The oboe is an instrument almost everyone has heard, but many wouldn't be able to pick it out of a lineup. Nick Stovall, Principal Orchestra of the National Symphony Orchestra, shares with us all the details about his instrument. We learn about composers that helped in its development, music to listen to, why it's used to tune the orchestra, and more.
A glimpse of Nick's workspace where he makes and hones his reeds
Iconic Oboe works to listen to!
Richard Strauss - Oboe Concerto
W. A. Mozart : Oboe Quartet In F Major KV 370
J.S. Bach - Cantata No. 12 "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen"
The oboe you haven't heard before, the bass oboe!
John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we take you behind the music. In this episode, I'm joined by Nick Stovall, principal oboe of the National Symphony Orchestra, to talk all about his instrument. He shares with us how the oboe evolved over the centuries, the composers, and works to listen to, and he plays for us some big orchestral moments as well. Plus, stay with us to the end to find out if his dog howls when he plays at home. Thank you so much for joining me, Nick, to talk all about the oboe.
Nick Stovall: Thank you so much for the invitation. I'm glad to be here.
John Banther: It's good you're glad to be here because I have a lot of questions. The first one is, if you had to describe the oboe to someone who had never been to an NSO concert, or seen an oboe, or maybe even heard one, how would you describe it to them in just a few sentences?
Nick Stovall: I think I'm going to play off a bit of some of my colleagues' responses, my dear friend Lin Ma and my dear friend Susan Heineman. Lin told you about the clarinet. It's a black instrument with silver keys, and the same is true of the oboe. It's a black wood instrument with silver keys, and in the case of Sue and the bassoon, it's often confused. People, sometimes they don't know if the oboe is the large one or the smaller one, but it is in fact the smaller one, which looks similar, as I say, to the clarinet.
John Banther: Okay, and the sound is quite striking as well. It's very different from the other wind instruments. How would you describe the sound as compared to something they may have heard, like a flute or a clarinet?
Nick Stovall: Yeah. The sound of the oboe is described variously as penetrating, as plangent. I've heard that word used before. It can be a very intense sound, and it's easily identified, I think, because of that.
John Banther: Okay. I love the sound because it has that penetrating quality to it. It can just kind of push through the orchestra sometimes, but it still... it never sounds, well, to me at least, it doesn't sound shrill. It doesn't sound aggressive unless that's what the part calls for. It still has this nice, compact sound that's just able to just punch through the orchestra.
Nick Stovall: That's the hope. I mean, I'm always hoping not to sound aggressive or pressed. There is a lot of pressure that is required to play the oboe. It's a very small aperture in the reed. The double reed is a key part of the instrument. It's very, very small, and so there's a lot of back pressure. You see sometimes players turning all sorts of terrible looking colors, turning red and purple in the face and that sort of thing, so we have to manage the pressure that it takes to play the instrument. I think that that can often come across in the sound.
John Banther: Well, let's talk about that pressure for a second because that's something I think a lot of people don't quite understand, in that the oboe has what seems to be the opposite problem of instruments like flute or tuba, which will just... you can just freely let go of the air, and the instrument will just take it. With this, you have all of that pressure. It's like, if you have a straw and you close off one end but just one tiny little pinhole and try to blow through it. You see people's necks kind of get inflamed. Maybe they're turning funny colors.
Nick Stovall: Yeah.
John Banther: How is that? I mean, that's got to be quite something to either get used to, or maybe you don't even get used to that.
Nick Stovall: What you say is true that it's exactly the opposite of the flute, where there is really no resistance. Then, on the oboe, it's probably the most resistant thing you can think of. We manage that by trying to craft the reeds to suit the player. We think a lot about the different muscles that are involved in. We use our abdominal muscles all the way down, as many of the other instruments do, too, but we have to think really consciously about where that pressure is being held. Is it in the mouth? Is it in the throat? How much of it is getting concentrated at the reed? Because the pressure that we feel as players should not translate, ideally, to the ear of the listener because we want to create a smooth, floating line. We don't want to have the sense that it's stopped up and full of difficulty.
John Banther: Another question I have about pressure is about breathing. For me in my instrument, which the tuba just takes the air from you, basically, there are times where, if you're playing higher or in the middle register where you actually have too much air built up, that pressure I think you feel when you play the oboe, but when that happens to me, I'm able to breathe out slowly while I'm playing through my nose to relieve that pressure. Is that something that the oboe can do? Or, is it just something... you need the pressure?
Nick Stovall: Well, actually, it crops up in terms of actually planning, I think. You have to plan your breathing on any wind instrument, obviously, where you're going to take your breaths. You want them to be making sense musically, but in addition to the breaths that you take in, as any of the other wind instruments do, we actually spend quite a bit of time thinking about where you're going to breathe out. In an extended passage or in a solo that you might play, a concerto or something like that, just as often as you plan places that you're going to take a breath in, you have to plan places where you're going to breathe out because, as you say, you end up with this kind of stale air that you need to expel before you can get fresh, nourishing oxygen.
John Banther: Okay. That's so interesting. That's something that I think most of us would not know, of course, unless we're talking to someone who actually plays the instrument itself. So, where did the oboe come from? About what time period do we see it coming into music? Did it come from an older instrument? Tell us about that.
Nick Stovall: Yeah. Probably the oldest relative would be what you call a shawm. Think of maybe in an old cartoon or something like that or children's book where you see the snake charmer playing and drawing a snake out of a basket or something like that. The instrument that he's probably playing is what you would call a shawm. It's a double- reed instrument, really super basic, no keys on it. It's probably just a piece of wood that's been turned down with some holes in it and a really basic kind of double reed. I think that's where you can trace the beginnings of what is now an oboe. Around about the time of Bach, and Telemann, and Handel in the Baroque period, it starts to get... it's a more refined instrument. It still has no keys. It's still made out of wood, but the reed becomes a little bit more refined. Those composers use the instrument in a very soloistic role. The music of Bach contains so many gorgeous lines for the oboe in the cantatas, in the orchestral suites, in the Brandenburg Concertos. The first two of them have prominent parts for oboe. It's really used not just as an instrument to double the violins and to kind of increase sound but to be a soloist in its own right.
John Banther: That shawm, I think that's from the 13th century. That's really old. Then, a couple hundred years later in what sounds like 1600s into the 1700s in this Baroque period, we get a little more refined in terms of the oboe as to what it is with that reed. Then, we start to see holes in the instruments but not quite keys yet in Bach's time. Is that what's happening on the instrument?
Nick Stovall: Yeah. Little by little, the keys start to get added so that you can play chromatically in a more convincing way. Then, in the time of Mozart and Haydn, then more and more keys start to get added so that that chromatic playing... so you can play in all of the keys, basically, and have it sound appropriate.
John Banther: It sounds like it basically faced a lot of the same things that other wind instruments of the time did in the 1500s, 1600s into the 1700s, in that you couldn't play all of the notes cleanly on the instrument, all the chromatic notes that you're talking about, basically, all the notes that we use in Western music. You'd have to kind of manipulate the instrument or your embouchure or do something to make it work on a trumpet, for example, that natural trumpet. It sounds like that's something similar evolutionary- wise with the oboe. What other Baroque composers liked or used the oboe very well?
Nick Stovall: Really all of them, honestly, Telemann, Handel, Vivaldi. There are concerti by all of these composers for the oboe, so it was well thought of even at that period of time, and it was obviously played by virtuosos who could make the case for it.
John Banther: Now, what about Vivaldi? Because I've seen some writings and things, especially in CD liner jackets of famous oboe soloists when talking about Vivaldi. His music was so hard for the oboe. It sounded like it was almost just totally out of the ordinary and kind of a mystery as to who was playing these solos by Vivaldi. Was his music just that much more difficult? I also saw that it was another 50 or 70 years before people started writing like he was writing in terms of difficulty.
Nick Stovall: Great. Yeah, it is incredibly virtuosic. As far as the players who are actually playing it at the time, I'm not quite sure about that. It's probably well known that he was the music teacher and a composer at an orphanage for young girls, and so maybe there was a really hotshot group of young ladies who could play this music. I don't know, but what you say is true. It's incredibly virtuosic and challenging in a way that still presents challenges on a modern oboe.
John Banther: Looking forward now from the Baroque period, Bach and Vivaldi, you mentioned that the instrument gets more keys or is evolved in a way where it can play all the notes that it needs to in the time in writings of Mozart and Haydn. Did they kind of write for the oboe in kind of an extended way, the same as Bach and Vivaldi, or did they do something new, thinking like Bach separated it from the soprano or the violin? Did other composers do even more adventurous stuff when it comes to the late 18th century?
Nick Stovall: Yeah. Well, the expansion that occurred there is in terms of range. One thing that really jumps to my mind is the Mozart Oboe Quartet, which is a kind of middle- period work. The Köchel number's 370, and it was written for a specific player. It expands the range of the instrument the notes, the actual notes that we play in both directions. It goes up to a high F above the treble staff, and it goes down into the lowest register of the instrument around middle C. The keys that were added at that point helped to be able to play in those ranges, but it's also cast in a solo role. There's a Mozart Oboe Concerto in addition to this quartet that I'm speaking about. There's a Haydn... there's a concerto that's attributed to Haydn. There's sort of a mysterious story around that piece, but yeah, the composers of the period definitely used it in similar ways, and in concerto roles, and so forth.
John Banther: It sounds like the oboe is in the camp of a lot of other instruments that evolved or soloistic- type instruments. I'm wondering about... quickly before we talk about the 1800s and how maybe Beethoven, or Brahms, or Dvořák would use the oboe, when did the oboe start being used for tuning? What time period did that... because I'm sure people know, when the orchestra... the lights come down, the concert master walks out, the oboist, that's the person playing that tuning note. When did that start?
Nick Stovall: I would say that probably starts around the period of time that we're talking about, the Classical era orchestra going into the Romantic. It's a convention that developed along with the development of the modern orchestra, so the composers that you just mentioned, Beethoven, Brahms, et cetera. The reasons behind it, I've heard a couple of different possible reasons. I think that it's possible that they're equally valid, one being that it's, as we've discussed, a very penetrating sound, and the central placement in the orchestra makes it so that all of the other instruments can hear very well, so I think that that's plausible. Another explanation, which makes sense to me, is that, unlike many of the other instruments... The string instruments have tuning pegs. You can turn the tuning pegs to fine- tune on the stage. Clarinet, trumpet, all the brass instruments, you can pull and push tuning slides and parts of the instrument. You make it longer or shorter in order to fine- tune the intonation. On the oboe, once you've made the reed, there's really not a lot of adjusting to be done, certainly not on the fly on the stage, so in that way, the oboe is fixed in place. I can change a reed, but I can't really... I mean, I can change to a different reed, but I can't really change the reed that I'm playing on.
John Banther: That is so interesting because, one, that is what I heard growing up as well, that it was... the instrument's fixed. Once you have that in there, they can't move. The rest of us, we move. In fact, while we're playing, if you look in the back row, especially trumpet, if you can see closely, or tuba, we're moving all the slides in the middle while we're playing, so we can be flexible at a moment's notice, but the oboe, you're right there stuck with it. Early on, the orchestras were quite smaller. They were much smaller than today, so the oboe has that penetrating sound, but maybe that wasn't even so necessary back then.
Nick Stovall: Yeah. I think, as you say, it's true that the orchestras get bigger. They get louder. Perhaps that convention just kind of found its place and stuck around.
John Banther: Okay, so now going into the 1800s into what we like to call the Romantic period, how does the oboe change from there? Are there more technological advances, more musical advances in how composers are using the instrument?
Nick Stovall: As far as technological advances, it sort of goes little bit by little bit until the latter part of the 1800s, I would say. It's really not until then that we start to see something that resembles a modern oboe. So, in the time of Beethoven and Brahms, keys are being added so that it can be playing more convincingly in all the different keys, as we've said, and fine adjustments in terms of the bore, the size of the instrument, so that it can start playing louder.
John Banther: Now, looking to the 20th century and today, it sounds like, to me, basically, everything you've said just times 10. There's parts that are so difficult for the oboe. There's just a lot going on, it seems, in terms of how more technically difficult the music can be.
Nick Stovall: That's right. The demands on the players rises exponentially. Because of developments of the instruments themselves, the composers start to write more difficult passages. The things just sort of feed off of one another. Then, you've got hotshot players that come along and that can exceed the demands of even the composers or exceed what the instruments could have previously done, and that also moves things forward, so it all begins to move even much more quickly.
John Banther: What would be a piece from the 20th century that you would say uses the oboe in a very characteristic way? Or, if there was a 20th century piece you would say to someone, " Here's something to listen to if you want to like or hear the oboe in a certain way," what would you recommend?
Nick Stovall: Well, I have a couple of answers to that question, actually, because one thing that we haven't really delved into is the fact that the role that the oboe has, certainly in orchestral music, but just by and large is one of carrying beautiful melodies. Certainly, we can play virtuosic, we can play virtuosic- ly, we can play fast notes. We can play things that maybe impress you in that way. But if I was asked to point towards a piece of music from the 20th century, I would actually point someone to the Strauss Oboe Concerto. It was written in the very latter part of the composer's life. At the time it was written, people wouldn't really even play it because it puts enormous demands on the soloist. There are these exceedingly long phrases that you have to manage with the breathing, as we were talking about, finding places to breathe in but also breathe out. In that way, it expands what's possible in the instrument, but it's also just... it's some of the most glorious music that I get to play, I think.
John Banther: I'm going to put links to some of this music that you've been mentioning like that Strauss on the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. Something we've not talked about quite yet is the dynamics that the oboe is capable of. We know that it has this sound that penetrates the orchestra, but does that mean that it also plays very loud? I'm also wondering, how is it playing soft on the instrument? A lot of wind instruments can play almost insultingly soft, like the clarinet, for instance. How does the oboe fit in with that?
Nick Stovall: Yeah, so the dynamic range of the oboe really is much more limited, I would say, than many of the other instruments, kind of in both directions. We certainly can't play as loud as a trumpet or trombone, something like that, and we have a difficult time managing the really soft end the way that the clarinet plays. I like the frame around that that you put, that it's insultingly soft. We're constantly trying to expand this. We want to give the impression of a huge dynamic range, but we're dealing with rather limited means. Actually, the range, the notes that the instrument can play is rather limited as well in terms of some of the other instruments. We're basically dealing with kind of a two- and- a- half-, almost three- octave range at the best of times.
John Banther: How do oboe parts differ from the rest of the wind section? You've mentioned how beautiful and glorious this instrument is for playing melodies. Is that what separates it from some of the other wind sections? I'm wondering, why would a composer choose to give a line to the oboe instead of the flute or bassoon, for instance?
Nick Stovall: Yeah, I've heard it described this way, that often, when there's a change of mood, maybe a composer is going from a passage of exuberance to a passage of somewhat more introspection, oftentimes you'll find an oboe solo. I think, because of the penetrating quality of the sound, it can be an emotional kind of instrument, and the composers, really from the time of Beethoven, Brahms, all the way through, use it in that way, to convey some kind of emotional quality.
John Banther: That makes sense as you're describing when there's this change, because when the instrument comes in, it naturally changes the sound and texture of whatever's playing with it. If it's just the wind section, or if this is coming out right with the strings alone or something, it has that power to just dramatically shift the feeling of the music. We've been talking about your oboe, but there are other instruments in this oboe family. Right? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Nick Stovall: Right. Yeah. Similar to the other wind instruments, there's the main one that everybody sort of knows. There's the flute, but then there's also the piccolo and the alto flute. On the oboe, there's the oboe that we're speaking about, but there's also an English horn, which is the alto, or I suppose actually tenor, member of the family. It's pitched in the key of F. The oboe is in C, so when we play a C on the oboe, when I reed a C on the oboe, the note C comes out. The English horn is lower pitched. It's an F, and between the two, there's the oboe d'amore, which is pitched in A, and there's even one even lower than the English horn. It's called bass oboe, which is in C again, so it's pitched an octave lower than the oboe.
John Banther: Another question I have is, how old is your oboe?
Nick Stovall: The oboe, the instrument that I actually play?
John Banther: Yeah. The instrument that you actually play in the orchestra.
Nick Stovall: The one that I'm playing most often is about three years old. Oboe players tend not to keep their instruments as long, certainly as long as a string player or even a flutist or bassoonist might. Some of those players might use the same instrument for an entire career. Oboists are often changing instruments every few years, largely to do with the fact of that conical bore. Once the bore gets a little larger at the top, the response characteristic and the tone quality of instrument actually starts to change a bit, and you can start to feel like you're missing out on something.
John Banther: That is a fun, interesting thing about the oboe because we look at other instruments that are centuries old, unknown even, or there's just so many things that are always about playing really, really old instruments, and for the oboe, it's interesting but also very sad for you that you, one, have to part with this instrument that you've done so many great concerts on, but of course, you part with it because it's not doing the things you need to do because all that pressure, the moisture, the changes in all that stuff when you're playing it, and then when it's sitting by itself, that must have quite a toll that leads to that.
Nick Stovall: Yeah, it's a living, breathing piece of wood. Wood changes over time. The wood floors in your house or the wood furniture that you have, it's actually always changing. When you're dealing with such fine parameters as you are with a woodwind instrument, with the oboe, once those changes start to happen, things shift, and it's not really quite the instrument that you used to have. Talking about technological advancements, maybe one interesting thing that bears on what we're talking about is that the makers of oboes recently have... many of them begun using a synthetic upper part. The inner part of the wooden instrument, they insert it with a piece of plastic and then make the bore from that, so the final measurements are made that way, the thinking being that plastic isn't going to shift and move as much as a piece of wood is, and so you might be able to have a longer- lasting instrument or at least one that is more consistent.
John Banther: I'm sure there is all kinds of discussions, maybe fights, as to, " Well, should you be playing on plastic, or is the resonance the same?" all of that kind of stuff. I imagine there's also a lot of those kinds of discussions in oboe circles.
Nick Stovall: I think so but maybe with less puritanism than you would think because a lot of players, especially ones that will play in orchestras or ensembles that do outdoor performances in the summers, say, or even thinking on the other end, if you play in a really cold church, having a fully plastic upper part of the instrument can be a lifesaver because the wood cracks, and when the wood cracks, that necessarily changes the dimensions. It changes all sorts of characteristics. Not to mention, if it goes through the holes, the tone holes of the instrument, it can render the instrument unplayable, so it's a real worry, and a lot of people are moving towards at least just a synthetic upper part, if not the whole instrument.
John Banther: Oh, that's so fascinating. I mean, there are so many factors that go into making these instruments and then the technological advances that now let you use an instrument for even longer, and yes, musicians in cold churches know very well how painful that is and even more painful when you're playing with the church organ as well.
Nick Stovall: Yes.
John Banther: Especially for you, your instrument that doesn't even move.
Nick Stovall: Right.
John Banther: Now, tell us about the reeds because this is a huge part of being an oboe player, right, these reeds that you have to make yourself.
Nick Stovall: The reed- making is a huge part of my life and my job as an oboe player. You really do have to do it yourself. It's so personal, based on your own physiology, the shape inside of my mouth, the amount of air that I am going to blow, how much air I want to blow. This is all very personal, and I have to be able to manage that with the reed that I'm playing on at any given moment. Actually, I'd like to say it's the most important part of my instrument, and I'm making it from scratch, basically, every day.
John Banther: How much time do you spend making reeds compared to how much you practice, for instance, or how much of your day does it take up if you're doing it all the time?
Nick Stovall: Well, it ebbs and flows, and it is largely dependent on what are my needs at the time. For example, I played with my colleagues in the NSO, the Haydn Sinfonia Concertante earlier this season. Leading up to that, I spent quite a lot of time making sure that I had a good stock of reeds that I could depend upon. If it's a lighter week or a week where the orchestra isn't playing, then I, blessedly, get to spend a little less time at my reed- making desk. In that way, it ebbs and flows.
John Banther: Okay. I mean, it sounds like you do appreciate the break from making reeds. The way you describe it there, you felt a little jubilation of, " When the week is a little slower, I get to make reeds less."
Nick Stovall: Yeah. If it's gone well for a period of time, then you have kind of a little stockpile, which feels nice. Depending on the characteristic of the cane... The reeds are made from cane, as the bassoon reed is; it's a natural material... sometimes they last longer than others. You always want to be in the position that you're cultivating new talent. You've got something new that's coming up that you think that's going to be pretty good. You want to have stuff that is good, that is reliable. Then, actually, it is useful to have ones that are maybe a little past their prime but that you keep them around just in case or to do some specific type of repertoire.
John Banther: About how long is a reed lasting? I mean, it's hard to put a number on that. Are we talking weeks, months, days, all of the above?
Nick Stovall: All of the above. Yeah. It really depends on the piece of cane. Oboists and bassoonists are talking about hardness all the time. How hard is a piece of cane? It's a little bit esoteric. People have kind of mysterious ways of measuring this, or they have in the past, everything from dropping it on a tabletop to listen to what is the pitch of the sound that comes out, things like that. You can rub your thumbnail across. If it's too rigidy, maybe that means that it's a soft piece of cane, and the inner part, is it kind of mealy and shredded looking? All of these kinds of things kind of go into how we characterize the cane. But I mean, I've had reeds that last only, sadly, maybe one performance or even maybe they-
John Banther: Wow.
Nick Stovall: ... don't even work out for the entire performance, but then I've also had ones that stick around, amazingly, for weeks or even a month with careful refinement.
John Banther: That's interesting, a day, a month. It seems to be up in the air at times, and the way you're describing the reeds and how people try to judge what is a good quality reed, I can totally imagine now, at oboe conferences, I mean, if you just play the audio from maybe a room of discussion, is this a wine tasting, or is this about reeds? I can hear everyone talking about this floral, I don't know, bouquet of sound coming from these different reeds, and then maybe there's a vintage of cane that was best.
Nick Stovall: Well, it's funny you say that. Yes, there are people that will talk about their favorite bag of cane from 1984 or whatever.
John Banther: Oh, so I was right.
Nick Stovall: Yeah.
John Banther: Yeah.
Nick Stovall: I mean, it's a hard way to live. It's a very capricious instrument that maybe you're gathering this from our discussion, but at a certain point, you just have to make it work, so I feel like I'm treading a line. I'm walking a fine line all the time.
John Banther: We're going to hear you play the oboe in some great examples right after this. Let's take a quick break. Classical Breakdown is made possible by WETA Classical. Listen to the music anytime day or night at wetaclassical. org or on the WETA Classical app. It's free in the App Store. Okay, Nick, it is time to hear the oboe. What is the first thing you're going to play for us?
Nick Stovall: The first thing I brought is the iconic oboe solo from the second movement, the Funeral March of Beethoven's Third Symphony, subtitled Eroica.
John Banther: That was beautiful. Tell us about this. What is this like for you as the oboe player playing this, either emotionally or musically? Why is this something you would choose to play for us?
Nick Stovall: I brought this for a few reasons, one of them being, as I say, it is an iconic solo. It's one that every oboe player knows because it is always asked for if you're auditioning for an orchestra. It's just bread- and- butter kind of material, but beyond just that, it's, I think, rather amazing music. It was impressed upon me in my training that this solo, in particular, is a reason to think about and cultivate a beautiful sound. We all want to play with a beautiful sound on the instrument, but particularly in orchestra, you have to craft a tone that carries the musical message. That is clear to me because, in this music, before the oboe comes in, there is an eight- bar introduction. The piece is in C minor. The violins are playing. They play this same theme, and then the oboe comes in, one voice alone, whereas the whole violin section was playing previously. One voice comes, and in just this short passage, you go from the gloomy C minor and carry the message forward into this bright, sunny E flat major by the time that the solo is over with. That says to me that Beethoven is entrusting a huge amount of responsibility to this one solo line, and all of the time in orchestra, in this piece, in all of the pieces that we play, I'm trying to live up to the composer's intentions.
John Banther: That sounds like, really, a great example of something you mentioned before, in that the oboe is great in its use of character change. When it comes in, the mood can change. Composers use it in that way, and with this, with Beethoven, as you're describing C minor into E flat, you're pulling the orchestra along with you into this whole new key by yourself.
Nick Stovall: Absolutely. It's an exhilarating feeling in the orchestra, and it's a lot of responsibility.
John Banther: What is another example you can play for us?
Nick Stovall: I've also brought for you the opening of the solo in the Brahms Violin Concerto, second movement.
John Banther: Absolutely beautiful. That is quite different from the Beethoven as well. It feels like, at certain points, every note has so much length and determination to it almost. Describe for us, how is this one compared to the Beethoven, or what makes this one unique?
Nick Stovall: This is another example of the oboe getting to play just a gorgeous, beautiful melody. It's distinct from the Beethoven, I believe, because it's in the second octave. It's in a higher range of the instrument here, and of all of the great composers, Brahms is the one that really requires breadth in the second octave, which is not an easy thing to accomplish.
John Banther: Is this one also used in auditions for orchestras or summer festivals, conservatories?
Nick Stovall: Yes, it is another one that everybody really must know, and it's an iconic moment in repertoire. It occurs at the beginning of the second movement, and the oboe plays this extended melody while the violin soloist stands there doing nothing for a long time. I mean, I want to say it's about two minutes of music, and the oboe gets to play the most gorgeous melody in the whole piece, really, if you ask me, and the violin soloist has to just stand there and listen.
John Banther: What is it like when you're playing that, and you're playing, and a famous violinist is sitting right there, 20 feet away from you looking at you? I don't know. What is that like?
Nick Stovall: Well, I've had some really lovely experiences with that. I haven't encountered a violin soloist who actually was perturbed by it, but it has been really gratifying to see a famous soloist maybe turn their head, and incline towards me a little bit, and give some nod of approval. That always makes me feel nice. Asking about what it feels like also leads me to think it's interesting when we play these pieces, when we play these excerpts, like I did for you, out of context, just the one line alone. It is such a different experience with all the other instruments around. This is a good example of that, I feel, because the orchestration in this Brahms is quite thick. All of the other woodwinds are playing. It's not just an oboe solo with strings playing around or something like that, that there's that kind of contrast. No, it's really like ensemble playing, and it makes me think of repertoire like the Mozart Serenades, these gorgeous pieces of music that were written for just solely wind ensembles, and this Brahms has that feeling.
John Banther: What is another example from the orchestra you can play for us?
Nick Stovall: The other thing I have for you is a short excerpt from the second movement of Debussy's La Mer.
John Banther: Okay. That one, quite technical, sounds very difficult, I think, to everyone listening right now and one of my favorite works as well. Give us some context to this. What's happening? What is the role of the oboe in this moment with all of these notes played so closely so fast together?
Nick Stovall: The title of this second movement in Debussy's score is the Play of the Waves. What I'm trying to convey with this music is playfulness, and distinct from the other long melodies that I've brought here, which I love to play, this is, as you say, more technical. This has more rapid notes, and it's creating effect more than it's creating a melody. I don't think you could really call this a melody. I thought it would be a nice way to show something else that the instrument can do. Also, incidentally, it occurs to me that I haven't said so far the oboe is a French instrument, and I think I'd be remiss if I didn't bring some sort of French music.
John Banther: Of course, and Debussy writing that difficult line, as you said, it's not really quite a melody. It is an effect. It's a character. It's bringing something out very clearly in the music. Is this something with the level of playing rising, especially over last century? Is this an excerpt that people are playing younger and younger now?
Nick Stovall: I think so. I do think so. It's also one that is maybe becoming less and less extreme. Maybe in previous generations, players would have maybe some fear even approaching this, and it's now getting to the point where it's just part of what we do, and maybe that fear has been dissipated somewhat.
John Banther: Now, a question about the reed with these excerpts you just played. You played all of them on the same reed, but is that something you would do in a concert? Would you use that same reed that you just played the Debussy on for that Beethoven Funeral March?
Nick Stovall: No, that's very perceptive of you to ask that question. Absolutely, I would not. I think the requirements of that Debussy being in the upper octave, having rapid articulation, if I was playing the full work, I would definitely be gearing my reed- making that week to the piece, which would be distinct from a week of the Beethoven Third, but also, in an audition situation, to keep going back to that, it's not really feasible to think that you could change reeds for every single excerpt on an audition list because you would be required to play the Beethoven Third, and then the Brahms Violin Concerto, and La Mer, and any number of other things on the same reed, so it is something that is required at certain points.
John Banther: Let's get into your role now with the National Symphony Orchestra. You're principal oboe, one of the high- profile roles in the orchestra. Tell us about this. What is your role? What does that entail?
Nick Stovall: My role in the orchestra, chiefly, is to play the first oboe parts in the major repertoire. The National Symphony has four members of the oboe section. There's myself. There's an assistant principal, a second oboist, and English horn, so most of our repertoire has either two or three members of the oboe section required, so I share the principal parts, the first oboe parts, with the assistant principal. Part of my role is to manage that distribution, to make sure that nobody is feeling overworked, hopefully, and that we make accommodations for other things that are going on in people's lives because we do exist outside of the orchestra.
John Banther: Of course, also you are playing that tuning note-
Nick Stovall: Yes.
John Banther: ... at the concerts as well. That must be an experience itself. On one hand, I think, that's kind of nerve wracking. It's just you, 100 members on stage, and everyone's quiet the halls down. I mean, as musicians, we're used to performing and managing any emotions that come with that. I also think, well, if you've been doing it since you were 13 years old in middle school band, maybe playing the tuning, maybe it's totally not even a thought almost. What is it like?
Nick Stovall: Well, it's still a thought for me. Maybe there are other friends and colleagues of mine that feel differently about it, but I mean, it feels like I play a solo before the concert even starts.
John Banther: You do.
Nick Stovall: Yeah. Again, kind of touching back to something I said before, it feels like a responsibility, and I try to take that really seriously. It is literally setting the tone for the concert. I'm not under any illusion that my colleagues are listening to what I play and vastly changing the intonation of the instruments. Really, the function of that exercise is checking. You sort of check in. You get set for the concert. You make sure that we're all pulling in the same direction. As I say, I feel responsibility for that, so I want to play a note that is beautiful, that has a beautiful sound, that has, yes, the right, pure intonation, and that's inviting, that my colleagues want to play with me.
John Banther: So, you are playing the first oboe parts, distributing that amongst the second oboe, also managing English horn. The assistant is also playing those on occasion as well. What is the reason why they would be playing? They would be playing when you are not playing. What is an example of a reason why that would be happening?
Nick Stovall: Well, it's to distribute workload. We play a lot of concerts. We play a lot of weeks of concerts, and in order to make sure that everybody is at their optimum, we distribute the workload that way. So, often you would see a concert, you would come to a concert, there'd be an intermission, and most likely, the assistant principal would play before the intermission, and I would play after the intermission. That's not always the case, but it's kind of a good template to think about the way that we distribute things.
John Banther: Often because after the intermission is when some bigger works are programmed, and those might be the ones where the big solos fall on onto your shoulders.
Nick Stovall: That is certainly a reason, though in the case of this Brahms Violin Concerto, there are plenty of pieces in the concerto repertoire that maybe a principal... certainly principal oboe would opt to play.
John Banther: What is your communication like with the rest of the wind section? You've described how you manage the oboe section. What is the communication like with the people on your right, people behind you, the flutes, clarinets, bassoons?
Nick Stovall: Yeah, it's a very collaborative relationship. That's another thing that I really value about my role is getting to work with those other players. It's a bit like chamber music, really. We don't have the same latitude as we would if there wasn't a conductor, but the conductor helps shape the performance, and we communicate about what we'll each do in turn.
John Banther: It sounds like your dog is also trying to-
Nick Stovall: He's kind of getting-
John Banther: ... do an oboe call.
Nick Stovall: Yes. Yes. I've got a beagle here who is very vocal.
John Banther: Now, a question about your dog. Does your dog howl when you practice?
Nick Stovall: No, actually.
John Banther: You sure?
Nick Stovall: He's howling right now because he wants to be let out in the backyard, but I got him as a foster dog first. We didn't adopt him straight away. The day that he came home with us, I needed to practice. I came up here into my study, and I have a chair, a comfy chair to sit in, and listen to music, and relax. I sat down. He followed me up here, and I started to work and practice. He jumped up into the chair and immediately fell right to sleep. I knew from then that he was going to be... it was sort of over. He was definitely not just going to be a foster dog, so he has been a good companion ever since.
John Banther: Aw, I love it, because sometimes... we have dogs, and they'll howl, but I think it's, for us, they think we're howling, and so they want to howl as well. If someone starts playing, they'll just run to the other room and start doing it because they think, " Oh, it's time to howl in the other room now."
Nick Stovall: Yeah. No, he actually really just loves music-
John Banther: Aw.
Nick Stovall: ... and very often when I'm practicing, he'll come in the room and just fall asleep.
John Banther: Oh, I love it. Now, there's another question I like to ask everyone, and you can change names if you want, time periods, countries, I mean, anything at all, and if you don't have an answer, that's an answer in itself, but I'm wondering, what is just kind of the craziest or wildest thing that's happened to you in a performance?
Nick Stovall: One thing that comes to my mind was an experience I had playing some chamber music. It was with my National Symphony colleagues, and we were playing in a venue that was pretty small, and the audience was very up close to us. We were on a stage, but the audience was very close. The piece we were playing was a Prokofiev Quintet, which it's an interesting piece of music written for violin, viola, double bass, oboe, and clarinet, so a kind of not usual ensemble. I don't think that the people that had come to this concert knew what to expect at all because we began playing, and someone in the audience directly to the left of me, in full voice, says, as we start, " Oh, my," and it just went from there. I mean, it was really not at all what they were expecting, I'm sure.
John Banther: In a George Takei kind of way? Or...
Nick Stovall: Yeah. That was sort of the tone of voice.
John Banther: Combination of, of " Oh, my goodness. What am I going to sit through now?" (inaudible) .
Nick Stovall: Yeah, exactly.
John Banther: Oh, my God. So, I mean, it takes you out of the moment-
Nick Stovall: Yeah.
John Banther: ... because it's so unusual. People don't usually talk right next to you when you're playing in a concert, especially loud enough where you hear it. I'm sure that takes you out for a moment.
Nick Stovall: Well, having experiences like that, maybe not as extreme as the one I just described, but having little moments like that that kind of... it breaks down any facade. It brings humanity into the situation, and it lessens tension, so maybe whatever anxiety I might have been feeling about this performance was totally gone in that moment.
John Banther: It's totally gone, and it's like, " Oh, right. We're playing music. We have to do our best job and play, make it beautiful, but no one's going to die."
Nick Stovall: Yes.
John Banther: " It's going to be okay. You might like it. You might not like. It doesn't matter. We're going to have a nice time together," and yeah, then you can go your separate ways.
Nick Stovall: Right. I didn't identify the person who had that reaction, but I like to think that maybe they were surprised about, initially, what they were hearing, but maybe they came to enjoy the performance as it went along. That would be a nice way to think about it.
John Banther: Let's think about it like that. I like that. I guess, is there anything else you wish that audiences knew about the oboe that they don't know or that they couldn't really know unless they spoke to or heard someone like you say it?
Nick Stovall: I think that the thing that people really just don't have a conception of is the reed- making, that there's so much that just goes into even playing one note on the oboe.
John Banther: I think that's also accurate. People just don't know, and if you ever go to someone's house who plays the oboe, and you go into their room, I mean, it's a little shop of horrors sometimes. There's-
Nick Stovall: We've got a lot of tools.
John Banther: ... a lot of very sharp knives, razors everywhere. That's wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Nick, for joining me to talk to us all about the oboe.
Nick Stovall: Thank you, John.
John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. If you have any comments or episode ideas, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are enjoying the podcast, please leave a review in your podcast app and tell a friend. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.