The New York Times. July 9, 1995. New York, NY.
by James R. Oestreich
The Music World, everyone calls it, as if it were one big, amorphous body of like-minded, similarly skilled fiddlers and pipers. In fact, it is an unwieldy agglomeration of highly specialized enterprises, each a world unto itself. Thus the stereotypes and thinly veiled antagonisms that flourish within orchestras, spawning viola jokes and, more recently, trombone jokes.
Few worlds are as mysterious even to other instrumentalists as that of the oboe. Oboists are indeed a breed apart, a closed society of craftsmen-musicians, subject even more than their fellow reed players (clarinetists and bassoonists) to the fickle favors of a fragile medium: cane. “You don’t have to be crazy to play the oboe, but it helps,” goes an old saw in the trade.
“It’s kind of fun to be a character,” said John Symer, a noted oboe craftsman from Philadelphia, speaking for the breed. Indeed, being a character seems to come with the turf. So, to hear orchestral oboists tell it, does being embattled. Because of the instrument’s unrivaled ability to hold its pitch, the principal oboist is generally the upholder of concert tuning, often over the strenuous objections of the legions of string players.
But that scene of strife seemed distant, recently, as 80 of these lonely warriors gathered to find peace and solidarity at the John Mack Oboe Camp. A weeklong mix of study and tomfoolery, the camp was celebrating its 20th anniversary here at Wildacres Retreat, a lodge complex gorgeously perched halfway up the Blue Ridge Mountains, at 3,300 feet.
The range of participants could hardly have been broader, from budding stars of 15 to a retired professional of 81, from relative novices to college educators. Yet in the daily round of activities — including classes and recitals, the eternal quest for the perfect reed and after-hours bull sessions — the meeting of minds seemed total. Although some campers were said to have found time for horseback riding or golf, the din of practice resounded constantly in the dormitorylike corridors.
“The oboe is one big story,” said Mr. Symer, as he worked over a camper’s instrument in his makeshift repair shop. Either that or innumerable little stories.
It takes a big, expansive tradition to stretch from vestiges of French royalism to the tale of the dancing turkey, from music of Bach and Mozart to jargon like crow and shlurp (with forlorn sounds to match). The rarefied world of the oboe has it, and this camp is one of its great repositories. This year, Mr. Mack, who has been principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra for 30 years, was joined by Alain de Gourdon, the maker of the renowned Loree oboe in Paris, and Laila Storch, a revered chronicler of oboe lore from Seattle. Among them, they represented several lineages more than a century old. And over them all hovered the lively spirits of Mr. Mack’s mentors, Marcel Tabuteau, George Szell and Pablo Casals, vividly evoked in word and deed.
“What you get here is part of an oral history that goes back to the Paris Conservatory of the 1880’s,” said Steve Secan, the principal oboist of the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony. “It’s really wonderful to plug into that long tradition and recharge your batteries. And at the same time, you’re working with the young players who will be influential in the next century.”
Weighty business for a summer camp, perhaps. But leavening everything was the oversize, ebullient personality of Mr. Mack, a youthful 67-year-old native of Somerville, N.J., who never met a yarn he didn’t like.
“When in doubt in Brahms, keep the tone going,” Mr. Mack said in one class with a typical blend of wit and practical wisdom. “You’re up against all those string players who don’t like you.”
Although the oboe has a limited solo and chamber repertory, its sound is familiar to most orchestragoers, if only because of that dubious privilege of tuning the ensemble, a custom that is, however, no longer universal. Problems arise on, say, cool nights outdoors, when strings sharpen in pitch and the oboe tends to sag; a simple A can be a matter of heated dispute. As a result, orchestras like the Boston and Milwaukee Symphonies now tune to an electronic A.
The characteristic penetrating, slightly nasal sound of the oboe is produced by blowing through a hand-carved cane reed into a long wooden tube consisting of three fitted sections, with a complex arrangement of keys to produce various pitches. As in a bagpipe, a great store of air is needed to keep the small amounts forced through the reed even, so oboists have to retain high air pressure in the oral cavity. (Brass players blow harder but can release their great lungfuls rather than retain them.) An occasional serious theory and frequent quips have suggested that the sustained pressure in the head works deleterious effects on the brain. (See “crazy” above.) And if the pressure doesn’t get you, the vexations of dealing with fragile, short-lived reeds will.
Most oboists, certainly most American oboists, make their own reeds, a complex operation of gouging, carving and binding cane akin in its fine detail work to the tying of fishing flies. (Oboists might say microsurgery.) Some players spend 20 hours a week in the process. A good reed, one that not only functions freely and flexibly but also provides rich and varied tone, may last a week or two, or only a day. And a reed that sings at 3,300 feet may sink at sea level.
A truly great reed is as rare and transient as a comet. In a day of the camp devoted almost entirely to the making and doctoring of reeds, Mr. Mack told of the Great Reed of ’78, which came about almost by accident as he idly whacked away at a failed attempt after a rehearsal.
“It was so magnificent, it would glow in the dark,” he said. “I felt the way a woman must feel when she slips on a $35,000 sable coat. Its glories lasted about six days.”
Only five or six years later, when he finally replicated the reed, did he find the flaw. “It had everything you could possibly need but a fastball,” he said. “Its tone was too porous. It got sopped up by other instruments. I need a fastball, so I could never go back to it. It was a fleeting romance.”
Like oboists, bassoonists make and use double reeds (as opposed to the single reeds of clarinets), but theirs are heavier, and, on average, they last longer. Oboists — again, Americans especially — tend to become obsessed with the qualities of reeds, routinely discussing fine distinctions among varieties of cane. Thus the joke making the rounds at the camp: How many oboists does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but he may have to sort through 30 or 40 bulbs to find the right one.
Other oboists, mainly Europeans, look askance at this fixation. Heinz Holliger, the Swiss virtuoso, who is also a composer, conductor and pianist, has repeatedly argued that reed-making has little to do with actual music-making.
“It’s a piece of wood, an oboe,” Mr. Holliger said recently, carrying irreverence to new heights. “It’s nothing to live with. It’s a stick, a walking stick maybe.”
And some American players would say that Mr. Holliger’s oboe sounds it, for all his fabulous technique, because of his basic indifference to reed quality.
“Holliger wants a reed that speaks, period,” said Ralph Gomberg, a former principal oboist of the Boston Symphony. “We’re trying to get a reed that has voice quality, that can change quality. And when you get it, it’s a happy moment. But that’s all it is, a moment, because next week you’re out looking for the same thing all over again.”
The oboist, to hear Mr. Gomberg tell it, must be his or her own Stradivarius. The qualities of a specific instrument can carry you only so far; the real art begins with reed-making. “If you’re a master reed maker,” he explained, “you can make any oboe sound like you, as long as it is in tune.” And indeed, such mastery is a prime component of the American style among oboists.
THE FATHER OF THAT STYLE, by general agreement, was Marcel Tabuteau (pronounced TAH-bih-toe), who taught Mr. Mack, Ms. Storch, Mr. Gomberg and his brother, Harold, a former principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Tabuteau, who studied with the legendary Georges Gillet at the Paris Conservatory, came to the United States in 1905 and played in the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1915 to 1954. So Philadelphia Orchestra tradition — since carried on in another line from Tabuteau by John de Lancie and, currently, by his student Richard Woodhams, widely regarded as the star of his generation — was as much a part of Mr. Mack’s palaver as Cleveland tradition.
To judge from the stories — ah, the stories — Tabuteau was at least as colorful a character as he was a player. Mr. Mack ended most evenings in the canteen, regaling his charges with Tabuteau stories, saving the vaunted tale of the dancing turkey for the final night. He also spiced his classes liberally with stories. In fact, by summoning Tabuteau, adopting his hulking posture and blurting out his patented insults, Mr. Mack was able to come down heavily on students at times without seeming to do so at all.
” ‘DON’T STOP!’ as our leader said most eloquently right in the middle of a phrase,” Mr. Mack admonished, bellowing the Tabuteau line with a rasping French accent. “But one time I was dying for a breath, and I thought, ‘This calls for drastic measures.’ So I made a big musical gaffe, and he shouted, ‘STOP!’ “
Despite his long years at the highly selective Curtis Institute, Tabuteau taught no more than about 50 students, by Ms. Storch’s estimate. He was loath to disseminate his secrets, and he did not even give his own students much help with reed-making, Mr. Mack being a useful exception.
“It was his brains and my brawn,” Mr. Mack said. “He threatened to come back from the grave and haunt me if I ever so much as showed anyone a gouge. Well, I’m frantically spilling all the beans I possibly can. So far, he only comes to me in dreams, and we get along great.”
With instrument generally in hand, Mr. Mack spilled the oboistic beans here in any way he could, through talk and example. His lush, round sonority came as a bracing jolt at times, following a fine but inevitably paler effort by one of the campers. And when he tested a student’s oboe with his own reed, he sounded fully himself on any but the feeblest instruments.
Mr. Mack ran the campers through their paces in standard exercises by Apollon Marie-Rose Barret and Franz Wilhelm Ferling, solo pieces and orchestral excerpts, at times chiming in with another voice to urge them on. The orchestral classes were most entertaining, as Mr. Mack’s withering imitations of Szell jostled with those of Tabuteau.
“Conductors just don’t care about our problems,” Mr. Mack said, obviously out of hard experience. “They don’t care about reeds. Our job is just to make it go.”
But he also had sage advice for the soloist, typically laced with blunt humor: “When you finish and the pianist finishes after you, you have to look arty. Look up at the lights.”
Although the camp imposes no specific entrance requirements, the level of performance was generally high — astonishingly so among some younger players. Scott Hostetler, 18, of Kokomo, Ind., flashed through a Barret study, leaving Mr. Mack, for once, with almost nothing to say. Katherine Needleman, 16, of Ellicott City, Md., gave gorgeous, flowing accounts of the solos from Brahms’s First Symphony. And Frank Rosenwein, 16, of Evanston, Ill., spun out a movement from the Hindemith Sonata with a knowing sentiment that belied his years.
THE REPERTORY WAS WHOLLY conventional, in line with Mr. Mack’s predilections. And indeed, the emphasis on full, lovely tone can make it too easy for American oboists to dismiss contemporary music. Mr. Mack, in one of his late-night gabfests, harshly mocked Luciano Berio’s brilliant “Sequenza” for solo oboe and its relentless pursuit of unconventional sonorities.
Surely, some accommodation must be made if the instrument’s constricted repertory is to expand. Still, as Mr. Mack liked to point out when another oboist or teacher was cited as authority, this was his camp.
“John Mack himself,” wrote Joseph Robinson, the principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, in a congratulatory note from Paris, where the orchestra was on tour, “in all of the vivid particularities of his unique personality — with his boundless energy and joie de vivre; his white-hot musical intelligence; his mastery of oboe crafts and passion for teaching — is the heart and soul of this enterprise.” Mr. Robinson once studied with Mr. Mack and helped establish the camp in 1976 at Wild acres, a conference center dedicated to the betterment of human relations.
Mr. Woodhams, of the Philadelphia Orchestra, also speaks warmly of Mr. Mack but voices reservations about such camps.
“John has always gone out of his way to be helpful to others, including me,” he said. “But I feel that classical musicians are in danger of becoming overspecialized and narrow. This may be a wonderful thing for young players, but in the long run they may lose sight of wider possibilities of musical expression. Oboists should listen to singers and other instrumentalists as well.”
At least one first-time visitor was impressed beyond her expectations, however. “When I thought about coming here, I thought I’d go crazy from the sounds,” Ms. Storch said. “But it’s beautiful. They’re all playing serious pieces. They’re like so many oboe birds.” (Meanwhile, the birds indigenous to the region may have been driven off by the music, if Elizabeth Camus, Mr. Mack’s partner from the Cleveland Orchestra and a bird fancier, is to be believed.)
Another newcomer, the manufacturer Mr. de Gourdon, was obviously as pleased to see so many of his customers as they were thrilled to meet him. The Loree company was founded in Paris in 1881, and Gillet, who started teaching at the conservatory in that year, was among its early advisers. It is now the largest oboe maker in the world, producing some 1,400 instruments a year.
Mr. de Gourdon, who runs the company and puts the finishing touches on every instrument by hand, is such an engaging chap that it is hard to take seriously his vehemence on the subject of the French revolution. Still, he did issue a line called Royale in the bicentennial year of 1989.
“I wanted to do something different while everybody else was celebrating —- ,” he said, chopping guillotinelike with his hand.
Well, the final evening came, and with it the wheeze of the dancing turkey. Tabuteau, it seems, was taken as a child to see a turkey that danced to music, hopping on one foot, then the other. When he inquired as to the origins of this ability, he was told it was simple: put the bird on a metal floor, and light a flame underneath.
At breakfast the next day, as the campers were about to disperse, Mr. Symer, the craftsman, tried to prepare a young woman still deeply immersed in arcane technical banter for her return to the real world.
“Remember, Lisa, you’re not going to be able to go home and talk about the oboe to just anybody,” he said. “It’s not safe out there.” Perhaps not, but for the moment, the rare oboe bird seemed well protected.
A version of this article appears in print on July 9, 1995, on Page 2002001 of the National edition with the headline: CLASSICAL MUSIC; At Peace in the Lonely Realm of the Oboe.