Bach’s oboe-violin concerto is double the fun
This weekend, Claire Sakai Hazzard and I will present the rich, expressive sounds of a fascinating Johann Sebastian Bach masterpiece, the exuberant Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe.
Honolulu Symphony Orchestra
» In concert: 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday
» Place: Mamiya Theatre
» Tickets: $21 to $74 (Sunday concert is sold out)
» Call: 792-2000 weekdays; 524-0815, ext. 245, evenings; or visit www.honolulusymphony.com
As the Honolulu Symphony's associate concertmaster, Hazzard plays an instrument familiar to concertgoers, the violin, but you might not know my instrument, the oboe, quite as well.
During full orchestra performances you might catch a glimpse of the oboes in the woodwind section, as we're in the center and several rows back. Our neighbors are the flutes, clarinets and bassoons. Even if my section is hard to see, however, the first note you will hear at every concert is the oboe giving the tuning note A.
The oboe is a double-reed instrument developed in the late 17th century to address a need by composers for a more blended voice in ensembles to accompany the sacred, secular and early operatic music of the period.
The oboe's immediate predecessor was the shawm, a loud, raucous instrument perfect for outdoor festivals and concerts. It was similar to bagpipes in that the double reed was more or less free-blowing, allowing little control by the player. With an oboe, the player's lips contact and hold the double reed, allowing far more shading and control of tone.
The instrument was improved dramatically in the late 18th and 19th centuries as composers demanded an ever-higher level of technical and expressive capacity. Even before that, however, Baroque- and Classical-era composers such as Bach and Mozart wrote demanding and eloquent music for an instrument that was primitive compared with the contemporary oboe.
It is proof of the level of artistry of oboists who lived and performed before me that we have the wealth of fine pieces featuring the instrument today.
Oboes are usually made from African blackwood, and sometimes from exotic woods such as boxwood, violetwood or cocobola. I make my reeds from a kind of bamboo that grows all around the world (even in Hawaii!); the best varieties grow in southern France, parts of Spain and Central and South America. Each reed takes one to two hours to make, usually over a couple of days. Only one in four or five might work well enough to use at a rehearsal, and it might only last that long. I liken an oboe reed to a fine ice sculpture: It takes a lot of time, patience and skill to craft, but once made, we have only a few moments to enjoy it.
Bach's original manuscript for the Concerto for Violin and Oboe, circa 1720, has been lost, but like so many of his concertos, what remains is his score for two harpsichords. Bach scholars believe this is a transcription of the original composition meant for oboe and violin. Many musical clues -- a Bach road map to reconstruction -- tell us what Bach intended.
Bach's music plays a surprising role in popular culture. His works are often featured on television and have made unexpected appearances on film soundtracks. His Concerto for Four Harpsichords fits in perfectly with the ambience of "Dangerous Liaisons," and his music was also featured in "Die Hard," "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" and "Primal Fear," among many others. There must be something in Bach's music that speaks to all of us -- a timeless reflection of his genius and his humanity.
J. Scott Janusch is principal oboist of the Honolulu Symphony.