Last week, I participated for the first time in an International Double Reed Society conference. This year, it was at the Arizona State University, in Phoenix (well, actually, in Tempe). I didn’t perform anything in there, actually, I barely played at all. I went to immerse myself again in the world of “double reeders”. It’s funny what some years out of the circuit do. I didn’t know anyone there, but I did enjoy the event very much. I took advantage that this year it was close to where I live, and drove up to Phoenix to see and listen to the latest (and greatest) trends in oboe.
It is not my intention to write here a full report of my trip, just to point out a few things that called my attention the most. I missed the first day, but I stayed until the end of the conference. On the second day, I sat in a great lecture on getting started with the Baroque oboe, presented by Adam Shapiro. He talked about all of the basics in terms of reeds, particular techniques, makers, and general resources. Although I have been learning and researching about the Baroque oboe on my own and knew some of the information he presented, I also left the lecture with a lot of very useful information.
Still on the same day, I went to an oboe and bassoon recital with two French musicians, Helene Devilleneuve (oboe) and Julien Hardy (bassoon). The program included 19th and 20th centuries pieces. I have to confess that I was very impressed with Devilleneuve’s playing and performance. She has a beautiful, full, and very expressive sound. It is an European sound, and I like it. Later in the conference I was able to talk briefly with her and to try her reed (on a great Rigoutat oboe). When I started playing the oboe ages ago, I used an European style of reed (more German), and playing her reed was like going back in time in a good way. It was a French scrape and it was so easy to play (and play well). I think that for now, I will go back to my European-reed origins and move my American reeds to the “back burner” case.
In fact, it was the difference between the American sound and the European sound that called my attention the most during this conference. The differences, at least for me, were quite striking. I think that the best description of the main difference was given by one of the exhibitors to whom I was talking. He said that lately, there has been a greater focus of American oboists to adjust their sound to the standards set up to orchestra playing. That is, since most of the jobs are in orchestras, it seems logical to be prepared to this market. It’s almost like taking Tabuteau’s tradition to an extreme. The result is that many American oboists end up not being able to express their own individuality, and having a sound that resemble the sound of all the other oboists. Meanwhile, the exhibitor was saying, the European sound is more individual, more distinguishable. After we spoke, I started to pay more attention to this difference in the recitals and concerts I attended, and I did notice his point very clearly.
In addition to the sound, I also noticed that the stage presence is different, especially on what it concerns the interaction with the audience. European oboists (and bassoonists) tended to be more engaging, kept more eye contact (with the audience and with other musicians), and gave the impression of being freer on stage. I missed that with some of the American performers. I don’t say this with any negative intention. It is just what I personally noticed. In some performances, I didn’t even feel like I, in the audience, was part of the event. The music was performed very well, but it was the impression of the lack of engagement that particularly called my attention. This is something I automatically tend to focus on because of my background in performance and in education and educational psychology. I relate a performance to a classroom in which the teacher has to be engaging in order to facilitate the learning of the material. The same way a student can learn by solely reading a book, a listener can enjoy music by just listening to a recording. It is my impression and my opinion, but I strongly believe that it is the constant interaction between the musician and the audience that makes a live performance successful.
Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not criticizing any one or any particular school of playing, but I do tend to analyze performances (it is a personal and professional interest of mine). In the topic of performances, stage presence, and sound, one of the stars of the conference, Nicholas Daniel, did an excellent job in his concerts and masterclass. It was a treat to listen to him playing live. In addition to his masterclass, other master classes that I enjoyed were on preparation for orchestra auditions with Dwight Parry, on the Strauss oboe concerto with Peter Cooper, and a more generic one with Richard Woodhams. I also want to mention the amazing performance at the final concert from Emmanuel Laville, the winner of the 2011 Fernand Gillet-Hugo Fox oboe competition. The guy is good, very good.
Besides all these events, there is always the “toys” section at the conference, with new shiny oboes, English horns, and bassoons, and all kinds of accessories. The fun part was to try the oboes. It was the first time for me to have all this variety of instruments to try, and I took advantage of the opportunity. My oboe is a Loree full automatic, and because I am more familiar with this brand, I wanted to try different ones. I tried a few Marigaux models, Howarth, Rigoutat, Patricola, Gebr. Monnig, Josef, and Fossati. All of them are wonderful. I was, however, very impressed with the ones from Gebr. Monnig (the ones Albrecht Meyer uses). They have a clear European sound, full, resonant, and flexible. Amazing instruments. I was particularly curious about the Fossati and Josef oboes, since I’ve only seen them online. I was not impressed with the ones from Fossati, the sound was small and weak, but on the other hand, Josef oboes have a great full sound. I particularly liked the model with an European bore. What I didn’t like about the Josef instruments was that I like to have more flexibility in terms of sound color and they were a little resistant when I tried to push the boundaries. Howarth and Patricola oboes had great, stable, and nice sound (Howarth had a fuller sound, but Patricola was more flexible). Marigaux is an all around classic and in my opinion works well in any situation (like the Lorees). I was however surprised about how good the Rigoutat oboes were, particular the Evolution model (it resonated better with me). Not only its sound is full and rich, but it also gives me the flexibility of sound that I like. It became a serious contender for me in case I win the lottery and decide to buy a new instrument. Okay, okay, if I won the lottery I would buy both a Rigoutat AND a Gebr. Monnig. Now seriously, the main lesson I learned from trying the different instruments is that when we find the right one for us, then all of the concerns about the technique and the mechanics of the instrument and the reed seem to automatically disappear for the moment, and we can finally focus on making music. The instrument is nothing more than that: an instrument. If we know what we want to say, or play, if we have the story we want to tell, then having the right tool just make the telling easier and more effective.
Overall, the whole conference was great, with incredible performances and musicians. I came back more excited than I was about my revived oboe playing passion, and I also realized that although I may still be out of shape, I am not a bad player. Maybe one day I’ll be playing in one (or more) ensemble and teaching a few lessons.