Geoffrey Burgess is known internationally as a performer on historical oboes. As a member of the Paris-based opera company Les Arts Florissants, he has also given concerts with leading early music groups in throughout Europe, Australasia and the US. Geoffrey’s experience ranges from late 17th-century French repertoire to premières of new works composed for “Duo d’amore” with harpsichordist Elaine Funaro. Beginning his studies in Sydney, he specialized in baroque music in The Hague, followed by a doctoral degree in musicology at Cornell University. Dr Burgess has taught on the faculties of Stony Brook, Duke and Columbia Universities and currently teaches at the Eastman School of Music. His book, The Oboe (Yale University Press) written in collaboration with the late Bruce Haynes, was voted an outstanding achievement by the American Music Instrument Society. He has served as principal oboe with the Washington Bach Consort, and collaborated with leading artists such as Elizabeth Futral and Julianne Baird. Geoffrey has recorded music by members of the Bach family with a sequel comprising concertos and chamber music.
GB (Geoffrey Burgess): Back to 1948. You mentioned that you needed a new oboe for your job in Houston. How did you get hired there? At that time it must still have been exceptional for a woman oboist to land an orchestral job.
LS (Laila Storch): When I was a student at Curtis in the 1940s, we weren’t supposed to take jobs, but occasionally I’d get to play for the Philadelphia opera. I would be the only woman in the orchestra, but everybody was really nice to me. During the war they were short of people, so I also got hired to play with a touring orchestra in North Carolina. At that time Tabuteau had practically a monopoly on furnishing oboists to orchestras right across the States. There weren’t that many oboists, and so when an orchestra needed someone, they would just phone him, and he would say he had So-and-So. They would take his word for it, and sometimes the student would get a job even without an audition. At first Tabuteau didn’t want to accept a woman student, but I was so determined and stubborn, and when he finally got me through the training, he began to change his mind about women and he would recommend me. I started to play auditions but I just couldn’t get anything. I officially graduated in 1945, which was of course when everybody started to return. If there was any possibility of a man coming back from the army, I wouldn’t get the job. I played for Baltimore and the conductor seemed pleased. It was looking good for me but when they heard that Ralph Gomberg was returning, of course he got the job. I remember playing a really good audition for William Steinberg in Buffalo. At that stage I had stacks of orchestra excerpts ready. I knew them all by heart. I would go over the solos with Tabuteau and I really knew them backwards and forwards. Finally, I managed to get a job playing second oboe for Hans Kindler with the National Symphony in 1945 (see MT, Chapter 13) Oh! It was awful living on peanuts in Washington. I rented a little room. Th e springs were pushing up through the bed. There was a two-burner gas plate and one of those old fridges with coils on top. I had to take a rope and tie it up to stop it from rattling all night. The walls were so thin that I could hear the lady on the other side talking to her cat while I was trying to gouge cane and make reeds. As well as the living conditions, working in Kindler’s orchestra was a drop in standards after my Curtis training. But I figure that no matter where you are, there is always some great experience. If I hadn’t been there with the National Symphony, I would never have played with Fritz Kreisler when he was a soloist in the Beethoven Concerto.
GB: Then later on you made return visits to Europe, and got involved with the Casals Festivals in Prades and Perpignan, and embarked on one of your life projects—the music of Bach and particularly his music for oboe d’amore.
LS: In 1950 I had planned to go back to France—it was really to be a continuation of the cane trip of two years before—but then I got the call to play in the Casals Festival. When we were students at Curtis we didn’t even know that Casals was still alive. I remember one summer several years after Feuermann died and Marion Davies was staying in his New York apartment, there were some old 78s sitting on a shelf including one of Casals. We only knew the famous Cortot, Thibaud and Casals recordings of the Schubert and Beethoven trios, so when we put on that solo record it was completely new to us. Then several years later I remember reading in Time magazine that Casals was going to come out and play in public again, and when they invited me to participate, it was like a miracle. The people chosen to play in the orchestra were a mish-mash. There were old friends of Casals, and some professional orchestra musicians— a mix between France and America. Columbia Records paid each of us $300 for making the recordings but otherwise we would not be paid. It would cost a little for room and board in Prades. I already had my passage booked and couldn’t change it, so I was going to arrive in Prades a couple of days late. That meant I needed to practice on board the ship. I was traveling on the Queen Elizabeth in what they called “Tourist Class” in a cabin with three other people, so I couldn’t practice there. A Palm Court orchestra played for afternoon tea, and I spoke to the first friendly looking musician I could find. That happened to be the violinist, Geoffrey Hirst. I told him my dilemma, and asked if there was somewhere on board where I could practice. He told me about the instrument storage room and we arranged to meet there at 10 o’clock the next morning. He had a key, but what he didn’t explain was that while he could unlock the room from the outside, once inside, I was locked in. So he would say, “I’ll come back in an hour to get you.” I went there to practice every morning of the five or six-day crossing. That year Casals really needed three oboes for only one piece, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, but Tabuteau had us support him in the other works. By then he was sixty-three and found the long Bach phrases quite demanding. That seems young to me now, but at that time (1950), he had begun to play only half of the Philadelphia Orchestra season. His teacher, Georges Gillet, had quit playing at about fifty, so for Tabuteau the sixties probably seemed old. I was officially the second oboe but Tabuteau had John Mack sit next to him. Any time he would nudge him, Mack would have to take over for part of a measure. Mack did a terrific job at sneaking in. I think he did that in both the recording and performances, or perhaps not in the solo concert, because Tabuteau was sitting out front. They reissued all of the Casals festival recordings recently, so you can hear me playing with “him,” and hear how we played Bach in those days: there was nothing Baroque about it, believe me!