Tune In Backstage: Meet Thomas Watmough

Tune In is the London Philharmonic Orchestra's bi-seasonal magazine keeping you up-to-date with news and reflects on highlights of the year so far. We caught up with Thomas Watmough – the LPO’s Principal E flat clarinet, to learn more about him, and to hear his first impressions of the Orchestra.

What are your first musical memories? Did you grow up in a musical family?

TW: I grew up one of three boisterous brothers who were expected to become as silent as the grave when our dad put Radio 3 on. Hence classical music seemed to be to us a form of endurance torture. Something must have sunk in though, as around the age of 11 I remember the sound of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto grabbing my attention while I fixed my bike in the back yard, and I was drawn completely away from my plans to jump Evel Knievel-style over some of the other kids in the neighbourhood. A week or two later a chance came to learn the clarinet at school , which immediately became an obsession and just stayed that way.

What does joining the London Philharmonic Orchestra mean to you?

TW: In a way, joining the LPO feels like a sort of homecoming. I spent nearly nine years as a member of the RPO but before that, as a freelancer I worked with the LPO more than any other, and I have very happy memories of tours and concerts from that time. The warm and rich-sounding wind section has been part of the distinctive sound of the Orchestra for many years, and I feel very privileged to be here trying my best to contribute towards it. There is a certain member of the wind section whose playing I’ve greatly admired for many years. To sit within earshot every working day is one of the greatest draws for me. I won’t mention the name, lest it make his head swell!!

What are the most challenging orchestral works you’ve played?

TW: There are few pieces that don’t hold their own particular challenge. The E-flat clarinet part in Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony is nerve-jangling: highly exposed and requiring complete rhythmic control. Playing it with the LPO under Vladimir Jurowski in 2007 was one of the most unforgettable concerts I’ve ever been a part of. Also many works by Richard Strauss: he had an incredible knowledge of the capabilities of every instrument, and wrote to the limits of them – for example his virtuosic writing for the bassett horn, which is essentially a cross between a mangled clarinet and a Hoover! I do more thinking nowadays about what type of clarinet a particular work was composed for, whether German or French, and at what stage of the instrument’s development. It often explains why some pieces – though seemingly simple – are harder to balance within the orchestra on the modern clarinet than others, and why some solos are harder to make work than others, despite appearing simple on the page.

What have been your first impressions of the atmosphere in the LPO, and the wind section in particular?

TW: There is a lot of good feeling and joking in the wind section. The fact that I may be a tad ‘vertically challenged’ has been a source of merriment to my colleagues for many years, and no chance has ever been missed to rib me for it. As the LPO recorded the music for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there has been some speculation that my contribution to the films was perhaps more visual than musical!

What’s the best thing about life as an orchestral musician?

TW: One of the best things about being a musician is knowing that there is never a ceiling to your learning. I’ll never be the finished product, but I aim to always improve and learn from the great playing that goes on around me. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the best reasons we do it. For example, after a recent concert I got on a train with a colleague. We were both tired and in a miserable, cynical frame of mind. A school group got on after us, and they were all completely elated by something they had experienced earlier that evening. My friend and I couldn’t help being curious about what could possibly be making them bounce off the walls of the carriage like that. It gradually dawned on us that we’d been in the same hall as them that evening. They’d heard The Rite of Spring live for the first time and I got the impression that it had been an experience that some of them would never forget.

How do you enjoy spending your time when you’re not working?

TW: The thing that gives me the best feeling of escape from the job is simply being with my children. Perhaps because of the age gap (Grace is 11 and Amália is 2) there’s a lovely dynamic between them, and when we’re all together the nervous energy that plagues me completely dissipates.

What music do you enjoy listening to?

TW: It changes day to day. Apart from Berlioz (I’m a big fan), the classical music I listen to generally doesn’t involve clarinets. I’ve become pretty familiar with all the Beethoven quartets and piano sonatas and love them all. I enjoy folk music too, which has split into so many interesting tangents over recent years. It’s through an Oxford folk music society that my parents met, so perhaps that’s why it hits home somehow.

You can read our latest Tune In issue online here.