If you're looking for identity problems, a good place to look might be the double-reed section of any symphony orchestra.
Start with the English horn, a simple case of mistaken identity since it is neither English nor a horn; it is the alto member of the oboe family. The whole family bears psychic scars that date back to the first time someone described the oboe as "an ill wind that no one blows good."
Every oboist has that quote deeply, permanently engraved on his memory; so do performers on the bassoon and contrabassoon, deep-voiced relatives of the oboe. More than 400 of them are out at Towson State University, north of Baltimore, this week, and they are dedicating a lot of time and energy to showing that the oboe and its relatives are very refreshing winds that many players blow very good indeed.
In spite of identity problems, or perhaps because of them, the annual conference of the International Double Reed Society (held this year in Towson, next year in Tallahassee) seemed to be bubbling over with confidence and camaraderie. "When I was a kid," said bassoonist Sol Schoenbach, who is retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra and now the president of the International Double Reed Society, "you were lucky if you knew five people who played these instruments. Now look at them all."
He gestured at hundreds of musicians, mostly very young ones, who were milling about, trading shop talk and running off to lectures, workshops, concerts and an international oboe competition. Besides Americans, there were players from all over Europe and even Japan. Two daily concerts featured a lot of new music, including the world premiere of a trio by William Bergsma, a piece for electronic oboe and some jazz oboe playing. Attending these events, some double-reed players sported T-shirts that urged "Take an oboist to lunch" or asked, "Have you hugged your bassoon today?"
Bassoons seldom get hugged; take a look at Sergei Prokofiev, specifically at "Peter and the Wolf," which gets to audiences when they are young and impressionable and fixes indelibly in their minds the sound and the character of the various orchestral instruments. The role of Peter, with its optimistic, heroic melody, is given to the string section. What do the double reeds get? The bassoon is cast as grandfather -- a grouchy old man who doesn't do much but grumble. And the oboe -- which Shakespeare used to associate with pomp and circumstance, the coming and going of kings -- the oboe is cast in the role of the duck, a totally feckless character who winds up inside the wolf. Other members of symphony orchestras, wandering through the oboe section and perhaps remembering their Prokofiev, have been heard to remark, "This sounds like a duck farm." Clearly, some serious image-building is needed.
Then there is the contrabassoon. Everyone looks down on this lowly instrument, including other members of the double-reed family; they have to look down because that's where it is, an octave below Peter's grumbling grandpa, which seems to be quite low enough for most tastes. If it were allowed to stand up and stretch to its full length, the contrabassoon would be 16 feet tall.
Instead, it is twisted and folded like a very large pretzel until it is small enough to be played by a normal human being sitting down. "You have to have a plumber's license to play this thing," says Lewis Lipnick, contrabassoonist of the National Symphony Orchestra, gesturing at the instrument with which he has an intense love-hate relationship.
When it is used by a properly equipped plumber, the contrabassoon produces some of the deepest, loudest and most flatulent sounds you are likely to hear this side of a 64-foot organ pipe. Haydn brought it into the standard repertoire with a passage depicting a monster, and that is just about where its image has stayed ever since. Lipnick and the small, hardy band of his fellow contrabassoonists are dedicated to the proposition that it is also capable of producing music. It's an uphill climb, but some people are beginning to believe them.
"Oboes have been called the instrument closest to the human voice, and I agree with that," says Richard White, who plays oboe and English horn for the National Symphony. "But they are also very individualistic instruments; you never hear two oboe players who sound exactly alike." In a workshop, he told young players that such individuality should be developed and encouraged.
One reason double reeds are so human, so individualistic, is the specially intimate contact of the instrument with the performer. Unlike clarinets and recorders, which have rigid mouthpieces for the player to breathe into, double-reed instruments are played by blowing directly into a fragile, flexible, ultra-sensitive reed, which determines the kind of sound that will come out the other end. The player's relation to his reed is as close as a human being can have with any inanimate object this side of a pacemaker.
Oboists and bassoonists carry a selection of reeds around in specially made little cases, many choosing one for Handel, another for Ravel. They no longer wade into swamps to cut their own reeds as dedicated musicians used to do; most reeds now are imported from France, and efforts are constantly being made to grow them in this country.
But the player still whittles his own reeds to his own specifications, thus producing his own custom-made tone. Once upon a time, oboists used to be very secretive about exactly what they did with their reeds. Mitch Miller, who was an oboist before the arrival of television, recalls lessons with the great French oboist Tabuteau, when the teacher would turn away and hide what he was doing whenever he had to make an adjustment on his reed. "It's much better today," he said in Towson. "Now we're coming together and talking to one another." In fact, much of the discussion at the conference, in the formal sessions and private conversations, dealt with what people were doing to their reeds.
Once upon a time, the oboe and its relatives were musical big shots. They are probably mentioned by Shakespeare more often than any other musical instruments; the stage direction, "hautboys," used when royalty comes on the scene, is usually observed these days with a flourish of trumpets if it is observed at all. But the word is the French word for oboe (literally, "high wind"), and the instrument that ushered kings into the Bard's scenes was a remote ancestor of the instrument that Prokofiev used to portray his duck. English-speakers had trouble with the name for centuries, using such approximations as "hoboy" before finally settling on "oboe," which is the Italian phonetic transcription of an archaic French pronunciation of the word. (In Italian, the final "e" is pronounced something like "ay.")
In the 18th century, oboists and bassoonists were in clover; sonatas and concertos were being composed for them by such heavyweights as Vivaldi, Handel and Mozart, and Bach was giving them some of the best melodies in his cantatas. Stanley King, a specialist in the baroque oboe who lives in Washington, is one of the few Americans who are actually able to make a living as free-lance oboists, and he does it by specializing in this literature and using the kind of instrument it was written for. (Unlike violinists, who are constantly talking about and looking for instruments of the 17th and 18th century, most double-reed players gravitate toward modern instruments. That is because the form, the sound and the performing technique have changed drastically in modern times.)
"People ask me, 'What do you do?' " says King, "and I tell them, 'I play the baroque oboe,' and they say, 'Yes, but what do you do in real life?' They have trouble believing that I make a living at it. I have to hustle a little bit and travel a lot, but I'm keeping body and soul together." After the double-reed conference, he goes off for seven weeks in Europe, where the market for baroque oboists is somewhat livelier than it is here.
James Ostryniec, assistant principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony, also spends a lot of time in Europe. Besides his duties with the orchestra, he uses vacation time and leaves of absence to give 35 to 50 chamber music programs per year -- about two-thirds of them in Europe. Ostryniec, like King, is a specialist, but he concentrates on the contemporary period, when the oboe has been making a comeback after a long eclipse during the romantic era.
"About 90 percent of the music they are playing in Towson is 20th-century music," he points out. "The oboe is coming back because audiences want to hear other instruments besides the violin and piano and composers are interested in its distinctive sound, its coloristic possibilities."
Ostryniec has six records already available and a seventh coming out this month. Half-a-dozen compositions have been written for him, including "Oboe-Stenics" by Faye Ellen Silverman of Baltimore, which won the UNESCO Prize this year and has been broadcast all over the world. New pieces for him by Lukas Foss and Gunther Schuller will have their premieres next year.
Schuller is also the composer of the contrabassoon concerto that Lewis Lipnick premiered with the National Symphony several years ago, which probably marks a turning point in the history of that instrument. As the first full-scale concerto for the instrument, the work revealed possibilities that had previously not been imagined, including the possibility of becoming a valid solo instrument rather than one small element in the orchestral color palette.
"I had to completely rethink my approach to the instrument and invent a new technique to play that concerto," Lipnick says. He approached several other composers to write the concerto, including Morton Gould, who said "I just wouldn't know what to write for a contrabassoon," before reaching Schuller, who had been "looking for an excuse to write something for that instrument for years."
"Morton Gould attended the premiere of the Schuller Concerto," Lipnick recalls, "and he was just blown away. Now, I think he is interested in composing one for me; he told me to keep nagging him, and I will."
Lipnick's session at the conference in Towson was attended by a large audience, including a lot of musicians who do not actually play the contrabassoon. The feeling seemed to be that if this lowliest of the double reeds is finally coming into its own, there are probably good days ahead for the whole family.