If you’ve seen a Hollywood movie in the past 30 years, chances are excellent that you’ve heard the majestic horn playing of James Thatcher.
As one of the industry’s busiest French horn musicians, Thatcher has done soundtrack work on thousands of titles. He performed solos on James Horner’s scores for “Titanic” and “Avatar,” helped to evoke the wintry landscapes in the animated hit “Frozen” and contributed to the big-band sound of this year’s lascivious bear comedy, “Ted 2.”
At the height of his career, he worked on as many as 40 movies a year, while also playing with local ensembles such as the New West Symphony and Pasadena Symphony and Pops.
“I’m a true freelancer. I often tell people to just call me a musical plumber,” he said in a recent interview.
As horn players from all over the world converge on Los Angeles this week for an annual symposium dedicated to the curvaceous instrument, the realities of building and maintaining a career in a competitive musical landscape are expected to be a major topic of conversation.
In L.A., that usually means mustering the lung power to sustain parallel careers in Hollywood studios and the classical world.
“As far as the film industry goes, everything has gone global,” said Thatcher, referring to the increasing amount of soundtrack recording done overseas. “I tell people to stay flexible, and take everything they can.”
Andrew Bain has served as the principal horn for the L.A. Philharmonic for the past four years, and even he continues to do studio work. He is currently working on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which will be released in December and features a score by John Williams.
“It’s one of the absolute highlights of my career,” the horn player said, adding that the soundtrack is being recorded in L.A. over a number of weeks. “It’s amazing how new and fresh John’s music is, but it’s also distinctively ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Williams’ music for the “Star Wars” movies has made extensive use of the French horn, with memorable solos in each of the previous installments. “A lot of the character development is in the horn writing,” said Bain.
The new “Star Wars” is the first movie in the series to be scored in L.A., according to the American Federation of Musicians, the union that represents professional musicians. Past “Star Wars” movies have been scored in London.
Bain will share the spotlight Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl in a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert dedicated to the instrument that will include a new 16-horn piece by film composer Bruce Broughton as well as classical works like Schumann’s Concertpiece for Four Horns.
With its origins in European hunting culture, the horn is frequently associated with a heroic, triumphal sound. It also has strong Germanic associations thanks to the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss.
But the horn also has a softer side, especially when it comes to movie music. “If you’re crying, it’s usually because the horns are playing,” said Jeff Nelsen, president of the International Horn Society.
“There’s nothing more pensive or thought-provoking than a solo horn playing. It just clears the landscape around the horizon.”
Nelsen recalled that as a young student, he was inspired to take up the horn after watching the 1985 western “Silverado,” starring Kevin Costner. He dropped the instrument for a period but took it up again after seeing another Costner movie, “Field of Dreams.” The 1989 baseball film featured a score by Horner, the popular composer who died in June in a plane accident.
Horner will be honored during a public concert on Wednesday at the Los Angeles Theatre in downtown that will focus on horn-playing in Hollywood.
"[James] and I were close friends. He was like a brother to me,” said Thatcher, who played horn in numerous scores by the composer, beginning with “Cocoon” in 1985. The musician said he had worked on Horner’s new concerto for four horns with the London Philharmonic shortly before the composer died.
In L.A., there are about 300 professional French horn players registered with the AFM, according to the union’s local chapter. The estimate doesn’t count musicians who play the horn as a secondary instrument. By contrast, there are about 600 trumpet and 575 clarinet players.
As the union fights to keep movie scoring in Southern California, horn players still have many opportunities to play, said John Acosta, the chapter president. “The key is keeping your options open and embracing variety.”
Often associated with the brass section, the horn is sometimes lumped together with woodwinds because of its unique sound. This has prompted some people within the profession to jokingly call it a “metrosexual” instrument.
Horns sit toward the back of the orchestra, but their ranks tend to be larger than those of their peers in brass and woodwind. The L.A. Philharmonic counts six horn seats, compared with four trumpets and four clarinets.
The 47th International Horn Symposium, which runs through Saturday at the Colburn School, will involve classes and talks in which musicians both budding and veteran can converse on all sorts of horn-related matters.
Other performances include a Friday concert featuring the American Horn Quartet at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and a closing concert on Saturday at Grand Park.
“I think it takes a certain determination to play the French horn, more than other instruments,” said Timothy Jones, solo horn with the London Symphony Orchestra. “The horn is a notorious instrument to master and to play simple stuff well.”
Part of that has to do with the four-octave range that horn players have to master, compared with other brass instruments that have narrower ranges, he said.
“If you’re not sure you want to do it, then don’t,” advised Stefan Dohr, principal horn with the Berlin Philharmonic. He said the closing of many orchestras in Europe and the U.S. has made making a living as a horn player more difficult.
But not necessarily impossible: “You have to make a really wide career path for yourself. It’s important to seek variety and to be flexible.”