Peas in a Pod

I bought four plastic oboe reeds the other day (see The Artificial and the Natural). They’re insubstantial but they cost a lot more than plastic bags. I won’t say how much because you’d wonder why anyone would buy them. But every oboist in his or her heart hopes that these plastic reeds will solve the nightmare problem that impedes our playing of the instrument. We’ve been waiting for them for decades and their arrival is nearly as exciting as the discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence might be (see Out There).

They’re made in Canada, presumably by machines, and they all look alike, and all utterly different from the cane reeds we make ourselves and agonise over. They look more like ampules or syringes, something with a medical purpose rather than a musical one. But the most extraordinary fact is that they feel and play just like the ‘real’ thing.

I made the two on my left. The second has been on life-support for months. We oboists do anything to keep a good reed going, but organic substances don’t survive the mouth indefinitely.

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But,  strangely, these plastic reeds aren’t peas in a pod. Each one, though apparently identical, plays differently. Oboists all over the world have been buzzing with excitement since they were launched by Legere a few months ago, and we’re all wondering and discussing what we can and should do with them. They’re marketed as playable straight out of the box, but none of the four I’ve bought could possibly qualify even as a practice reed, let alone as a concert reed. But I knew that when I bought them.

So, all over the world there are oboists ‘scraping’ them, taking out the set of tools they use for cane reeds and adjusting them from the fixed profile they’re manufactured with to a profile that they’re used to, in my case an old-fashioned French scrape that produces a reedier tone than is currently fashionable.

Scraping is done with a reed-knife, mine a lovely implement made of Japanese steel strengthened with tungsten from the Hemerdon Mine in Devon. But scraping minute quantities of resinous plastic is a very different task from scraping cane. The blade seems sometimes to bite into the plastic. And I’m not yet sure whether my instincts about where exactly to reduce the thickness of the cane can be applied to plastic.

But I’ve had good results, more or less, and I’m hoping to use one of these four at a family concert on Saturday (see Being at your own Pre-Funeral). My hope is that if I can make two or three of these plastic reeds good enough then they will last for months rather than days and I will have years of happiness before me. The nightmares about oboe reeds (I have about ten a year) will be a thing of the past. I’m quite sure that within a few years plastic will predominate and there will be many different kinds to suit the tastes of all the different oboe ‘schools’.

I haven’t yet understood why all four of these new reeds are so much shorter than the two I made myself. Short should mean sharp, but we will know soon enough.

 

The Artificial and the Natural

Playing the oboe is difficult. It’s a woodwind instrument topped with a double reed made of cane, wire, cord, cork, nail varnish, beeswax and brass. When the reed is working well the oboe makes a beguiling and plaintive sound (think of the solo from Swan Lake or at the start of the slow movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto). Played inexpertly the sound can weaken concrete. Most parents don’t have the patience for it, nor can most afford the isolated farmhouse that it requires, which is one of the reasons why so few children learn how to play it and why almost all oboists were brought up in the countryside. It’s said that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert at anything. Your first 8,000 hours on the oboe should be spent in solitary confinement.

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Putting others’ aural comfort aside, the challenge of the oboe is that if you want to play it well you’ve got to make your own reeds, or, at the very least, have the skills to adjust them if others have made them for you. You have to be a craftsman as well as a musician. If you’re a flautist you can simply pick up your flute and play it. There’s no fussing about with a box of DIY tools. In fact, there’s no other instrument I can think of that involves such pernickety fiddling about with bits of cane, and wire, and cork and knives. It’s as if you should know how to make corsets in order to function as a barrister. True, playing any musical instrument involves a certain amount of manual dexterity, but that’s a different thing from taking tube cane, splitting it, gouging it, shaping it, binding it and scraping it. Lucky indeed is the oboist who’s a good craftsman, luckier still the oboist who enjoys the craft of reed-making. If he or she is a good oboist and musician too, it’s like winning the Euromillions Lottery.

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I make my own reeds. I was taught how to do it by my wonderful oboe teacher, Douglas Heffer, more than forty-two years go. I still hate doing it, but I can’t play on anyone else’s. Each one can take me an hour or so to make and test, and only one in eight (a low hit rate – some oboists achieve one in four) works well enough. Worse still, when you’ve made yourself a good one, it lasts just a week or so in peak condition. They’re fragile and organic, and they’re gradually digested by saliva. The mouth isn’t a good place to put a natural substance, but as far as I know you can’t play the oboe in any other way.

So, we oboists have dreamt of the artificial oboe reed – the ‘plastic reed’ impervious to saliva and time. Clarinettists already have them (but theirs is a single reed rather than a double) and bassoonists are starting to use them too. Both of these types are much larger, and the higher margin of error means that artificial clarinet and bassoon reeds have been easier to develop.  And even if they’re not using artificial reeds, bassoonists and clarinettists can buy reliable natural ones made by others. They don’t need to be craftspeople.

So, we oboists have been excited recently by the launch of the ‘plastic oboe reed’ by Légère, and I went to the oboe shop, Howarth, in London, with my oboe-playing friend Caroline, to try one out, in the hope that for the rest of my life I might never have to make another reed. Mind you, they’re expensive, but I and most oboists would sell half of what we possess, as well as our souls to the devil, for a reliable supply of pick-up-and-play, last-forever oboe reeds.

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And, they’re not bad at all. I think I could get used to them. The ‘scrape’ has a different contour to mine, and the sound is a remoter, mellower, more closed sound than mine, but I think I could get used to that, if others could.  I also understand that they can be adjusted slightly, if you’re nice to Ollie, who works at Howarth, but once you’ve adjusted them you can get months, even years, of life out of just one. I’d wondered what it would feel and taste like to put something dry and artificial in the mouth but it felt just the same as the natural ones. So, I’ve ordered four. Why four? You’d think they would be identical, since they’re made out of the same substance by a machine, but apparently they can be hit and miss. And at more than one hundred pounds each, and with a waiting list,  I thought I’d improve my odds by buying in bulk, and trust that Ollie won’t ruin them all.

And it doesn’t’ stop there when it comes to oboes and the artificial. Oboes are traditionally made of a very hard wood called African Blackwood that sinks in water, and is so close-grained that it looks and feels like stone, but the mischievous Michael Britton, who runs Howarth, and whom I’ve known for 35 years, brought out a swirly purple ebonite oboe for me to try. Ebonite is a hard plastic that’s closely related to kryptonite (apparently), or Bakelite, the hard stuff that old-fashioned telephones were made of. Howarth have made just two of them, and they’ve both been kitsched up with gold key work.. If Liberace had played the oboe, not the piano, this would have been the model he would have chosen. But, to my very great surprise, it played remarkably well, though at 14,000 pounds, I don’t think I’ll be buying one tomorrow.

It’s a myth that natural is always best. Let plastic reign.

 

Being at your own Pre-Funeral

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My mother is 95, and in good health, both mentally and physically, facing the last years of her life with equanimity, good grace, and a total absence of self-pity. Her powers are failing, but, as I remind her, so are mine. So are everyone’s. She might well have another ten years to go, or even more, and if she can maintain her mental acuity, and her sense of humour, and of the ridiculous and the absurd, they will be good years for her and for those around her. She has no expectation of immortality and is determined to make the most of the time that’s left.

I spoke to her yesterday on the way home from the airport. She’s been cajoling me into playing the oboe at her ‘final’ concert party in Salisbury in September, and I’ve been teasing her by pretending to demur. There have, after all, as I point out, been several ‘final’ concerts – almost as many as the great Spanish soprano, Montserrat Caballe, has given.

Our family concerts involve my brother and me, his children, their spouses and partners playing classical music on the oboe, flute, violin, bassoon and piano, often awkward arrangements of well-known pieces such as the Rite of Spring. These concerts serve as reminders, in some cases, of how much better we used to play when we were children or young adults.

So, I have pretended to be unsure of whether I can take part, citing business travel, lack of practice, broken reeds and hugely more important things to do. My mother has countered with various powerful arguments, most of which boil down to the unreliable suggestion that ‘this really is the last.’ But I am not convinced.

Yesterday, however, on the spur of the moment, she launched a new line of argument.

‘You played at that old lady’s funeral last year,’ she said, referring to my two-minute oboe solo at the funeral of my dear friend Jane last May (my mother has total recall, it seems, and I should never have told her about it).

‘So, I really think you should play at my pre-funeral.’

Pre-funeral!

What a marvellous idea! All the ceremony, glad-handing and fun of the funeral itself, with the added advantage that you can actually BE THERE to enjoy it.

We had a good laugh about it. She can still be funny, inventive and absurd. And it is true that we shall probably play the same music at the real one, assuming we do not pre-decease her, and as long as we are still young enough to play.

But the question is, how many pre-funerals can you have? I am afraid this may be the first of many.

Nevertheless, I suppose I shall play at it.

Seven Days of Solitude

A hundred years would be too many, but I must admit that I look forward to seven days of solitude, bicycling in the Carpathian basin from Kecskemet to Belgrade. Just yesterday I was engaged, with my partner, in manufacturing cucumber sandwiches for thirty guests at a summer music party in Prague, as well as two kinds of chicken, baked salmon, Elin’s beetroot and apple salad, roast squash, Caprese, beans, and so on (see Outcooking Julie).

The host insisted on a proper English tea, with chocolate éclairs, lemon cake, Victoria sponge and shortbread biscuits, as well as mounds of cucumber sandwiches, though he rather spoiled things by offering champagne as well as three teapots of  Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend.

As it happens, I’d never before made that insipid classic of the British tea table, and though I consulted widely on the web, I don’t think that my first attempt was perfect. Everything needs to come together – salted, drained and finely sliced cucumber, firm white bread, and butter soft enough to spread and seal. I added a dusting of mint and provided a separate plate of cucumber sandwiches with Marmite, to amuse the British. I kept them waiting – the sandwiches, I mean – for no longer than an hour. But they were all gone in forty-five minutes, so I must have got something right, even if they were structurally insecure and wouldn’t have passed muster at the Ritz.

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And whilst the guests were entertained by the distinguished pianist, Jordana Palovicova and the distinguished baritone, Jiri Polacek (regaling the guests with Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin, Sibelius, Debussy and Rogers & Hammerstein), the tea had to be swept noiselessly away to be replaced by a savoury first course, and then during another forty minutes of classical music, by a heap of desserts. The party began at four, but it took the host’s oboe playing to drive the guests to their beds. The last left at ten, but the host insisted on clearing and tidying before bed, so I had only four hours sleep before waking to catch the 7.52 to Budapest from Prague.

Nyugati Palyaudvar

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Of course, it’s not quite solitude. I carry my phone and PC and will be in touch by voice, text and email with all my worlds, but bowling along those splendidly flat roads across the puszta, with the wind at my back, and no risk of drizzle, I shall feel free.

I reached the market town of Kecskemet (named after a goat) at about eight this evening, by train. It’s a lovely town, but a stroll and dinner on a terrace do it justice.

Admire the Town Hall by Odon Lechner, Hungary’s most famous Romantic Nationalist architect.

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Tomorrow, Szeged (capital of paprika), via Csongrad.

 

 

Rich with the talents of Russia

When I was 21, more than a year or two ago, I wanted to be a professional oboist. It wasn’t an utterly unrealistic ambition, but I soon realised that I wasn’t good enough to win one of the very few orchestral places available to oboists, and I certainly wasn’t brave enough. I’ve enjoyed playing as an amateur for the last 35 years and musical moments have been amongst the happiest in my life. It isn’t all or nothing. You can be a businessman and an amateur musician, or indeed a musician and an amateur businessman. If I didn’t have to spend hours making oboe reeds, I would play more often.

In retrospect, I don’t regret abandoning my musical ambitions. You can’t do everything, and what I’ve done I’ve enjoyed. As a business software consultant, software designer, and entrepreneur, I’ve led a less terrifying life and certainly a more secure and materially rewarding one.

The life of a professional classical musician is insecure, often uncomfortable, and it’s generally poorly paid, considering the talents and diligence required to make a success of it. Sadly, classical music is a minority interest, so it’s hard to argue for massive salary-boosting state support. The average age of audiences at concerts of classical music creeps ever upwards. At an opera house I can still feel young.

Few musicians become rich, but if they do, it’s usually because they find a wider audience. Take the Three Tenors, for example: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. When they came together regularly in the 1990s for acrobatic displays of the tenor’s skills, they made millions, deservedly.

In Eastern Europe, particularly, the life of a classical musician is hard. The best flee westwards, but those who remain must play and teach every hour or every day if they are to keep the wolf from the door. They can rarely buy the musical instruments they need and deserve, without help.

How wonderful, then, to hear that a modestly successful Russian cellist, Sergei Roldugin, is one of the richest musicians in the world. In 1980 he won third prize at the Prague Spring international Music Festival, went on to lead the orchestra at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and taught at the St Petersburg Conservatory. He’s worth many tens, possibly hundreds of millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly he’s described as a ‘musician and businessman’, and certainly it’s hard to see how playing the cello alone could have brought him such prosperity.

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In the musical world, as in all other worlds, you need talent, hard work, luck and good connections to succeed. Sergei Roldugin has been fortunate in all of these, not least in the last. He’s one of Vladimir Putin’s closest friends, godfather to Putin’s daughter, Maria. They’ve known each other for 40 years.

Best friends forever

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I hadn’t thought of Vladimir Putin as a fan of classical music. I’d understood that Abba was his cup of tea. But clearly he’s a fan of the cello and it appears that Roldugin’s friendship with Putin has put him in the way of some irresistible business opportunities, if the recently hacked Panama Papers are to be believed. Roldugin, who has no background in complex financial transactions, appears to have taken full advantage of them.

In 2014, when other close friends of Putin were alleged to have become immensely rich through their association with the President, Roldugin claimed to be the exception.  ‘I’ve got an apartment, a car and a dacha. I don’t have millions,’ he sais.

The Panama Papers suggest otherwise. They show that he’s involved with several offshore companies that have been wheeling and dealing with verve and imagination. Such expertise has little to do with playing the cello, and more to do with the borrowing and lending of vast sums of money for massive gain.

His gain? Who’s to say? Perhaps he doesn’t even know what’s being done in his name. Some suggest he’s merely the guardian of his old friend’s money.

Nyet is the usual stonewalling response to accusations of this nature in Russia. Roldugin, even Putin, are practised Nyet sayers. It seems that these complex financial transactions are all to do with providing musical instruments for Russia’s young musicians.

Five days ago, breaking his silence on the issue, Roldugin explained everything. He’d been regularly asking rich businessmen for donations.

‘Of course I went around to everyone I could and asked for donations. There’s nothing to catch me out on here; everything is open. In any case I am indeed rich; I am rich with the talent of Russia.’

Certainly classical musicians in Eastern Europe need support. But from whom, in the West, have these instruments been bought, and for whom in Russia? Will someone step forward to reveal a whole orchestra of fabulous Stradivarius instruments? If so, I’ll happily eat my oboe.