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Oboe: Interview and demonstration with principal John Ferrillo

Video transcript

(dramatic instrumental music) - This instrument is an oboe. In French, it's hautbois, and that means high wood in French. It is a high instrument. It tends to play the soprano role in the wind section, and it's a double reed instrument. This is a reed. It has two blades, like a bassoon, except this is the high double reed. The bassoon is the low double reed. It's made of grenadilla wood, which is a North African wood. It's non-buoyant. The European ships in the 18th century used to get blocks of this and use it as ballast. If you took, put this in a pan of water, it would sink like a rock. One of the more difficult aspects of learning this instrument is learning to make this reed. You can certainly buy them, but if you are serious, even at a high school level, you need to learn to make these. These are made from a wood called cane, very much like what you have in caned chairs. Like a bamboo that grows all around the Mediterranean. There's good cane, there's bad cane. Saxophones, clarinets, bassoons, we all use the same material, but in different sizes. So the craft of learning to make these is very much part of this, very much part of it. There's some people that are very good at tootling this, but not quite as skilled at doing this. And unfortunately, you really got to be able to do both. Oh, there's a very wide range of reeds that you need. You need light ones when you're playing soft. You need heavy ones when you're playing loud. And so we are constantly changing, and also by the way, as the weather changes, the reed changes. So we are constantly making them, constantly making sure we have backups. It's one of the tricky things about it. And very often we'll say, you thought this was good, you should have seen the one that got away. (gentle instrumental music) The wonderful thing about the oboe is that it was, in terms of the great symphonic composers, one of their favorite singing instruments. They love to give lyrical solos to the oboe. And also, the oboe is one of those instruments that they often put at a juncture between one section and one with a different character. Very often, an oboe solo is a transition point for that. And there's something about that moment that's very exciting and very thrilling to do. (dramatic instrumental music) Gerry Schwartz called me up and told me right up front, some of the repertoire we're gonna be doing for this, certainly two of the most beautiful, most delicate, and most difficult lyrical solos are the famous solo in Tchaikovsky Four. (gentle instrumental music) Slow movement of Tchaikovsky Four is just a famous Russian folk tune, and very delicate, not easy to, took me a number of years to really feel like I was doing that well. The other great solo is the one from Shostakovich Five, which I must say, was a particular specialty of my my teachers, John de Lancie. And I must have heard him on half a dozen occasions play this with Eugene Ormandy. And there was something about the way he did that, time just stood still. It was a cool, beautiful, elegant. I could never hope to match it. But I'm doing my best. (gentle instrumental music) To play Shostakovich Five, or Tchaikovsky Four, they both require special things. Shostakovich Five is high, requires something that responds very well and holds the pitch in the upper register well. Tchaikovsky Four is in the other direction, lies on the treble clef and you have to play low. It needs to be very flexible. So every single solo has, and I, you know my colleagues will tell you, they'll see five or six reeds sitting on my stand at any one moment, not only as a backup, but to give me the best possible range of choices. (gentle instrumental music) 30 years ago, it was harder to get people that could make reeds and teach at a lower school level, so I was actually started on the flute, and switched to the oboe around eighth grade. And if you think, if somebody says, an oboeist is a nerd, imagine a young person who's playing the flute and saying to the kids in the school bus, "My mom says that if I play the flute really well, "someday, I can play the oboe." And it was an insidious plot from the age I think of three or four or five, my mom would be playing recordings and she'd say, "Johnny, you hear that? That's an oboe. "Wouldn't you like to play that?" (upbeat instrumental music) The passion to play music can start very early. I remember when I was seven, and my mom was teaching a music appreciation class and she dropped the needle on Brahms' second piano concerto, and they talk about kids needing education, but I just knew from the first second I heard it, I just was one of the most exciting things I'd ever heard. But when you really start getting the sense, I may really do this. I'd say, although I started it at age 13, by age 14 I was having my first orchestra experiences in the wonderful Greater Boston Youth Symphony. And to sit surrounded by musicians playing this music is unbelievable exciting. It's fun. I have the same fun now at my age, that I did when I was 14, my first time. I'm very, very lucky to be doing this. (dramatic instrumental music)