by James Felton
Philadelphia Bulletin Music Critic
Away with the wag who said the oboe is an ill wind that nobody blows good!
Down with whoever has proclaimed the oboe a tiny tube that tootles, an instrument hardly visible in an orchestra — one whose expressive range isn’t wide and whose repertoire isn’t over-rich.
The oboe, like the bassoon, is a double-reed instrument, and what concerns the oboist is always the fragile reed, a most perishable item cut from bamboo cane. He must have a constant supply, because reeds go bad quickly and need adjustment from minute to minute during performance. The oboist is forever mating the delicate cane on his mouthpiece in the most intimate and changing of adjustments.
When everything’s right, the oboe produces a noble velvet tone, highly treasured for its quality. And the tone has been cultivated for centuries, back to the shawm–an instrument lost in antiquity.
THE LATE Marcel Tabuteau was a great oboist, and many of his students are flying in today, at their own expense, to pay homage to their master at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in separate concerts at 2 and 8:30 p.m.
All emerged from Curtis to make distinguished careers of their own. They include Robert Bloom, a top-notch New York freelancer who still teaches. Alfred Genovese and Ralph Gomberg share the first-desk oboe slot in the Boston Symphony. Harold Gomberg was the longtime principal oboist with the New York Philharmonic. John Mack is principal with the Cleveland Orchestra. Laila Storch, first female principal oboist of any orchestra, teaches at the University of Washington. And Louis Rosenblatt is the Philadelphia Orchestra’s excellent English hornist and a member of its oboe section.
That’s a lot of oboe power. But it’s not the end of the roll call. Host of today’s Tabuteaufest is another of his former pupils, John deLancie, who succeeded his teacher as principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and who now heads Curtis Institute (a pupil of DeLancie’s, Richard Woodhams, is the Orchestra’s principal oboist but, for the moment, I stray) .
MARCEL TABUTEAU was born in southern France, where he first played fiddle when he was six. When he switched to oboe, he was getting such good sounds his local teacher sent him to the Paris Conservatory to study with George Gillet, master of the day. For well over a century, France has been noted particularly for the excellence of its woodwind players.
Tabuteau came to New York, first with the Walter Damrosch Orchestra and then the Metropolitan Opera under Toscanini. Leopold Stokowski heard him in 1915, and in that year, Tabuteau became principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, remaining in that post until he retired in 1954.
Meanwhile, he joined the ranks of Curtis, which opened in 1924 partly to provide a supply of players trained in America. As one instance of this, at one time, 17 of Tabuteau’s ex-pupils were playing first oboe in as many American and Canadian orchestras.
We’re reminded by today’s celebration that a great performer is usually a great teacher as well. And we see the great line of tradition in classical music transferred from France to Philadelphia, where the oboe first chair has passed in line from Tabuteau to De Lancie to Woodhams — and from Woodhams, the line may well pass to one of his own pupils. Meanwhile the French tradition has passed through Tabuteau to his many other pupils, who have fanned out, planting and replanting the tradition on American soil.
SOME think oboists, like other instrumentalists, become more sophisticated with each generation–keeping the master’s best tricks and adding some of their own. There’s truth in that.
Thirty years ago, Juilliard School’s orchestra played a lot of strong repertoire, much of it what some folks still persist in calling modern, but wouldn’t dare try Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” is the key 20th century orchestral score, calling for enormous groups of woodwinds among other things.
Yet the Curtis orchestra played “The Rite” last month with a full complement of players in a hair-raising performance. Howie Kornblum, a bassoonist and new concert manager for Curtis, has no doubt that players today find it easier to tackle what wouldn’t even have been attempted a generation ago.
Says Kornblum: “We used school players entirely, with just a few outside additions where called for. Some of the Philadelphia Orchestra men who came to listen told us our school musicians did some things better than they themselves did in many passages. You find the same level of competence at Eastman School or the University of Indiana. There’s never any shortage of topnotch students at the best schools, and they get more and more sophisticated.”
The legacy of a phenomenal virtuoso and teacher like Tabuteau helps dramatize the continuity of classical music in the United States, once imported, but today competing on the same terms as those anywhere else. This goes for more than just the “lowly” oboe, and helps account for the unshakable continuity of playing and teaching that makes up so much of our lively musical scene.