Young Artist Interview: Five minutes with Alexei Watkins

Multi-award winning French horn player, Alexei Watkins, graduated from the Royal Academy of Music with a First-Class BMus Degree and Masters with Distinction in 2018. A versatile chamber musician, orchestral player and soloist, Alexei is also a keen advocate of new music and has commissioned and premiered several new works. 

Who or what inspired you to learn the French horn? 

Well… Growing up I was surrounded by music and specifically the horn as my father is the renowned French horn player Richard Watkins. I attended my first concert at just three weeks old! My father was playing at the Wigmore Hall – I can’t promise I remember every note, but ever since then I’ve loved the sound of the horn. I’ve been attending concerts all my life and I think naturally I was drawn to the horn from admiration of hearing my father play, so I’d have to say he was my inspiration.

Before starting the horn I actually began learning the cello. In the end though I picked the horn, despite our poor cat Charlie being terrified by the sound of the horn, so two of them in the same house must have been a nightmare!

What do you like most about playing the horn?

Above all I love the sound of the horn. I think it has such a beautiful tone very similar to that of the human voice. I also love its versatility – it can feature as a solo instrument but also prominently in orchestras, fantastic chamber music, occasionally in jazz and it’s great in film soundtracks too!

Tell us about your most recent competition success

Recently, I won the University of London Symphony Orchestra Concerto Competition. I really enjoyed playing in the orchestra for a number of years, whilst studying at the Royal Academy and look forward to returning to play Strauss’ Horn Concerto no. 1 with the orchestra next year.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far? 

I’m lucky enough to say I’ve had many! One of my favourite concerts I’ve been involved with so far was playing Mahler’s 3rd Symphony with the LSO under the baton of Bernard Haitink in his 50th anniversary appearance at the BBC Proms a few years ago. Haitink is someone I truly admire and I was in awe of his incredible musicianship and his effortless control of the orchestra. Another highlight was a few weeks ago, I was fortunate to be playing in the orchestra for this year’s Last Night of the Proms. I have grown up watching this concert every year on TV and it was a dream come true to be on stage for this very special celebration concert!

Are new works important for the future of music?

Absolutely! It’s vital to keep classical music alive and current with new pieces. I think one of the main challenges though is to bring in new audiences without lowering the quality of the art form. Being part of the Yeomen programme has given me the chance to progress further into music education and outreach work something that I feel is very important to help encourage the next generation’s interest in classical music. The Worshipful Company has a fantastic outreach programme, through which I really enjoy going into schools to give workshops on music and specifically introducing children to the French horn. For this and the countless brilliant performance opportunities, I’m honoured and truly grateful to be a yeoman of the Company.

I’ve commissioned several pieces for the horn including a new Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings by my good friend Alex Woolf – we premièred the piece in 2013 as part of the Britten Centenary celebrations at Snape Maltings. I hope to continue to help expand the horn’s small repertoire by commissioning new works in the future.

What’s an average day for you?

One of the things I love about being a musician is that there really isn’t one! Especially as a freelance horn player you have to be adaptable and open to anything. One day I could be sitting in rehearsals with an orchestra preparing a huge Mahler symphony for a concert, the next, giving a workshop in a primary school and buzzing through a garden hosepipe to demonstrate the basics of a brass instrument, or as I was lucky enough over the summer, to be sitting on stage at Wembley Stadium performing with The Who!

What are you working on currently and where can we see you next? 

I’m currently working with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a concert of Alwyn’s Miss Julie and with the English National Opera for their run of Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus. I’m also currently preparing for a couple of upcoming solo engagements. In November I’ll be performing the solo horn part in the Britten Serenade in Greenwich and a horn and piano recital in Faversham. I’m also really looking forward to making my solo debut at St John’s Smith Square at the start of next year, giving a horn and a piano recital on the 30th January with composer and pianist Alex Woolf and featuring some of his music.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

When I’m not playing the horn, you’ll probably find me on the football pitch – not the Premier League unfortunately but I’m proud to run a musicians’ Sunday league football team called Thornbury FC!

You can find out more about Alexei on Twitter @alexeiwatkins

Interview by @suzywillmott