‘Reluctant’ musician blows success his way with horn

Encouragement by Florida student's teacher leads to post with Tokyo Symphony


Special To The Japan Times

Over half his lifetime ago, reluctant horn player Jonathan Hammill, at 15, slumped in the back seat of the family car. Sweaty and bored on a family trip to his grandparents’ house in Florida, Hammill watched as his mother impulsively popped in a tape his music teacher had given him as encouragement at the beginning of the summer — Dale Clevenger of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, playing Mozart’s horn concerti.

As the flat landscape of St. Pete’s sand and palm trees transformed to the greenery of the Brandon countryside, so did his attitude about music. “I wasn’t really serious about the horn. I was much more interested in American football, but I heard this unbelievable sound playing Mozart, and for some reason it hit me. I had the potential to make that same sound on my own instrument,” he recalls. “The whole visit with my grandparents, I couldn’t wait to get back home and start practicing.”

Hammill, 34, first horn for Tokyo Symphony Orchestra since 2001, credits his music teacher, Carolyn Wahl, with providing both instruction and inspiration. “I call her Yoda; somehow, she always knows best, and knows how to light that fire for each of her students.”

For Hammill, the tape was the spark. He returned home from his grandparents’ home and practiced eight hours a day for the rest of the summer, impressing the teacher with his marked improvement and setting his course on a life of music.

Hammill’s course for Japan started with a summer music festival while still in college.

Accepted on a full scholarship at the prestigious Julliard School of the Arts in New York City, Hammill thrived in the international environment of music. “Florida was a great place to grow up, but nowhere near as culturally diverse as New York. In the cafeteria at Julliard, I could hear five or six different languages all around me, and it really fascinated me, the possibilities out there.”

When it came time to audition for summer music festivals, Hammill naturally looked for something that would take him out of the United States. In his first summer in the university Hammill traveled with the North Carolina School of the Arts European tour, but by his third year in college, he discovered Asia with the Jeunesses Musicales World Youth Orchestra.

“We traveled all over Asia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Korea, but as soon as I got off the airplane in Japan, I felt something different. I didn’t know what it was, and I was only in Japan for six days, but I started looking for a way back.”

The way back was through Hokkaido and the annual Pacific Music Festival, a summer music academy for college students or recent graduates, founded in 1990 by Leonard Bernstein. Hammill participated for three years in a row, starting in 1999.

During his time back in the U.S., he graduated from Julliard, worked one year at the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, an apprenticeship orchestra for young musicians, before returning to New York to freelance, building up his repertoire by playing for Broadway musicals or substituting for the New Jersey Orchestra.

Preparing to fly to Japan for his final Hokkaido festival in 2001, he heard about an opening at the Tokyo Symphony. “I had missed the deadline for the audition application, but a Japanese friend of mine from Julliard called the orchestra and provided a good introduction. I only had a few days to prepare for the audition, but luckily, I passed.”

The day after the festival ended, Hammill flew back to New York to pack his bags permanently for Japan. From the beginning, he was impressed with the Japanese audience. “Japan loves classical music: opera, orchestra, chamber music. There are seven professional orchestras in Tokyo, you have an orchestra in every major city in Japan, and all the big orchestras from around the world come here to tour and stay for weeks at a time. The shows are consistently sold out. The interest level is just amazing. In the current scheme of things around the world, I feel like the Japanese audience is the best in the world, with the high level of interest.”

Hammill did need some time to adjust; three days after moving to Japan, he was already heading off again, this time flying to Europe for a tour with the orchestra. His workload has never since diminished. “The Met was in town recently, and they are famously known as the busiest orchestra in the world, but my musician friends there were shocked at my schedule.”

With a year-round season and frequent double programs, Tokyo Symphony recently marked a 173-performance season, incredible considering that a normal season for a professional orchestra can run as few as 100 performances. Hammill does not complain, but he admits: “It took some getting used to, the worker bee mentality. On top of the mental concentration required, music is a physical activity, and you get tired.”

Another aspect requiring adjustment was the “senpai-kohai” relationship or seniority system in Japan. “With art in general in America, a good musical comment or idea can come from anyone during the creative process. It doesn’t matter if you are 23 or 73. Yet, sometimes here I feel the seniority system comes before the music.”

Still, Hammill credits his fellow musicians with finding a way to collaborate beyond cultural or language barriers. Expectations were high on Hammill, although at 24 he was much younger than the rest of his section when he accepted his position: “As first horn, I play and the rest of the horns follow. The note is just a black dot on the page, so I may play it at a certain volume or for a certain length or a certain articulation style.”

One way Hammill learned to collaborate was by studying hard to learn Japanese, but he insists the language of music helped best: “The amazing thing is you truly do not need words. Language is important, but music transcends it. You can sit with people and have no common language, yet through music, you can feel exactly what they are trying to show.”

Music also communicates to other areas of Hammill’s life in Tokyo: “Because I play the horn, I can experience Tokyo through music, but I have also been interested in other types of entertainment. While still living in New York, a friend and I performed in a weeklong run of a comedy show, writing our own materials and performing. Since 2007, I joined a Japanese entertainment agency here in Tokyo, and have performed on various television shows and commercials.

“That work led to a role in the film version of ‘Nodame Cantabile,’ a popular manga and TV series about a conductor and a pianist. My role was first horn in the orchestra, but it included a small speaking part, so it was really fun to combine my interests and vocation. I was the only actor who was a real musician. On the movie soundtrack, it’s really my own playing, so that was exciting.”

Hammill has also acted as a guide for visiting orchestras and even sports teams. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team came to Japan in 2002 for an exhibition game, Hammill contacted the news team in Florida and became a contact person. The 15-year-old sports fan is still clearly evident, as Hammill’s eyes light up describing his adventures with the team in Tokyo.

Because of his various connections with international media organizations, Hammill was featured in some news coverage in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, as he instantly began communicating with his family through Facebook from Opera City in Tokyo, where the orchestra was rehearsing at the time of the disaster. Some news organizations picked up on his comments.

Hammill feels lucky that the orchestra was away at the time from its home hall in Kawasaki: “We are based at Muza Kawasaki about 85 percent of the time, but we had a dress rehearsal at Opera City that day.” On March 11, the day of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the ceiling of Muza Kawasaki fell in. Fortunately, nobody was inside the hall at the time.

Hammill admits it is harder for him and the Tokyo Symphony than others to resume their normal lives after the quake.

“Our orchestra is homeless. We rehearse at a different hall nearly every day, and we still have some anticipated cancellations, because all other venues are completely booked.”

But Hammill tries to keep upbeat: “Things are going to be OK. We’re still a little nervous, but I am very rooted here in Japan. There’s no way I’m leaving.”

For a formerly reluctant horn player, Hammill has nothing but enthusiasm for a world he both enjoys and appreciates. “I’m lucky. I realized I could use music as my tool. I discover something different every day about this country, and about myself in this country.”