The city of champions adds another to the pantheon: Horn player Joshua Williams, with one year more on his doctoral work at the University of Alabama, won over every other player in the International Horn Competition of America, best of the best.
Labor Day weekend in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Hillcrest High School graduate blew all competition away, taking first prize in the professional, rather than university, division. For the first time in its 38-year history, the pro level was won by someone who flew back to his day job as a student, said his teacher since ninth grade and director of UA’s School of Music, Charles “Skip” Snead. It was as if a student won the U.S. Open, said Snead, who deemed it “a stunning, essentially lifetime achievement.”
“In our discipline, it’s hard to describe how huge this is,” he said. Getting seen by musicians from around the world was the original goal. When Williams rolled through the first round of 30 to make it to semi-finals with six others, Snead was ecstatic: Goal achieved and exceeded. When Williams made the finals cut, with Markus Osterlund of the National Symphony of Washington, D.C., and Jorge Mejia, principal horn of the Bogota (Colombia) Symphony Orchestra, anything seemed possible.
The student felt strangely confident, even against premier players, performing for an audience of musicians from around the world.
“I think at that point, I could sort of feel it becoming a reality,” Williams said. “I have actually had dreams about winning this competition. Recurring dreams, for months, about how it would feel.”
Though he’d centered by staying in his own head, Williams could feel the response.
“Granted, I’m his teacher, and I’m biased, but I’m telling you the truth: It was stunning,” Snead said. “The performance was literally magical.”
Sept. 3, when Williams was announced as first prize winner, his professor leaned over and said, “Look, your world has just changed, in ways you can’t even comprehend at this point.” The honor comes with $3,500, and in the days after, a phone blowing up with offers. As a winner of the biannual event, Williams joins its elite Laureates Council. The instant fame, Snead said, is priceless.
Williams has won numerous regional prizes, and performed professionally with Meridian, Starkville and Tuscaloosa symphonies. Until this year, though, he’d psyched himself out of the big game. Austin Larson, 2015 winner of the international competition, inspired Williams.
“He’s a fairly young guy, a bit older than me,” he said. “Hearing some of my colleagues in the horn studio rave about his work – he’s a phenomenal player – I thought, ‘I could do that.’”
Snead spoke with Larson, discussing possible team-ups. “I’m happy to get on stage and play with Josh, though I’m not sure I can keep up with him,” Snead recalled him saying.
“I’ll be honest; I wouldn’t have got on the plane if I didn’t expect to have success at the competition,” Williams said.
‘An extraordinary talent’
He first picked up the horn in seventh grade.
“Honestly, I joined band because my family moved sort of in the middle of the school year, and I couldn’t play football,” he said. His sisters played flute and clarinet, but it was his father who guided him.
“My dad basically just told me to play the horn because he didn’t feel like buying an instrument, and the school would let me rent one,” he said. “It was a really crappy single-F horn, and after about a week, my band director bought a brand-new intermediate-model horn for me to play, because she was blown away. … I didn’t really know what I was doing, but she told me it was special.”
Word reached Snead’s wife, Angie, also a music teacher, who brought the two together. Williams began lessons in ninth grade, then started at UA in fall 2010.
“From the first time I met him and heard him play, there was no doubt at that point, this is an extraordinary talent,” Snead said, noting that Williams possessed the physical tools, the ear and the musical intellect, along with a strong work ethic. A year later, Snead challenged the student with a copy of his favorite solo horn recording, “The Golden Echo,” by Michael Thompson, one of the student’s favorite players, a member of the London Sinfonietta named principal horn of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra at just 18. On the disc was Rosetti’s D-minor concerto. A few months later, Williams was back.
“He was fairly quiet,” Snead said. “I said, ‘Did you work on that Rosetti?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, would you like to play it?’ ‘Yeah.’”
When his wife asked how it went, “I said, ‘Absolute truth, it sounded like Mike Thompson.’ ”
By junior year of high school, Williams began to foresee a career.
“I considered myself a pretty good operator of the instrument, because I could play the right notes, and all that,” he said. Williams saw college as a chance to start over: UA helped him focus on playing music, rather than playing the horn.
“To me, it’s really about the music,” he said. “I just like to try to tell a story.”
The professor underlined a recent UA slogan: “Where legends are made.”
“This qualifies in every possible way,” he said.
Down the road, Williams wants it all: recordings, major orchestra stints, his own studio.
“My goal has always been to become one of the most influential horn players of my generation. … I’m definitely, probably my favorite horn player,” he said, laughing, “but I would never tell anyone that.”