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MUSOs of the ASO: Emma Gregan, Tutti Horn

15 Sep 2020
  • Musician Spotlight
by Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
MUSOs of the ASO: Emma Gregan, Tutti Horn

Tutti Horn Emma Gregan is the baby of the horn section, both in her age and her time as a part of the ASO family, having joined in 2016. Emma believes music is an opportunity to communicate at a deeper level with ourselves and others. When she’s not making music you’ll find her writing her Masters thesis or, when restrictions permit, she can be found bouldering (indoor rock-climbing without ropes).Among other things, find out which instruments she’d love to make a racket on in order to engage all four limbs in music-making, along with questions she’s desperate to ask Mahler, Rossini, and Brahms!

I completed my BMus (Hons I) at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University in 2014. I’m currently a year into an MPhil at the Elder Conservatorium and have just filed the paperwork for a doctoral upgrade… wish me luck!

You knew you’d make a career in music when:
I first started playing the horn, to be honest. For some reason, I had been quite determined to work in an orchestra since I was about nine years old, despite not really knowing anything about them at that age.

If you weren’t a professional musician you’d be…:
A mathematician if I was good enough. Otherwise, it would be fun to be an archaeologist!

How did you choose the horn?
It was chosen for me. I wanted to play the flute, but I couldn’t make a sound on it. My primary school teachers said I was too small to play the euphonium, so I was given a horn instead.

Is there anything special about your instrument?
My horn is a Paxman Model 20L from the mid ‘80s. Paxmans are the quintessential English instrument and this one is a pretty standard workhorse model. Everyone seems to want one built in the ‘80s so I’m quite pleased to have one. I also have two beautiful historical instruments, a Paxman natural horn and Woodhead Baroque horn.

Describe the best thing about being a musician?
It’s a great privilege to create art with others for a living. Everyone brings their perspectives, experiences, skills and heart to work, so we are all constantly learning and building a state of connectedness and understanding with our colleagues and audiences.

Who has influenced you most as a musician?
My undergraduate teachers, especially Ysolt Clark, who taught me since I was 11. But also my colleagues at the ASO. This is my first tenured position and I’m the baby of the horn section so I’ve definitely learned a lot coming here and working with them and I am still learning plenty of new things.

If you could play a different instrument, which would you choose?
Lately, I’ve been moonlighting on the tenor horn in a brass band, which is quite fun. But if I could play any other instrument it would probably be a pipe organ in a big cathedral. I like the thought of playing such a huge instrument and making a real racket, and also using all four limbs! Otherwise, I’d want to play the bagpipes, join a pipe band, and learn to march. For pretty much the same reasons. I like the thought of music-making being an all-body experience; it’s great watching our percussionists leap onto cymbals and drums to dampen them. I think it’s like an extra level of commitment to the job.

Which solo or moment in the horn orchestral repertoire is your favourite?
As horn players, we have so many great moments in the orchestral repertoire that it’s hard to choose one. It’s probably not the most obvious answer but I think the four-note solo at the beginning of “Venus” from The Planets by Holst is one of my favourites. One of the best things about the horn is that the sound alone is so wonderful that sometimes the simplest solos are the most beautiful.

My most memorable performance/s with the ASO:
There have been so many, but Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 a couple of years ago and the Elgar Enigma Variations on our are among my favourites. My favourite thing about the ASO is that no one holds back in a concert; we’re very much a give-it-all-you’ve-got orchestra when it comes to the crunch and I like that feeling of commitment about us.

My first orchestral concert memory and what made it memorable?
I remember my school band going to hear the Queensland Symphony Orchestra play The Planets when I was in high school. We got seats in the choir stalls looking directly down on the two timpanists and it was amazing to watch them play the opening of “Jupiter”, covering the tune between the two of them.

COVID-19 put a hold over ASO concerts, what did you miss the most about not being able to perform?
The feeling of being on stage with my colleagues. I’m a pretty social person so it was hard not to be able to see them and play together regularly.  

Despite not being able to perform in concerts you still had to remain fit to play for when concerts resume?  How many hours a day were you practising, and what repertoire were you selecting? Where in the house do you practise?
I have a spare bedroom that acts as a practice studio so I practice in there. I don’t log the hours because I’m usually floating in and out of the practice room during the day, but I try to do a good warm-up and routine of exercises and have a good selection of studies and pieces to practice. At the moment I’m working on finishing a book of studies by Gunther Schuller and practising some solo pieces I like. I think it’s nice to revisit some music just for the joy of playing it even though it’s unlikely I’ll perform them anytime soon. I’m also trying to get my blues scales under my fingers a bit better and experiment with some other ideas about technique I’ve had in my head for a while.

What was the thing you craved the most whilst living in isolation?
Mostly just the freedom to be out and about town seeing my friends. I’m normally not at home much even when it comes to self-directed things, I prefer to practice at the ASO studio or study in the university library. But I was very grateful that I had the space to do both of those things from home.

When you’re not performing or practising, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I write music on the side, so I enjoy doing that when I can. Writing my thesis is a bit of a priority at the moment – though I’m pleased to report that I’m genuinely enjoying that too, as I’ve got lovely supervisors and I get to write about things I’m passionate about like community music-making and Australian music. I’m grateful for the chance to read more since being home from work too, so I’m determined to keep making time for it once life gets busy again.

When I’m not listening to classical music what do you listen to?
I like pop and electronic music, but I’m generally pretty open-minded about other genres so I’m always happy to listen to something new. I like Billie Eilish, I think she’s cool. Ariana Grande is my soul sister, the soundtrack to my living-room dancing, and embodies my hair and make-up aspirations. I’m also hoping Jacob Collier will come and do a gig with us soon, I adore him and everything he does.

Name three pieces of music you love?

  1. Monteverdi’s Orfeo because I think it’s extraordinary that he managed to tell a story like that in the harmonic language of the early Baroque and that it’s still so tragic to listen to today.
  2. Mozart, pretty much anything by him but the Horn Quintet is perfect in every way. It’s also great for viola players as it has only one violin and two violas! But everything by Mozart is amazing.
  3. Chairman Dances from Nixon in China by John Adams. It’s so vivid and colourful and for some reason always makes me think of those old steam-powered engines: maybe because it’s rhythmically machine-like but so full of imagination and colour.

What has been your most memorable musical experience as an audience member?
In 2015 I went to hear the Orchestra of the Antipodes play Faramondo, a rarely-performed opera by Handel. I had, and still have, a strong interest in early music, but was a bit nervous that it was a four-hour show. It was the best opera I’ve ever been to: I wish it had been twice as long and I will forever regret not going again the second night! I used to save up to go to Sydney or Melbourne to hear the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra too – I was so mesmerised the first time I heard them play. I wish they would come to Adelaide more regularly; I think they are extraordinary musicians.

Do you come from a musical family?
Not at all – my parents and my brother are all trained in IT. But my mum used to play flute and piano as a student, and my brother used to play the oboe and still plays guitar.

Name three things people may not know about you?

  1.  I would really like to go to space if it becomes possible in my lifetime.
  2.  I still have one of my baby teeth that never fell out.
  3.  I can fold Japanese dumplings super quick!

What’s your idea of a perfect day in Adelaide? 
I’d pick up all my friends in the morning, go for a swim at Henley Beach, have lunch at the Central Markets, go for a wander through the Art Gallery, take a nap on the grass in the Botanic Gardens, and eat dinner in Chinatown!

If you could ask one composer one question what would it be? 
No, it’s too difficult to narrow this down to one. I have a LOT of questions!

  1. Dear Mahler, are you SURE you want all those offstage horns playing a top C in unison in Symphony No. 2? I don’t want to tell you what to do but that you are playing with fire – please reconsider. Yours in Consternation, Anxious Horn Player from the 21st Century.
  2. Dear Rossini, the transposition in Semiramide is weird, could you clarify? Kind Regards, Third Horns.
  3. Dear Brahms, how much would we have had to pay you to write a horn concerto? Best Wishes, Every Horn Player in the World.

I should invest in a Ouija board so I can find some inner peace about all this.

What piece of music never fails to move you? 
Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, especially the first tutti in the second movement and the Scottish bit at the end of the last movement. You can’t help feeling joyful listening to that.

What’s your favourite type of food? 
I’ve been in an obsessive relationship with Chinese hotpot for a few years now. I’m totally and unashamedly addicted to it. I love that you can’t really have it without a bunch of friends to share it with so it’s a great excuse for a night out too.

What’s the weirdest thing in your fridge/pantry?
My friend gave me an assortment of different-flavoured aioli sauces: a delightful and unusual gift. I want to have a sweet-potato-chip tasting session but I think I should wait until I can have some friends around.

What books are on your nightstand? 
I’m just finishing up a fantastic trilogy by Chinese sci-fi author Cixin Liu which a student of mine has lent to me. It starts with the Cultural Revolution and the Earth making contact with an alien civilisation and takes off from there – it’s awesome! Prior to that, I was reading two collections of short stories which are also sci-fi by American author Ted Chiang. One of them was adapted into the film Arrival a few years ago, and it’s my favourite movie ever.

Do you speak any other languages? 
I speak a little bit of Japanese, as my mother is Japanese. I’m not very proficient or confident but I can handle basic conversations and more or less get around Japan.

Do you follow any blogs? 
No, I’m not much of a blog person, but I do lurk around some online forums and things – mostly about horn playing and audio or notation software.

Do you have any hobbies? 
I enjoy bouldering (indoor rock-climbing without ropes) and usually try to get to the gym a couple of times week. I’m not very good but I enjoy the physicality and problem-solving aspect of it. I write a lot of music too, mostly for the love of it, and I’m trying to get back into some sketching after a long period of not making time for it!

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