it is in a, you know, some sub-prime orchestra [both laugh], if you will. You know, those are the basics we look for in an audition, too, that if you're in tune and in time and you have a good sound, then you've got “time-tune-tone,” you're right in the pocket to be able to play with other people. Without that, then there's always a fight.

Brian McCreath Sure.

Richard Sebring So, yeah, I think the sound of the orchestra is one thing, but the better the orchestra, the easier it is to play.

Brian McCreath We think of the Boston Symphony sort of legendarily having a French sound. Is there any way that the horn section contributes to that particular angle on the sound? Or is there anything about the way that you and your colleagues have to play to support whatever that is that we're talking about?

Richard Sebring Well, I think it's my theory that you learn to play in this hall. It's such a great hall, you know, with its two and a half second reverb time and all the early reflections and the sound and everything that are so warm, and that you can actually utilize in the bloom of your sound. And so I think people who play in this hall over a number of years learn how that works, particularly if you have solo parts and stuff, you learn how that works. And if you have a horn section, which, again, has such a wide variety of dynamic, you learn how to make this hall work for you, and you learn how to play the hall. So I think that's more than anything, rather than, you know, having a particular French sound or anything like that. I think it's a sound where people understand how, in a relaxed way, to make their sound really work in this hall.

Brian McCreath That's really illuminating. That's really helpful as we listen to the players, to think about it in that way, that the hall itself is supporting everything that you're doing as a player. When you say "bloom in the sound," tell me more about that. When you're sitting in the, you know, you're usually about two thirds of the way back on the stage behind the woodwind section. And how do you develop that way of knowing and that way of, as you say, using a bloom in the sound to really get the right effect in your music?

Richard Sebring I have two points that I like to look at, particularly the back chandeliers in the hall. And as you know, they taper down like that, and there's one light bulb at the bottom of them. And I look at that light bulb [points to the left], and that light bulb [points to the right], and I sort of get a sense of the size of the room in that way. And maybe it's a visual thing, but also in my experience, I've gone out and listened to the orchestra an awful lot. And, you know, having gone out and listened to Chuck Kavaloski play solos, having gone out and listened to Jamie Sommerville play solos, and then sat in the section with those players, knowing how they sound right next to me and how they sound out in the hall, I can sort of gauge, "Oh, they did this. And so it probably sounds like that out there." That's, you know, we don't really know.

Brian McCreath But that's a great combination. It's almost like a scientific triangulation on one hand, and then the other hand is this really, kind of, at least psychological, maybe mystical sense of our visual perception filtering back through to what we produce in sound that almost can't be defined by some specific physical action. It is just a mental conception that results in a particular sound.

Richard Sebring Yeah, I think we play so much by feel that really takes over, rather than trying to calculate anything, and in particular, unless you're trying to survive something that's extremely long or taxing, or very soft or something, then you know, you work on the specific techniques that you use to do those things. But most times in solo passages and like that, I tend to try to listen to the sound in the hall and listen to how it's filling the hall. And the beauty of it is that we have that beautiful two and a half second reverb time, so you can taper things off and you can tail off, and the hall still supports the sound when you're playing soft, but yet it also allows you to play extremely soft if you need to be transparent.

And it's very rare. That's very rare. We've played all over the world and all the greatest halls. And you come back here and you're just like, "Oh. Oh, it's so good." [both laugh]

Brian McCreath And for those of us who haven't had the luxury of being in lots of different halls, we hear about the Musikverein in Vienna being more or less kind of the same effect. Are there any other particular halls that even come close in your experience?

Richard Sebring Oh, there are a lot of very good halls. Symphony Hall has a specific sound, the Concertgebouw's a great hall. Berlin, The Philharmonie is a fine hall. You know, it's funny because I was standing outside a few years ago on a tour, standing outside the Musikverein in Vienna with Roland Berger, who's the longtime Principal Horn, retired, from the Vienna Philharmonic. And we were waiting for my colleagues. We were all going to go out and have something to eat after the concert, and we were talking about orchestra and halls and whatnot. And he says, "Oh, but you have the best hall." We're standing outside the Musikvarein in Vienna. And he said we had the best hall, so… [both laugh]

Brian McCreath And I remember, this is going back many years, even before Andris [Nelsons] was here, that the Gewandhaus Orchestra visited. And I think at that time it was with Riccardo Chailly, they were here. And at the station, we had been in communication with them and we did some interviews with Riccardo Chailly, and I just remember, at intermission, I stepped out into the main corridor right there on the Mass Ave. side of things outside the hall, and the publicity agent who was along for the tour from the Gewandhaus just was running at me, so excited about how Symphony Hall sounds. He couldn't believe how great it sounded [both laugh].

Richard Sebring It's true. It's absolutely true. And to have that as your home, I honestly do think that that's part of being in an orchestra. It's like having a revolving door and you come in and there's your time here and you're here, and then you go out and you realize that all the people that have done that in the time that you've been here also overlapped with people before them, and you overlap with people after you. And I think part of what makes the orchestra the organism, or the colony, that it is is this hall. I think we learn to play in this hall as a group, and there's no substitute for that.

Brian McCreath A huge part of your job for many years has been playing Principal Horn in the Boston Pops. And yes, there are quote-unquote, "classical selections" that are always part of Pops seasons and everything, but it goes way, way beyond that into all kinds of other music. It's more than just a job to come in and do that style of concert. What does it do for you as a musician?

Richard Sebring Well, I actually love it. I think First Horn in the Pops is one of the best, best gigs in the world, really. You get to play everything. Everything. I mean, you play a thick book five nights a week, and you just crank, and you're playing tuttis, and you're playing jazz, and you're playing Broadway things, and you're playing Celtic, you're playing film scores, John Williams, you name it. And you know, lots of solos come and go by you, and you get all this experience in a sort of more relaxed manner because of the sheer quantity of it. You know, it's not that you don't care or don't try to make everything as good as it can be, but the sheer quantity of it means that you just get used to it. You get in the groove with it. And I think that has really informed my symphony playing a lot. It just sort of keeps the skids greased and keeps, you know, the saw sharp so that you're able to much more easily do those things that are challenging that come along.

Brian McCreath Is it too reductive to say that Pops sort of mindset allows you, when you show up at the first rehearsal of the BSO, that you're just nailing it from the very beginning? Or is there more to it than just that?

Richard Sebring It certainly helps. And of course, showing up at the first rehearsal of a BSO subscription series, you have to be prepared anyway. I mean, you have to prepare weeks, months in advance, depending on what the repertoire is, some of it, you know. But things like this Shostakovich 13, that's new to us. We have to study it. We have to know what's going on. And, you know, you're not hunting at the first rehearsal. Obviously you've heard the piece before and you've studied your part and, you know . . . But it certainly does help to do things at the pace that we do in the Boston Pops.

Tanglewood is where that maybe comes into play more because often we will rehearse something once. There have been times we've played things on Tanglewood concerts that we haven't rehearsed, haven't had time to get to the end of the piece. Well, it'll be fine. We'll just play it in the concert Friday night, you know? So, yes, you have to be really on your toes, and you go through an awful lot of repertoire.

Brian McCreath I guess the thing that I mostly sense from you, though, about your work in the Pops, is just how much fun it is.

Richard Sebring Well, I came from a rock band background. I had older brothers that had rock bands, and I played in a rock band and, you know, a progressive original rock band, we called ourselves out in Concord. And we wrote a lot of our own music. We'd write these 15-minute epic things that were pretty complex. And I think that playing by ear and teaching each other things by ear was really a great skill to have, you know? And I still do that. I still go out and play jazz with friends sometimes, and we're playing by ear. And I try to bring some of that on to the Symphony Hall stage and try to get off the printed page as much as I possibly can and just, you know, zero in on Andris, or look out in the hall and play to the people, play the room. And I think that comes from that sort of improvising background. I think that's a big piece of why I love Pops so much, because I have such broad tastes in music.

Brian McCreath Yeah, that's fantastic. Traditionally, when you’re a principal in the Boston Symphony, it is someone else who plays principal in the Pops on your instrument, as was the case for you and Jamie. Will you continue to play principal on the Pops, or will that mantle be passed along to another player?

Richard Sebring Yeah, I think I've done over 40 Pops seasons, so I think it's a great time for somebody else to do it. That doesn't mean I won't miss it. I do love it, you know, and I love the range of repertoire that Keith [Lockhart] has brought. And of course, you know, all the years that I worked with John as the principal conductor of the Boston Pops, John Williams, that was back when all those movies were coming out, E.T., and the Star Wars movies, and all that.

So he would bring a new suite of music from, you know, Return of the Jedi, and we'd play the whole suite, and we'd play it the whole season or, you know, half the season, or something like that. And there was always a great horn solo in there and such great brass writing. It was just incredible fun, you know? And all the recordings we made with Keith, with the Celtic recording and things like that, Braveheart, there's always a lot of stuff to play, and it sounds good, and people love it. Like it's universally loved. And that kind of makes you feel good, too. Many people know me much, much more from being in the Boston Pops. I tell them I play in the Boston Symphony, they said, "Oh, do you play in the Pops?" That's what they want to know [both laugh]. So, it's much more popular, you know, the 4th of July broadcast nationwide, and all that. It is America's orchestra. And it's a great privilege to have been the Principal Horn there for a number of years.

Brian McCreath But along with that arrangement of who plays principal where, traditionally the principal players of the Boston Symphony also spend their time as the players of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players. And I wonder what you're looking forward to most about that role in this new job.

Richard Sebring Well, the funny thing about this, quote "new job" [Brian laughs] is that I've actually been doing it for quite some time. There's various reasons for that, people's sabbaticals, and so I would step up from associate to principal. And I've actually been on two European tours with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, one back in the days of Harold Wright and Al Genovese, and one more recently. In 2019, we went to Europe and we went to Istanbul, which I had never been to before. We went to Dublin, Ireland and, you know, places that I hadn't been. And of course, it's just a great group, wonderful group of people, and just the top tier of musicians. So again, chamber music with them is much easier than it usually is because everybody knows what to do, and they all know all the pieces very well. So they're like, "We don't want to rehearse. Let's just play this." You know? [both laugh]

Brian McCreath I was just going to say, the communication among the players when you're in a chamber player setting is vastly different from the communication you have in an orchestra rehearsal, because orchestra rehearsal is focused on the conductor – you're still communicating with your fellow principals – but in the Chamber Players, there's no conductor telling you what to do. So that must be fun, to just be able to trade ideas in a little bit different way from the way you normally do when you're sitting with the BSO.

Richard Sebring Absolutely. And you know, it's never the same one night to the next. But I do know those players so well. I know they're playing so well that, you know, intonation, things that you might know, that this person is just ever so slightly high in that register. And so, you kind of know if it's out of tune that I probably need to go up a little bit. And musically, I mean, John Ferrillo and I were both in in Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra many, many, many years ago. So, I knew his playing from then, believe it or not, and —

Brian McCreath I was going to ask if you guys were in the —

Richard Sebring Yeah, we overlapped one year.

Brian McCreath Okay. Got it.

Richard Sebring Yeah. So these are people whose playing I know intimately from not only covering for a year or six months at a time in the orchestra on principal, but also having toured with them with the Chamber Players.

Brian McCreath So tell me about the BSO now. The horn section has been incredibly stable. I don't know when the last time was that a horn player entered the BSO, I don't have the date in my mind. But it was quite a while ago. I mean, it was either Michael or Rachel, I suppose. I don't know. But anyway, whatever the case, this group of players, you guys have been together now for many years and —

Richard Sebring Yeah, I think . . . Well, it's over ten anyway. And for me, the entire brass section, the entire woodwind section, and the entire percussion section have changed since I've been here. I'm the lone standing soldier [both laugh], which is a little scary. But that being said, I mean, I can think of the early era with Chuck Kavaloski, and Danny Katzen, and Dick Mackey, and those people. I can think of that era, and I can think of this era with, you know, of course, Rachel, and Michael, and Jason. We don't have a utility horn player yet. I think that's going to be the next position that will be hired. And then we will have to hire an associate principal to fill my open position.

Brian McCreath Okay, so we've been going for a little while without a utility player.

Richard Sebring We have great extra horn players.

Brian McCreath Yeah, oh that's true.

Richard Sebring They're top-notch. It's a great horn town. We've got a lot of really great people around here, so the section's been doing a great job putting out, you know, top quality content.

Brian McCreath So when Andris arrived, which gosh, that's astonishing. It's not quite a decade, but it's getting kind of close, one of the major projects has been Shostakovich. In your time, you've played a lot of Shostakovich, but there was a little lull before Andris got here. Tell me what that project has felt like it's done for the orchestra, to be returning to this music time and again, and I’ve got to imagine a lot of these symphonies, even you, having been in the orchestra for so long, haven't actually played before.

Richard Sebring Well, that's true, and I still haven't played them [both laugh raucously] because I've been Associate Principal up until very recently. And generally, the principals are assigned the recordings. And so if it's only four horns, then I don't play. But if it has eight horns, I play Fifth Horn, at least as Associate Principal. The Associate plays the fifth horn part in, you know any big piece, Mahler, Bruckner, Shostakovich, whatever. So it's meant a vacation week for me, which is kind of nice [both laugh].

Brian McCreath Well what is it that you feel works with Andris? Why does the orchestra respond to Andris? What is it about Andris that responds to the orchestra? How does that chemistry work, just from your perception?

Richard Sebring Well, I feel like Andris and I are on the same page musically and humanistically. Andris is very human. He feels emotions very deeply, and he basically wears them on his sleeve. He transmits those emotions directly to the orchestra. He doesn't hide it. And it's not about his entourage, or his style, or anything like that. He's completely embedded in the emotion that drove the composer to write these pieces. And so he really wants to wring every last drop out of that through us and transmit that to the audience, so that they have an experience that's extraordinary, and they leave the building with something they really didn't have before.

Brian McCreath That's such a beautiful way of putting it. I mean, that circle, we kind of think of that theoretically or in some kind of, like, mystical way, audience, conductor, performers as a sort of circle. But you just expressed that so incredibly well. Thank you for that.

Richard Sebring, it's really, really nice to talk with you about all of this, and congratulations. I'm so glad that you're stepping into the principal role now, and looking forward to hearing more from you.

Richard Sebring Thanks a lot, Brian. I'm very excited about it.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.