Oboist Taylor collaborates on chamber music
Aspen Times Staff Writer
The process of making symphonic music, with its hierarchy of conductor, soloists, concertmaster and principal instrumentalists, doesn’t much lend itself to finding joy. It is a relatively buttoned-down affair, with little room for open dialogue.
Oboist Stephen Taylor doesn’t come right out and say he prefers chamber music to symphonic music. But Taylor, who is currently principal oboist with New York’s Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and is a former principal oboist with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, comes down on the side of chamber music as a form that allows for artistic exchange, expression of the instrumentalists’ visions and even fun.
“The whole beauty of chamber music is finding the beautiful side of disagreement,” said the 53-year-old Taylor. “It’s articulating your ideas and having those ideas tried, which is something you can’t do with a conductor. Even if your ideas are rejected, they are tried. The result of disagreement is a unified art form. Everyone is finally convinced of the same thing. And even if they’re not convinced, they go along with it anyway. It’s a musical experience that often is much more spectacular than a conducted experience.”
Taylor has benefited from exchanging ideas, agreeing and disagreeing, with many of the best chamber musicians around. Since 1989, he has been a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, a collective of 20 top instrumentalists who devote at least some of their time to playing chamber music. Among Taylor’s colleagues in the group, which was founded in 1969 and coincided with the opening of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, are such noted performers as violinist Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin and bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, who performed a marvelous recital in Aspen last week.
Taylor says the democratic process involved in making chamber music has led to a satisfying experience of camaraderie within the Chamber Music Society, even though individual members may go months without performing, or even seeing, certain other members.
“We get to know each other really well,” said Taylor, whose other affiliations include the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, a conductorless, New York-based ensemble of some 30 musicians, the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, the New York Woodwind Quintet and Vail’s Bravo! Colorado. “There’s a lot of joking and messing around. And that’s just something you don’t get in a symphony or even a chamber music orchestra. That would be considered disruptive. It makes the workplace a great thing.”
Taylor and several of his fellow musicians from the Chamber Music Society will bring that happy workplace to Aspen for a concert at Harris Hall on Saturday, March 8. The concert, part of the Aspen Music Festival’s Winter Music series, is the last stop on a tour that has also visited Minnesota, Virginia, South Carolina and Florida. Designed as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of Harris Hall, the concert will feature a program of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F major; Loeffler’s two rhapsodies for oboe, viola and piano; and Faure’s Piano Quartet in G minor.
Joining Taylor at Harris Hall will be violinist Ani Kavafian, a leading soloist and Avery Fisher Prize winner, and violist Paul Neubauer, who at 21 became the youngest principal string player in the history of the New York Philharmonic. Rounding out the quintet are guest artists cellist Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic, and pianist Jeffrey Swann, who won first prize in the Aspen Music Festival’s Composers Competition at the age of 15.
To Taylor, the glories of the Chamber Music Society are many. Because the performing combos are constantly shifting, the dialogue remains fresh. “You’re working with different people, different guests, all the time. It never gets stale,” he said. Over its three-plus decades, the group has commissioned more than 20 works, from such composers as Gunther Schuller, Oliver Knussen, David Schiff and Oliver Singleton. In October, the Chamber Music Society will perform a program featuring parts of all of these commissioned pieces.
Perhaps above all, there is the shared love for chamber music. All the members of the group are top soloists who carve out time in their schedules to play as part of a chamber ensemble. And Taylor said that David Shifrin, the group’s artistic director and clarinetist, has a knack for selecting members based on their commitment to the chamber music form.
“David Shifrin brought us together for our ability to cut through the chaff and get to the bottom of chamber music,” said Taylor. “He’s also the director of Chamber Music Northwest in Portland, Ore., one of the top chamber music festivals in the country. He’s very much in touch with the chamber music world. He knows our stage reputations and things like that. In terms of the artistry, experience and dedication to chamber music, it’s at a high level.”
An oboist’s origins
For his own dedication to classical music, Taylor credits two primary inspirations: Mozart’s Oboe Quartet and Taylor’s attraction to a certain female oboist from his high school.
A product of Katonah, N.Y., a Westchester County town that is home of the Caramoor International Music Festival, Taylor began his musical studies on French horn. At Camp Solitude – which Taylor recalls as “a long-gone, rather incredible music camp” in upstate Lake Placid, N.Y. – Taylor had his attention turned toward the oboe.
“I heard an oboe played for the first time really well, by Rita Naylor,” he said. “She played the Mozart Oboe Quartet, which blew me away, and that summer I had to switch to oboe.
“But the real reason I switched is, I had a crush on the oboe player in high school. I was desperate to sit next to her. And it worked out – we went out for four years.”
The oboe was hardly the sexiest instrument back when Taylor was starting out. In fact, Taylor took six years, from 1968 to 1974, to graduate from The Juilliard School because he was so in demand as an oboist around New York.
“I was working around town quite a bit and didn’t go to my classes,” said Taylor, who is now on the faculty at Juilliard, as well as at the Manhattan School of Music, and the State University of New York-Stony Brook on Long Island. “I had to repeat a few classes, because I was doing a lot of freelancing. There weren’t many oboe players active at the time.”
Now, said Taylor, there are scores of oboists in New York. He credits the increased popularity to John Mack, who recently left his position as the longtime principal oboist with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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