San Francisco’s new horn is a fully qualified respiratory physician

San Francisco’s new horn is a fully qualified respiratory physician


norman lebrecht

October 16, 2016

There’s a new co-principal horn at San Francisco Opera.

His name is Mark Almond, he’s from Manchester, England and he has played guest principal with several London orchestras before heading abroad.

Unusually, he read medicine at Oxford and Cambridge and qualified as a respiratory physician.



  • Andrew Condon says:

    Many congratulations. Whilst its not unknown for musicians to have read medicine at university (e.g Tim Hugh in the LSO or Geoffrey Lynn in the LPO) to be fully qualified in both disciplines is rare – or am I wrong? The link between music and medicine is of course longstanding: Berlioz, Borodin and Kreisler come immediately to mind and I’m sure many of us know medical practitioners who are accomplished amateur musicians but what Mr Almond has achieved over two disciplines is pretty impressive to say the least.

  • Robert King says:

    Can anyone advise if Philippe Herreweghe qualified in medicine (he specialised in psychiatry) or did he turn full-time to music before that point?

    In earlier days James Gilchrist indeed had his medical talents called upon whilst on tour.

  • Observer says:

    Great. One less job for someone who’s trained exclusively in music. And a non-US citizen at that. Guys like this make music education obsolete. Forget conservatories. Let’s all go get medical degrees instead.

    Would love to know how UK orchestras would react to an American doctor occupying a top position in one of their professional orchestras. Like that would ever happen.

    • Mr Oakmountain says:

      Sorry, as a non native speaker, I am not sure if this is a joke, sarcasm or envy.

    • Robert King says:

      Gosh! If you were to remove from the ranks of performing musicians everyone who didn’t study music at university, and/or didn’t go to a music conservatoire, you’d lose a significant number of the finest performing musicians in Britain for a start.

      Studying music at a conservatoire is not a pre-requisite for becoming a first-rate performer. Being a brilliant performer, however that skill may be acquired, is surely what matters?

      • Observer says:

        Well, it looks like you’re right. No argument from me there. So why should we even bother with conservatoires or the full time study of music? Study something sensible that guarantees a living wage and if you can’t get a job in music you’ll be fine.

        Makes a lot of sense and could potentially put conservatoires out of business.

        • Step Parikian says:

          Pretty certain Mark studied music before turning to medicine. I heard his (orchestral) horn playing about 10/12 years ago and he was stunningly good

          • Observer says:

            I’m sure he’s terrific! And a well-rounded artist as well. But how many terrific, well-rounded US horn players are there playing in UK orchestras? How many US players of any variety are playing in UK orchestras?

            UK residency and work rules are extraordinarily prohibitive for foreign orchestral players. US and Japanese musicians share horror stories of arriving at UK airports, being detained and sent home trying to enter for conferences, conventions or even just vacations with their instruments.

            And yet no one in the UK blinks an eye when one of their own – a doctor, no less – who could easily make a living in another profession – waltzes into the US and claims one of the highest paying jobs in the country.

            I can’t help but think of all the US born and trained horn players who’ve worked all their lives preparing for a job like SF Opera who’ve lost an opportunity to this gentleman of privilege from the UK. Curtis, Juilliard, Indiana, Colburn, Eastman. 1000’s of qualified US grads are out there pounding the pavement for work. Do we really believe that this doctor from England is better than every single player coming out of US “conservatoires” right now? If you believe that, there’s a bridge I can sell you.

            So how about, it, UK orchestras? Tit for tat. We give your players jobs. Why don’t you reciprocate? Right now, most US players aren’t even allowed to audition for UK orchestras. Hell, we can barely get into your country on vacation with our instruments.

            Time to change the rules.

        • Mr Oakmountain says:

          I like to think that ANY experience other than music can and will inform your performance as a musician. I am rather scared of the idea that a musician might never have done anythig in his/her life other than practice, practice, practice and perform. I assume any “complete” artist will have strong interests in other fields as well.

          ANYWAY … heartfelt congratulations to Mark Almond on getting this post and on all his other acchievements!!!

          • Mr Oakmountain says:

            Plus, I am sure Mark Almond DID study music as well, so what exactely is the point here?

        • MacroV says:

          I’m not sure how UK work permits are granted, but I would assume that it’s similar to the American standard – showing you are an alien of extraordinary merit, and as good as (or better) than the best available Brit. So if an American came over and won an audition for a principal position in the LSO, I assume he/she would get a work permit. But it’s more likely to happen the other way given that US orchestras pay better.

          Music conservatories have many functions besides training people for orchestral careers that most will never have, and nobody is obliged to keep them alive. If people can make a career without studying at one, more power to them.

          Perhaps worth noting that Dr. Almond would make even more money working in the medical field.

          Since we’re talking about horn players, perhaps worth mentioning the great Charles Kavalovsky, principal horn in Boston from the early 70s to late 90s, who trained as a nuclear physicist (and taught at several universities) before winning the BSO audition.

          • Robert King says:

            Amplifying Macrov’s point, is not the issue that ‘Observer’ has outlined actually not with UK border processes (which are beyond any SD reader’s powers to change) but with the audition processes of this particular US orchestra? Didn’t that orchestra appoint the person that they felt was absolutely the best player for the job? (Was the audition even held behind a screen, as is often the case?). You can be pretty sure that the US musicians’ unions, who are normally rather hot on these sorts of matters, have kept a beady eye on the audition process in SF to make sure it was fair and correct.

            As to suggesting that US and other nationalities don’t perform in the UK, that’s not my experience. Certainly in TKC we have a healthy variety of nationalities who regularly play for us and so do many of my colleague orchestras. As one example, only next week we’ll have a wonderful non-EU player with us, furnished with a work-permit and fully legit to enter the UK to perform with us. Like most UK orchestras, we want only the best players, regardless of what passport they may hold.

            Financially, one of the reasons so few US musicians may be applying for orchestral jobs in the UK is because the salaries we pay here in the UK are absolutely rubbish compared to what US musicians are paid back in their own fine country. A typical rank-and-file musician’s salary in one of the good UK salaried orchestras (the UK also has far fewer salaried orchestras than the US) is under GBP £30,000 (that’s under US $40,000). In the US we read of orchestral salaries at $100,000 and more – salaries of which British musicians can only dream.

          • Observer says:

            To Macrov – quite right. And one of Mr. Kavalovski’s colleagues was Burton Fine, longtime BSO Principal Viola, who began his career as a research chemist.

    • John Kelly says:

      They don’t pay enough.

    • music_montreal says:

      dumb observations. here we are, with a horn player who studied something else and won an orchestra. he beat a bunch of other horn players who likely only studied horn. where they are from is irrelevant. the best horn player that day won. deal with it.

      • Observer says:

        Says someone from Canada where they always hold local auditions before they’d ever open a job up to a non-Canadian.

        • Mikey says:

          Try being a composer in Canada.. it’s even worse.

        • music_montreal says:

          yes. canadian auditions. just like in europe where the first auditions are for EU candidates. and australia too. and i’m sure you have a problem with that too.

          • Observer says:

            That’s right. Why is it that the US doesn’t give preference to its own players like Canada and the countries you’ve mentioned? How is that fair?

            We have to compete against the whole world to work in our own country and if we try to audition outside the US, local citizens are given preference.

            And every one seems to think this is just fine. It’s not.

        • music_montreal says:

          well, if you want to open that can of worms: MANY american orchestras have audition rules (in their union-sanctioned contracts) where they can pre-advance ‘special’ candidates straight into the semis or the finals. or have a no-hire audition and then call players for private auditions. how do you justify that to aspiring american music students?

          • Observer says:

            Newsflash: no hire auditions and advancing preselected players are not unique to the US. Not by a longshot. It happens all the time in European orchs.

        • music_montreal says:

          maybe you mis-read: no-hire auditions are not US-specific. but as far as i know, holding private/invite-only auditions *after* a no-hire audition is not common practice outside the US. finally, many orchestras in the US have the option of a local or internal audition, which you rarely hear about because they don’t yield winning candidates. i do respect your opinion, but to turn this into a rant about ‘foreigners stealing US jobs’ is a bit like what we hear on the US presidential campaign these days… at least from one side

          • Observer says:

            Having an invitation-only audition after a no-hire audition is also not unique to the US. How else are they going to fill the job?

            That’s a pretty derogatory statement about US local players not being able to win local auditions. But come to think of it, that’s exactly why I was able to audition in Montreal a while back: they held (very well publicized) local auditions and no Canadian was deemed qualified. The grass is always greener. .

            It’s not so much about foreigners occupying US jobs, it’s about giving the rest of the world a wake-up call that if the US is employing your citizens, you need to be opening your doors to US candidates. No one seems to get that.

          • Tylar Nichols says:

            As an American horn player may one day have to face off against Mr. Almond in an audition not too far down the road, I don’t mind having him here one bit. I watched a masterclass with him just the other day and we are certainly better off having him here rather than abroad. I suggest that you take all the time you seem to find for complaining about other people winning auditions and use it to actually practice.

    • Tom Quill says:

      Ultimately, these positions are decided via blind auditions. He could have a medical degree, he could be a licensed chimney sweep, he could have never taken a music lesson in his life, he could have just picked the horn up for the first time a week ago. But in a blind audition, he beat out all others. I’m not sure of the point you are trying to make.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    I suggest Mark Almond, as a respiratory physician and a wind player, write a book on breathing for singers and wind players. It would be an invaluable contribution and who is better qualified than him to write such a book? Looking forward to reading and studying it…!

    • Mary Lyon says:

      As a french horn player that suffers from asthma, the good doctor’s perspective would/could make a huge difference in my life. Please write a book, do a study, and Keep Calm and Play On 🙂

    • Brian Hughes says:

      You need to read Arnold Jacobs’ (late, great tuba with the Chicago Symphony) book, Song and Wind. He came for a residency at Northern Iowa and many of the singers usurped his lesson times!

  • Tom Gossard says:

    Connections between music and medicine are legion and date to antiquity (if not prior)

  • Mary Lyon says:

    Congratulations to Mark Almond. I would be greatly appreciative if you could write a book or prepare a YouTube tutorial for french horn players who suffer from asthma. Keep Calm and Play On 🙂

  • Bob says:

    Congratulations, Mark!

    Robert King is right in pointing out that he will have had to undergo a rigorous audition process, and will have needed the correct work permits before even applying (I think his wife might be American…). He was 3rd st the Philharmonia for s while, and I think did a stint as Promcipal at Bournemouth, so it’s not as though he’s not been dedicated to studying and practising. There are also plenty of American musicians working over here – the CBSO had an American principal trombone for many years, and the RSNO tuba is from the states to name just two brass principals.
    One reason that not so many American wind/brass players get work here is the playing style. It’s really very different, and doesn’t blend particularly well with the UK’s style (horns and oboes especially) – nothing to do with quality, it’s just different.

    • Jonathan Clarke says:

      Absolute I agree with Bob.
      I worked for years in an orchestra consisting of a broad selection of nationalities. Whilst we worked it out and made decent music, concepts of what makes an appropriate good generic brass and oboe sound were wildly different. We all got on well, became the best of friends and managed to find a fantastic middle ground. But it took time! Time is something UK orchestras generally don’t have. Fitting in quickly is paramount. Btw many fantastic Americans have managed it including Ray Premru former bass trombone of the Philharmonia.

  • Dr Edgar Dorman says:

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of protectionism in the job market, we will miss Mark Almond greatly this side of the pond. I have played alongside him a couple of times and he is truely special. One of the last gigs he did over here was a short tour with Simon Rattle and the LSO and the playing of the horns and Wagner tubas in Brucker 8 was sublime – not bad work if you can get it in a week off from night shifts at the Brompton Hospital. Earlier in his career he played full time with the Philharmonia Orchestra and there are certainly no other part time players I have ever come across who are more reliable and talented.
    I imagine his earnings as a player over there will be much greater than his life time earnings would be as a doctor in our National Health Service. I think it is the pay differential which has much to do with the lack of US players in our orchestras. I know Jim Thatcher sometimes comes over to play guest principal with the LSO but I’m sure he wouldn’t dream of giving up his earnings in LA to move over to a UK orchestra full time!

  • Emma Williams says:

    So The Observer isn’t bitter at all it seems! How dare an extremely talented individual who has spent years studying both academically and musically get a job that they’ve always wanted and worked damn hard for. Shocking. Incidentally, my recent workplace was primarily made up of American consultants. I work in the U.K. by the way.

  • Carolyn Sewell says:

    Absolutely incredible remarks from a load of people who have clearly never heard Mark play, nor no know of his absolute credentials as a highly trained professional musician.
    Appointment of non natives happens all around the world, why should the US be any different? Sounds like sour grapes to me. Mark would have been through exactly the same rigorous audition process and his background in medicine should have nothing to do with it. He studied music as well, is a highly intelligent LOVELY man, and quite frankly one of the best horn players I’ve ever heard and had the pleasure of playing with.
    I look forward to hearing how he gets on, and wish him and his family a wonderful time over there.
    Go Mark!!

    • pink tulip says:

      Incredible, but some people actually hold and carry out those kinds of attitude. When I was just starting out as a musician, I had a horrible experience regarding an opportunity to participate in concerts with a well-known ensemble. A well-connected, male colleague had a similar opportunity and met with support and encouragement. I questioned this difference in attitude and the response: ‘Well, he’s going to music college, so it’s different’!

  • Alun Williams says:

    Well done Mark Almond!
    Consider your appointment to a US orchestra as an exchange with Jonathan Lipton.
    Jonathan was born in the US and studied in New York. He was then appointed 2nd horn with the Ulster Orchestra, then moved to 4th horn with the BBC Welsh SO and since the late 1980’s has been 4th horn with the LSO.

  • Stan says:

    The same goes for an Australian principal horn of the LA phil—why are there positions being filled with foreigners? Try the reverse–have PhD–like Chuck Kavalovski or Burt Fine apply for a orchestral position in AU–they only accept music majors, and for their own country—what a joke! How do all those music majors in the states feel–all that hard work, debt, strive, to be given a job to a foreigner!

  • stanton says:

    Every other country protects their own citizens for jobs–this is disgraceful–how many US citizens from US conservatories, universities–AMERICANS–applied–you’re tellin’ me that NOT ONE American grad was qualified? Not one professional American horn player was NOT qualified–a foreigner was accepted?! Time to go back to rereading- the book—why america failed by morris berman