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The Man Behind the French Horn

Kevin Owen’s path from Comm Ave to a seat with the Boston Pops

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In the slide show above, school of music graduate Kevin Owen (CFA’83) plays a French horn melody from the 1812 Overture, solo, and joins the Boston Pops in rehearsal.

Kevin Owen, principal horn player for the Boston Pops Orchestra, needs no second glance at his score before taking to the stage for Boston’s most famous musical extravaganza, the July 4 performance  at the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade. No one at the  Pops does. Back in 1993, when the orchestra sat in as extras in a crime drama called Blown Away, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Owen recalls a line in the script that made the musicians laugh; the Hollywood version of the conductor announced, with a hint of panic, “People, we have only two weeks before the concert!”

“I don’t think that the Boston Pops has ever had more than one rehearsal for any show,” says Owen.

Owen (CFA’83), who graduated from the school of music with a Dean’s Scholar Award, says his musical career has elements of rags to riches; in the early days, times were so tight that he used to take quarters out of parking meters along Comm Ave to help make ends meet. That was before he started playing as a substitute horn player for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“It sounds very temporary or transient, but I am an extra who’s been doing that for almost 20 years,” he says. “I remember my big break: I was living in the Back Bay on Commonwealth Avenue. One morning the Boston Symphony Orchestra called me up and said, ‘We have a concert in 15 minutes. Can you be here?’ And I said, ‘Yes I can.’”

His career expanded from there, and now he drives himself and his horns from home in Scituate, R.I., to anywhere the Boston Lyric Opera, the Boston Philharmonic, or the Rhode Island Philharmonic (among others) needs him. In addition, he joins recordings for commercials, TV shows, or musicals like Cats and The Sound of Music.

“I like the French horn a lot, because it is tolerant of failure,” says Owen. “We don’t have to play a lot of notes, very high notes, or very loud notes. What we like to do is play a very simple melody, and the tone is very beautiful.” 

Owen took up the French horn because he was “a washout at all the other instruments,” he demurs. That was in 1972, as a high school junior. While he doesn’t come from a musical family — his father was a minister in upstate New York — he sees his own becoming one. His oldest son, Abe, 17, studies French horn, with another teacher, and twin sons Isaac and Jacob, 16, play drums in their school rock bands.

Owen rarely takes the family to join the crowd at the Esplanade on July 4, often estimated at as much as 500,000 people. After all, he’s at work. He’s usually seated four or five rows from the front, close to the center of the stage, and, he says, the repertoire is always around 15 songs, including “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Star Wars,” “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” as well as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as fireworks add explosive exclamations.

He admits that his part in the performance can be repetitive. “But who wouldn’t be excited when the crowd bursts into cheers?” he asks.

Owen didn’t plan on attending Boston University. “I was going to Northwestern,” he recalls, “but BU was running a program at Tanglewood called Young Artists. While I was there in the summer of 1979, they asked me where I was going for college. I said, ‘I’m going to Northwestern University.’ They asked me how much money I got. I said, ‘A full scholarship.’ They said, ‘We can do better than that.’”

While at Boston University, Owen enjoyed studying literature and philosophy as much as music. He remembers a cultural geography course that required students to explore diversity by trying different ethnic restaurants around Boston.

“That’s why I came to BU,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to a school of music where there would be music and nothing else.”

After graduating, Owen entered a competitive music world. “Freelancing is a wonderful way to make a living if you are young,” he says, “but there’s no security in it.” Twenty years later, he has built a solid career even if the title remains tenuous.

While it can be hard to fit in practice time at Symphony Hall, he tries to play every day at home. If his kids complain that they’re hearing too much of Dad’s horn, he’ll drive to the reservoir near his house and practice in the woods; the trees don’t seem to mind.

“As musicians say, ‘Keep your chops up,’” he says. “In other words, you must be able to play, because if you start to slip a little bit, your reputation will slip as well. And then you won’t get called for all these gigs.”

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on The Man Behind the French Horn

  • Anonymous on 04.19.2010 at 6:03 pm

    “Kevin Owen, principal horn player for the Boston Pops Orchestra”

    Actually, Richard Sebring is still principle for the Pops. Kevin Owen is a sub.
    http://www.bso.org/bso/mods/bio_toc.jsp?id=cat240084

  • Anonymous on 07.16.2011 at 9:29 pm

    THought Gus Sebrine was the principal (NOT principle of the Boston Pops Symphonic Orchestra? Did he get his contract not renewed and Kevin the new stand out french horn player?

    Thank you.

  • Fredirick poncho on 11.17.2012 at 2:12 pm

    Isnt dick sebrung the principal of the real boston pops, and owens principal of the free lancers esplanade thing?

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