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Top Brass

New West Symphony Principal Horn James Thatcher makes music in and out of the orchestra pit.

By Leslie A. Westbrook

James Thatcher is a musician who counts his blessings. Taking the path of “professional musician” is not necessarily the easiest road in life — especially if you have a large family to feed. Thanks to a successful career as the premier French horn player in Hollywood studios, a favorite to such noted composers as John Williams (for some 35 years on over 60 projects, including Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Amistad) and James Horner (Field of Dreams, Titanic, Avatar) and as a frequent performer with many symphony orchestras, Thatcher continues to enjoy a well-earned, enviable musical career that spans some 3,000 recordings and has garnered significant respect among his peers.

The horn player dubbed “Satchmo” by fellow studio musicians (his email sobriquet is “tatchmo” since Satchmo was taken) is also principal horn for New West Symphony, whose season opens this month.

Now based in La Cañada /Flintridge, the 67-year-old married father of five and grandfather to 14 grew up in Whittier, where his mom was an organist and educator and his father a choral teacher. Noting how tired his dad was at day’s end steered the budding musician away from music education and into the less stable path of “professional musician.”

His musical studies began on piano. He switched to horn when he was 13 or 14, figuring that would be a less competitive instrument.

“There are millions of pianists in the world and so many great pianists, but not that many great horn players,” he said.

When his parents noticed their 16-year-old son “getting too cozy” with a girlfriend, they sent him off to Mexico City to study with his uncle, Gerald Thatcher, a conductor and first horn with the Mexico City Orchestra. He went on to study at Brigham Young University (yes, he’s Mormon) and performed with the Utah Symphony. On his way to the University of Southern California for his master’s, Thatcher and his new bride took a detour to Phoenix for a job with that city’s symphony orchestra. After a few years, the couple moved to L.A., where he was hired by the L.A. Philharmonic and soon after launched what would become his studio career.

“I had two great teachers in LA.,” said Thatcher, “Fred Fox, who is now 104 years old; and a great studio horn player, Vincent DeRosa, who got me into the studio world. He played in films from the 1950s to 1980s. I played with Mr. DeRosa for over 35 years on over 60 projects. The best part of my career was when I was not playing first horn, but playing with legendary horn players from my father’s generation. Those were fun times — they loved me like a son!”

From there it was word of mouth, and the horn player began getting recording jobs for television and movies. Composers began to request Thatcher — and he never looked back.

“The movie Hook was especially fun since John Williams wrote such great music and I got a screen credit for Sleepers!” the musician noted enthusiastically, adding, “Jerry Goldsmith [with whom he worked on such films as L.A. Confidential] was like a father to me — he was an incredibly talented composer and we had a lot of fun.”

He recalls the good old days when full orchestras would record for movies and television.

“Today they do what’s called stripped — the strings and woodwinds will record all day, then the brass at night. That’s not very satisfying. Nowadays the musical atmosphere is much less collaborative than it used to be. Now you go in and there are four to five people in the sound booth and it’s very mechanical. Players have become more sound producers than collaborative artists.”

Composers he often worked with would write with soloists, especially him, in mind, which was very collaborative.

“In the good old days, a composer would write something psychological that would draw the audience into the movie,” Thatcher explained, noting John Williams’ use of half notes in the famous theme for Jaws, which Thatcher performed. He compared the scary Jaws theme to Prokofiev’s “Battle on the Ice” — it’s worth a listen to note the uncanny similarity.

“I was very fortunate that a lot of my predecessors were reaching retirement age; and once I had the opportunity to fill in, I worked very, very hard and made sure they liked what I did and that they didn’t have to wait around for me to do it over again. I saved people a lot of money by getting things done right the first time!”

He strikes a balance between his studio gigs and live orchestra performances. Asked whether he prefers playing with an orchestra before a live audience or recording in the studio or sound stage, he responded:

“They are two different animals. You get great repertoire from classical works with live music, and from studios if you get great composers and wonderful film, like Field of Dreams. James Horner wrote some beautiful horn parts and solos for me on JFK. In live work, you have one chance to get it right in front of the audience and there’s that kind of pressure, but in the studio, you have to get it right several times . . . and be prepared to play a solo multiple times.”

For all his talk of Hollywood and studio work and major symphony orchestras, Thatcher is also quick to praise the fine musicianship of regional SoCal orchestras such as the New West Symphony that consist of many other fine L.A.-based studio and symphony musicians, all very accomplished and in-demand professionals.

“I started performing with the New West Symphony about 15 years ago under Boris Brott. When I sit down and play with the New West Symphony players, it’s every bit as satisfying and I have as good a musical experience as I do with other major orchestras I’ve played with, like the London Symphony, L.A. Phil and Cincinnati,” he noted. “A lot of people came out to L.A. to break into entertainment — that’s why the Pasadena and New West symphonies are full of full-time professionals.”

He is quick to add that many studio orchestras have also been some of the best he has played with.

In case you wonder if his apples don’t fall far from the tree, Thatcher speaks with obvious pride when speaking about his musically talented progeny: Many are singers, one plays clarinet and his wife is a pianist. He even recorded recently with family members.

“Christmas at my house,” he beamed, “is like a choir!”

The New West Symphony Orchestra opens the 2018-2019 season Oct. 6-7. For schedule and more information, visit newwestsymphony.org. For more information on James Thatcher, visit his website at jamesthatcherhorn.wordpress.com.

THREE OF A KIND: Jean Larrivée (center) with his sons, John Jr. (left) and Matthew together maintain the Larrivée reputation for exceptional instruments of incomparable sound and
long-lasting quality.

10-01-2018

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