Friday, March 01, 2013

Death and the oboe

February 28, 2013—
MY BEST FRIEND in high school, from 1949 to graduation in 1952, was Merton Tyrell. We were bandmates together: in this photo we sit in the front row center, me with my bassoon across my knees, Merton with his oboe sitting on my right.

Merton — I don't think anyone called him "Mert" — was intellectual, rather formal, quite elegant, his dark hair slicked back from a high forehead, a lively eye but a rather cautious expression on his face. He played oboe, as I've said, and excelled at math and science. He drew the single “A” in our physics class, when the rest of us all got “C”s, except for one poor fellow who failed in order to establish a perfect bell-shaped curve when the final grades were posted.

I only visited Merton’s home once, when I think I was dropped off to be taken to some event together with him. It was a small but very neatly maintained cottage on a gravel driveway, neatly clipped shrubbery in place, a smiling mother in an apron. And Merton, as I recall, never visited my home; I was probably too embarrassed to suggest such a visit.

In fact I held him in considerable awe. I spent far more time with my other friend, Richard, who played French horn. All three of us lived in the country, miles from town and our high school, but Richard lived on the same bus route as I, and Merton did not. And Merton was socially well above me, better dressed, better educated, much better spoken; and a year older, too; whereas Richard lived in rather a squalid shack with poorly educated parents, and was a year behind me. And then there's the difference between the oboe and the French horn, especially in a band. (Now that I think of it, the bassoon can often be heard mediating between the other two.)

I saw Merton only once after high school. At graduation he announced that he was going to become a rich man, and would study geological exploration to that end; I on the other hand was sent to Los Angeles to a religious college, where I went seriously awry for a few years. I thought of him often over the years, but never looked for him. By the time I did, after the Internet made such searches fairly simple, I found he had died, just 65 years old, in Ukiah, only an hour's drive north of me. I know nothing else about him: whether he'd made his million, whether he left a widow and children, whether he'd kept his oboe.

Although my instrument was the bassoon, it was the oboe to which I always aspired. The oboe has always struck me as the supreme woodwind, perhaps because of my awe of the elusive, intelligent, handsome, super-cool Merton Tyrell. Played well, it is focussed, clean, present. It lacks the wide range of the clarinet, which can play much more quietly in the low register, more shrilly in the high. The oboe can't reliably play more than two and a half octaves, the most restricted range of any of the major woodwinds. But there is something in its sound that suggests intelligence, wit, authority. Wallace Stevens would not have written Asides on a Flute, or a Clarinet: only Asides on an Oboe makes sense.

My first attempt at a composition of any ambition was a concerto for oboe, French horn, and strings, imagined and partly written in my first year of college, when I was seventeen. I didn't get far, of course. I'm sure it was Merton and Richard I had in mind, them and the lovely pastoral Vaughan Williams oboe concerto.

William Bennett
THIS MORNING ANOTHER OBOIST died, William Bennett, principle oboist of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He joined that orchestra in 1979, when he was only 23, and became principle eight years later, succeeding Marc Lifschey. His death was particularly tragic: he was stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage in the Symphony concert Saturday evening, toward the end of the opening solo of the Richard Strauss oboe concerto.

The concerto opens with a couple of beats of quiet rustling in the strings, then a long unbroken phrase for the soloist, over two minutes long with few opportunities to breathe. The oboe is a peculiarly difficult woodwind in that the player generally has too much air in his lungs, not too little; lungs and sinuses can suffer from the resulting pressure. Of course Bennett was a master of the instrument and well used to these problems. Furthermore, he had played the concerto the previous night, and the afternoon before that. It would be presumptuous to blame his attack on the oboe, the concerto, or the concert.

But, much as I have always loved this concerto, it will be hard to hear it in the future — especially that long, graceful, pensive opening phrase — without a kind of regret. Strauss composed four masterpieces in his last four years: Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings, from August 1944 to March 1945; the Oboe Concerto, 1945; the Duett-Concertino for clarinet and bassoon with string orchestra, 1947; and the transcendent Four Last Songs of 1948. He was in his eighties when he composed these pieces; his country was in ashes and its culture nearly as extinct; his music, which had been extravagant, then discordant forty years before, had finally come to terms with, had nearly mastered, its surrender to the rueful lyricism of Mozart.

It's notable, I think, that he followed the funereal Metamorphosen, composed for solo strings — with its transtion, at the end, into a quote of the "funeral march" of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony — with two major scores for solo woodwinds. The story of the Oboe Concerto's composition is well known: an oboist, John De Lancie, was one of the American soldiers directed to occupy Strauss's villa at the end of the war; he asked Strauss why he had never written a concerto for his instrument, and the aging composer responded favorably.

The Duett-Concertino is less well known, perhaps because it is somehow less autumnal in character. Its solo clarinet and bassoon seem to me to represent a Zerbinetta kind of mentality in response to the Ariadne of the solo oboe in its concerto. Together, though, the two works sum up Strauss's fully mature, rather remote expression of the range of human emotions: playfulness, wit, amour, awareness, maturity, age, regret.

By all accounts William Bennett was the emblematic oboist. Those who knew him mention his intelligence, his intellectual curiosity, his good humor. Joshua Kosman's obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle and his predecessor Robert Commanday's remarks in a story in the online San Francisco Classical Voice hint at the admirable man Bennett apparently was.

I lost Merton, and I never knew Bennett. I heard him many times, of course, but rarely as principle oboist; he took on that appointment the year I retired from music criticism. Perhaps that makes my mourning particularly poignant.

Radio station KDFC broadcasts San Francisco Symphony performances on Tuesday nights, and the concert including William Bennett's performance of the Strauss concerto is scheduled for this next Tuesday, March 5, at 8 pm. Yan Pascal Tortelier is the conductor; the Strauss is flanked by Debussy's Petite Suite and Mendelssohn's early Symphony no. 1. I don't know whether the entire concert will be broadcast, but no finer farewell could be imagined than hearing this gifted, complete musician repeat his last public gesture for an even wider and certainly more fully engaged audience.

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