The Sprightly Oboes

Posted on 2nd Dec 2016 15:46:29 by Admin

Symphony concertgoers may not even notice that the first instrument they hear as the orchestra tunes up, is the oboe. To that piercing opening note, the strings, brass,  and the rest of the wind section add their distinctive timbres, until all is quiet again, the leader takes her seat, and the conductor enters the podium.

On a dull and windy Wednesday evening—the Hull Phil’s regular rehearsal night—at the Albemarle Centre on Ferensway, I went to ask the Hull Philharmonic’s oboists, Gerald Bisby and Diana Keech, why their instrument calls the tune .

Gerald and Diana between them have an astonishing 103 years of service to the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra! Gerald, Principal Oboe, joined in 1967; Diana, Principal Cor Anglais joined in 1962 and is the orchestra’s longest serving member. She has been sounding that A, and many other beautiful notes besides, for 54 years.

Gerald told me that the oboe’s A is an extremely stable note. Whereas a violin’s strings will loosen and go flat, and a flute needs to warm up, the oboe can immediately belt out its A at 440 Herz  and thereby  keep everyone in tune.

I asked them to describe some of the particular difficulties of playing the instrument.

“The reed has a very narrow aperture,” said Diane, “so you have to get rid of air before you breathe into it. It can be very hard on the neck and head.”  Diana’s specialty, the cor anglais, is the “big brother” of the oboe, with a lower register and a distinctive bell shape at the end of the shaft.

Although some oboists insist on making their own reeds, Gerald and Diane use reeds grown in the south of France. The plants are cut and laid out to dry before being shaped into mouthpieces for the oboes of the world.  

The oboe often plays a rather self-effacing role in the orchestra, but there are times when its pure and reedy sound takes centre stage.  Among the highlights of the repertoire for Gerald are the second movement of Brahms’s Violin concerto;  Berlioz’s Carnaval Romain, and Dvorak’s New World symphony.

Certainly Diane and Gerald appear to be excellent advertisements for the health-promoting effects of playing the oboe. Both started as youngsters, but they cautioned that young oboists must have their second teeth, so starting the oboe before the age of eight or nine is not recommended.

                                                                              Diana_Keech.jpg                 Gerald_B.2.jpg