That's no boat horn coming off the pier in Canton

BSO musician lives, practices on his yacht-turned-home

January 31, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

If you find yourself near the Anchorage Marina in Canton, you may hear an unexpected sound mingling with the squawks and cries of sea gulls clustering around the boats that neatly line the piers.

It will be the sound of a French horn, coming from inside a 46-foot motor yacht, whenever Philip Munds decides to practice at home.

Munds, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's principal horn player, lives with his wife, children and cat aboard the boat, nestled in one of the farthest slips from shore.

The nautical life appears to agree with all of them, even when, as happened earlier this week, the winds were at gale strength. "We were really rockin' and rollin' that night," Munds says with a laugh.

Tomorrow and Saturday, he'll be making sound waves on dry land, when he steps in front of the orchestra as soloist in one of the most haunting and imaginative works of the 20th century - Benjamin Britten's Serenade.

Scored for tenor, horn and strings, this 1943 gem is a cycle of songs with texts by Tennyson, Keats and others. The horn opens and closes the piece by itself, and weaves through each of the songs, sometimes like a spectral voice, sometimes like a wordless duet partner for the singer.

The Serenade is "enormously challenging, technically and emotionally," says BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine, who will lead the concerts (with tenor Kenneth Tarver). "It's really lovely to work on such an exceptional piece with such an exceptional player."

"I'm looking forward to it," Munds, 41, says, "but there's a little bit of anxiety with this one. Britten asks you to do things horn players don't do very often, like sneaking in on a high C - pianissimo. You just have to put yourself in that place where you don't mind being completely naked."

The principal horn in any orchestra occupies a hot seat, because so much repertoire makes pivotal, if not prominent, use of that instrument. Munds' reliability and calmness under pressure caught the ear of former BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov.

In 2003, Temirkanov picked Munds, then the assistant principal, to play the demanding first-chair solos in Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5. "That was a freaky thing - I got two days' notice," Munds says. "I was a little stressed."

But he came through brilliantly and, shortly afterward, was appointed principal horn.

"Phil is a wonderful musician, a beautiful horn player and an absolutely terrific person," BSO music director-designate Marin Alsop says by e-mail. "He has that rare ability to make everyone around him feel positive and happy."

The California-born Munds came from a musical family; his father was a tenor, his mother a choral conductor at London's Royal Opera House. Before winning an audition for assistant principal horn at the BSO in 1997, the San Francisco Conservatory graduate was a member of the Air Force Band in Washington.

It was during his Air Force years that he met his wife, Amy.

"A few years after we were married, my dad gave us his sailboat," she says. "Phil completely refurbished it one summer. That's what really got him started."

That sailboat satisfied Munds' interest in the watery world for a while, but he hadn't forgotten "a childhood dream of living on a boat," he says. "Amy and I started playing with the idea and, at some point, we just jumped. The kids were into it, too," he says.

About a year ago, the family left their terra firma - a townhouse in Towson - to take up residence on a houseboat.

"We were used to not being in a huge place," Amy Munds, 40, says. "But the houseboat was tiny. Phil and I slept on a futon, and the kids shared a room. We knew that couldn't last."

The search for a larger vessel led them a few months ago to a yacht built in 1989, with pale mauve-colored walls and wall-to-wall carpeting inside, hefty twin turbo engines below. It was named Petal Pusher (the former owner was in the florist trade).

Ten-year-old Hannah said, "`We have to get this boat,'" her mother says, "and that got the ball rolling." Hannah now has what her father has dubbed "the VIP stateroom," a cabin in the bow that can easily hold her sizable doll collection. "I love it," she says. "In my old bedroom, I couldn't stand up."

Her 4-year-old brother, Ian, has an adjacent cabin filled with cool boy stuff, her parents a suite in the stern.

The children are home-schooled aboard by their mother around the table in the galley, the sounds of sloshing and creaking providing a subtle counterpoint as they work.

Hannah and Ian pitch in to keep the place shipshape. "One of the neat things about this is that we're a team," Amy Munds says. "I told the kids that they were my crew, and they've really stepped up. They're very conscientious - and careful on deck."

Not that there isn't the occasional mishap. "I fell in the water once," Ian says almost proudly, in between drawing dinosaurs.

So far, the boy's father and the family cat have also had overboard experiences - "Luckily, when the water was warm," Munds says.

The family has embraced pier life. "The community is fantastic," Amy Munds says. "Everybody's so helpful. They're great neighbors. And they love to hear Phil practicing. There are quite a few concert-goers out here."

In between his BSO work and teaching at the Peabody Institute, Munds has replaced holding tanks on the boat and is working on plumbing projects.

Post-winter tasks include "buffing and cleaning the outside, which needs a lot of work," he says. "I think I'll have a keg party and get guys from the orchestra to help out."

When the weather heats up, Munds plans to take the family on weekly excursions. "This boat needs to run," he says. "If it just sits, it can do damage."

In time, a new name will be painted on the boat: Spiorad, the Gaelic word for "spirit."

There's already quite a lot of that aboard.

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