This Sunday, we’re performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at the University of Chicago, in the venerable Rockefeller Chapel, with a terrific orchestra and choir and soloists. Playing music this great is a pleasure that never gets old. I’ve done this piece many times, but this is the first time I’ve sat at the bottom of the section, playing Second English horn.
The first best thing about this is that I get to listen to a LOT of great playing while I wait for my movements. The orchestra is marvelous, and I adore my oboe colleagues, who make the difficult solos and duets sound simply effortless. The second best thing is that I enjoy the challenge of playing the English horn, which is far from my main instrument.
What I love, generally, about the English horn is how easy it is to sound good on it. Much of the orchestral music written for the instrument is soloistic, and it has such a pretty sound, and you get to blow so satisfyingly through it, rather than having to finesse it all the time like the oboe. But what I always remember with chagrin when I am hired for a part like Second English horn in the Christmas Oratorio is that the instrument is easy to play WITH but hard to PLAY. Here’s what I mean.
When I pick up the English horn, I practice the exposed parts of my music. I practice excerpts and solos. I expect that when I am heard I’ll be fine, because in a solo you can always fudge a little bit. Start louder than a strict pianissimo, or take a little time in a ritard to really set the notes, or push ahead to ease the breathing - all of the attention is on you so you can do what you need to make it beautiful and make it work. This “How shall I play this solo” work is fun for me, and certainly is important and relevant.
But when your part is just the fourth oboe voice in a chorale, there’s not so much flexibility. The notes have to start and end right with everyone else’s, and they have to be at the right dynamic and with the right kind of vibrato. This kind of tight ensemble playing is challenging on the oboe, too, but that at least is my instrument. I may miss every now and then, but I know exactly what I need to do to fix the next entrance. The English horn is pretty foreign to me once I move away from the big famous solos, and I do a lot of guessing. How much air pressure do I need for this next low D? Oops, too big an accent. I’ll use less for this F# - oops, didn’t speak on time. Softer lips? NIIICE one. Hope that works on the G, too…oops…
Of course I am speaking of subtleties. I can basically play the thing. But subtleties are important, and although I love playing WITH the English horn - idly, alone in my room, or in an isolated solo like the Glitter and Be Gay intro on our last Pops concert - I always realize when I go to PLAY it that I should have practiced it more. Like, daily for the past twenty years.
The hardest part of doubling is not soloing, but trying to competently play unexposed material on an unfamiliar tool. Only my nearby colleagues and I know whether I’m perfect or flawed in this material, but THAT’S ENOUGH! (Note: I get comfortable fast. Today was better than yesterday. Tomorrow should be solid.)
That said - this Sunday’s Christmas Oratorio at the University of Chicago will be stunning. This would be one to attend. You can count my mistakes for fun as you admire all of the other great performers on the stage.