Aspen Music Fest: Oboist takes rare turn as soloist
July 16, 2009
ASPEN – Richard Woodhams left his native Palo Alto in 1964. By his estimation, he thus missed the hippie counterculture that swamped the entire San Francisco Bay area by a matter of minutes. Had he stayed in California any longer, Woodhams, who says he was a little bit “different” as a child, believes he would have been swept away by the tie-dyes, the drugs and the music of the ’60s.
“I probably would have picked up an electric guitar or an electric bass. My destiny would have been very different than what it is,” he said. “I think I was lucky, in retrospect.”
As it turns out, the instrument Woodhams chose has helped shape his destiny as much as if he had plugged in a guitar and joined a psychedelic rock outfit. When he left home in 1964, at the age of 15, Woodhams headed to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music to study the oboe. He has made a life with the woodwind instrument; Woodhams has been principal oboist with the Philadelphia Orchestra for 32 years, and a faculty member at the Aspen Music School since 2000. And on Sunday, July 19, at the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s afternoon concert, he is soloist for the Oboe Concerto by Christopher Rouse, a longtime composer-in-residence in Aspen, with David Robertson conducting.
It is something of a rare occasion for Woodhams. With the Philadelphia Orchestra, he gets the opportunity to be soloist for a concerto about once every other year. Now and then, another orchestra – usually one far less prominent than Philadelphia’s – will invite him as a soloist; in 1977, the first time he came to Aspen, he performed Strauss’ Oboe Concerto (a piece he recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the mid-’90s). He has had one concerto commissioned for him – a three-movement concerto by Chuck Holdeman that required Woodhams to play not only oboe, but also oboe d’amore and English horn, two instruments he does not play regularly. The piece was commissioned by the Philadelphia Classical Symphony, and premiered in 2006. (Woodhams has also had several chamber pieces commissioned for him.)
Being a soloist is enough of an occasion that much of the Woodhams clan – three sisters, a brother-in-law and two sons – is coming from California to hear the Oboe Concerto. And it is a rare enough event to make the 60-year-old Woodhams nervous.
“I would dare say I’ll get nervous for this piece. I probably only get one shot at it,” he said. “It never becomes routine to me to be a soloist, because I don’t do it enough. I get nervous, but not in a disabling way. A certain amount of anxiety is a positive thing in performing.”
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The Rouse concerto might be particularly anxiety-inducing. The way the composer describes it, the piece – commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, premiered earlier this year, and getting only its second performance on Sunday – is rather gentle. Rouse says “this falls into my genial category. It’s meant to be a rather pretty piece, a lot of French color, a lot of harp and celesta. It’s not a piece that is one of my furious, fangs-bared, dark and brooding works.”
But Woodhams notes that instrumentalists can see things differently than composers. And when he first laid eyes on the score, Woodhams didn’t see Rouse’s concerto in such an amiable way.
“A year ago I looked at it and said, This is not playable. Or at least, not playable by me,” Woodhams recalls. “But I worked on it.” Now, he sees it in a different way: “It’s both pleasurable and nutritious. It exercises your imagination. It’s evocative. It has moods, and that’s something I value in music. To me, almost all great music is romantic on some level.”
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Woodhams grew up in the midst of music. On both sides of his family, going back multiple generations, there were musicians. Woodhams was the youngest of five kids who, thanks to a clarinetist grandfather, drifted toward woodwinds. Woodhams has two flutist sisters and a brother who plays bassoon. Woodhams started on clarinet and recorder, but found himself drawn to the oboe. He liked the sound – and if he didn’t find it pleasant, at least thought it distinctive and compelling. He knew the instrument had a reputation for being difficult to play: “It had a kind of cachet or mystique,” he said. And the oboe appealed to his sense of otherness.
“Oboists are often a different breed,” Woodhams said. “I thought of myself as being a little bit different.”
In the case of Woodhams, part of being different is having little desire to be in the spotlight. As principal oboist for the Philadelphia Orchestra – known as one of America’s great orchestras – and having held that position for more than three decades, Woodhams can certainly be considered one of the country’s top oboists. (He became first oboist of the St. Louis Symphony at the age of 19.) But he says he has no frustration over getting to be a soloist only once a year.
“People don’t realize this, but to be a top orchestra player in a top orchestra – that’s enough of the spotlight for most people,” Woodhams said. “The oboe has a wonderful place in the orchestra. You hardly ever see a piece without oboe in it, going back to the Baroque period. And the orchestral repertoire is so vast, you get to play so many styles of music, with the oboe used in so many different ways.”
When the invitation comes along to be a soloist, Woodhams sees it as an opportunity to get his heart racing.
“You can have a high adventure as a classical musician without having your life threatened,” Woodhams said. With the Rouse concerto, “there’s a lot of risk involved. You’re going to make it or fall on your face. I’m not a climber or a hang-glider, but this affords me some of the same thrills.”