Elaine Douvas leads Oboe Celebration at Hidden Valley

Making her eleventh annual appearance at Hidden Valley on June 12th, 2017, Elaine Douvas, principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, led from the front in a celebration of the great tradition of American oboe playing. As Hidden Valley impresario Peter Meckel put it to the audience, we were in the presence of four generations of oboists – not only Ms. Douvas and her former students Christopher Gaudi (established) and Liam Boisset (freshly graduated), but also the late beloved John Mack, former principal of the Cleveland Orchestra, who both taught Elaine Douvas, and later persuaded her to continue his series of master classes at Hidden Valley. We could probably add a fifth generation peering down from the Hidden Valley rafters – the spirit of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Marcel Tabuteau, under whose spell John Mack had fallen when studying at the Curtis Institute.

The first half of the program consisted of each of the three live oboists on hand playing a sonata, with the sensitive and often virtuosic collaboration of pianist Marc Shapiro. Elaine Douvas led off with the Hindemith Sonata, written in 1938 as part of the composer’s project at that time to write a sonata for almost every instrument of the orchestra. Hindemith’s music always displays excellent craftsmanship, but it is only in a few works such as the opera (and corresponding symphony) Mathis der Maler that he wears his heart on his sleeve, so that the challenge in interpreting his other works is to bring out the human expressiveness. This Ms. Douvas was well equipped to do, after a career in an opera orchestra, responding to the nuances of the human voice, and she played the sonata with a vocal, slightly reedy, tone and varied use of vibrato. Meanwhile Mr. Shapiro was sometimes in the first movement playing a very busy part, and then in the second movement playing a slow repeated rhythm under the oboe melody. This was an attractive presentation of a short, classically founded, modern work.

The Saint-Saëns Sonata, Op.166, is a beautifully romantic late work, also part of a cluster of sonatas — Saint-Saëns followed it with sonatas for clarinet and for bassoon, all in 1921, the last year of his life, and yet he had lost none of his mastery and imagination in producing distinctive works. This was the ideal vehicle for Liam Boisset to introduce himself as a highly promising oboist, able to float a beguiling tone on an endlessly supported air column. In the first movement, the perfect upward octave reminded me that Heinz Holliger, in a master class at Stanford once, demonstrated various upward and downward octave intervals, and claimed to practice them for an hour daily, as the foundation of his technique. The second movement Allegretto has Ad libitum bookends which are like slow oboe cadenzas, and the Molto Allegro finale gave Marc Shapiro a chance to shine with the florid and energetic piano part, leading to a heroic conclusion. This was another winning performance.

The more modestly entitled Sonatina of Franz Reisenstein was nevertheless of a similar length to the preceding sonatas. Reisenstein was a skilled German composer who settled in London with the onset of World War 2. He lived there until his death in 1968, and his music was heard in England, thanks to support by the Third Programme of the BBC. Christopher Gaudi brought a large, warm tone to this work, and Marc Shapiro continued to sound mellow on the piano. All three movements proved more substantial than might have been expected, and the finale had a demanding piano part that led to both players being fully committed to the two final chords, high and low. In sum, this performance showed the lesser-known work to be worthy to stand alongside its predecessors.

After the intermission, we heard two works for 2 Oboes and English Horn, in which Liam Boisset was the one to switch to English horn (or cor anglais as it is called in England!)Henk Badings, a prolific twentieth-century Dutch composer, also favored by the BBC, and I have always found his music interesting and good to listen to. His Trio IV certainly proved to have these virtues, beginning with a fine flowing blend of all three instruments, and Liam with his cobra-shaped bell sounding like a snake charmer – notably in the effective Canto amoroso second movement. In the closing Rondino scherzando, the two oboes seem to gang up on the irreverent English horn, and many chirrups were exchanged until proper respect was restored.

By way of an interlude, Marc Shapiro returned to play a solo, Brahms’ Intermezzo, Op.116 No.4. This was another nice example of modesty, avoiding any upstaging of the wind players by bravura pianism, and instead choosing a questioning, hesitant, reflective piece. Even where a romantic melody emerges over expansive arpeggios, it doesn’t last long, and we returned to the beautifully played introspection of the beginning.

Finally we heard the trio perform in sprightly fashion James Horan’s transcription of four highlights from Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with Elaine Douvas in particular providing some stylistic touches from familiarity with the score in the opera house context.

So the American oboe tradition is in good hands, and is being passed on in this week’s master classes to the healthy attendance of 23 participants.


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