Why would anyone play a double reed instrument?
Harvey Fleet is on a mission to help the world fall in love with the bassoon. Or the oboe. He's not picky.
The principal bassoonist with the Lakewood Symphony cannot hide his passion for the oversized, deep-voiced instrument he plays. And he spreads that love to his orchestral siblings -- the oboe, along with its close cousin, the English horn.
What's the family connection? All three are “double reeds.”
"Double what?" I hear you ask.
That unfamiliarity helps to explain Fleet's mission: to raise the music-loving public's awareness and appreciation for those three members of an orchestra's wind section -- plus the rarely seen oboe d'amore and contrabassoon. We've heard these voices for years, yet we know so little about how they work, a fact that Fleet aims to change.
Part of the woodwind family, double reed instruments share a single, temperamental, nearly invisible little piece of folded-over wood that is the source of some of the world's most beautiful music.
Fleet's personal crusade to bring stardom to double-reed instruments begins on February 19 when the Colorado Symphony's principal oboist, Peter Cooper, plays an oboe recital in the intimate Edge Theatre in Lakewood. The concert will offer audience members a rare chance to get close to the mysterious beauty of his instrument.
A retired botanist with the National Park Service, Fleet is a longtime member of the International Double Reed Society. Yes, there is such a thing.
"The IRDS is a rarified world," Fleet says. "When it holds conferences, players gather from around the U.S. and foreign countries. Some events are open to the public, but mostly it's just us playing for each other. Which got me thinking: Wouldn't it be nice if the public knew more about this? Why don't we set up a recital series?"
At the Lakewood performance, Cooper will be joined by bassoonist Yoshiyuki Ishikawa and pianists Margaret McDonald and Bill Douglas in a concert of music by several composers.
Cooper shares Fleet's passion for giving greater exposure to his instrument. "Most folks think of us double-reed players as strictly orchestral instruments," Cooper says. "They're not aware of the solo repertory. Even the Colorado Symphony will program an oboe concerto maybe once every three years."
Whenever Cooper arrives at one of his frequent solos in the midst of a symphony or concerto, his whole body sways with the music, seemingly captivated by the high, pure melodies his instrument creates. It's a gorgeous sound, produced by a world-class player. It looks easy, but it's certainly not.
"The illusion I'm trying to convey is that you just pick it up and beautiful music comes out," Cooper says. "But the oboe is so finicky. As conductor George Szell used to say, 'You never know what's going to come out.' "
The stress in the life of a double-reed musician comes not from simply playing, though that’s challenge enough. No, the real sweat arrives long before the instrument is brought to a player's lips.
"Ah, the agony of making reeds," Fleet says with a sigh.
Cooper can relate, as can every professional double-reeder.
On most days, Cooper spends hours in his home's downstairs studio, selecting, soaking, shaving, adjusting and then carefully wrapping string around a piece of bamboo.
"Actually, the plant is called Arundo donax," Cooper says. "It grows as a reed." Don't go looking for it alongside a highway. "The best cane needs a certain climate," he says. "I used to get it from farmers in the south of France. But now, I'll also use cane from China. I buy a few pounds at a time."
A few pounds?
"Oh yeah, I'd say I have hundreds of pounds down in the basement," he says.
As we mentioned, oboes are temperamental creatures -- as are oboe players. "I probably use 10 percent of what I buy," Cooper says.
And consider that Cooper and his fellow oboists will make a half-dozen or more reeds every week. Cooper spends a few minutes whittling cane into a basic shape, but then several days, off and on, to get the reed singing just right.
Whenever he gives lessons at the University of Colorado, a large chunk of his time is focused on the technique of creating a workable reed. The time, effort and frustration in preparing just one oboe reed makes one wonder why anyone would want to play the thing. "Oh, absolutely," Cooper agrees. "I tell my students, 'If you don't have to do this, do something else.' "
But hold on -- more headaches await.
Because the properly carved and installed double reed presents such a tiny space for blown air to pass through, proper breathing becomes a major part of the equation.
"You have to keep an equilibrium in your lungs, or you can get too much carbon dioxide,” Cooper says. “With other wind-instrument players, it's all about breathing in. With us, it's all about managing the breathing out. If your cheeks are all puffy and red, you're in trouble."
No surprise that an early version of the instrument was known as the "hoboy." The word is derived from the French name “hautbois” -- and not from an oboe player's frequent sighs of resignation, despite what the name suggests.
Naturally, when it comes to the bassoon, everything is larger -- the instrument itself and the double reed that's inserted into that small bent tube, known as the crook.
But the fastidiousness required to produce a workable reed remains, as does the controlled breathing necessary to make music.
Fortunately for Fleet, he's not alone in his misery: His wife, Mary Anne, is also a bassoonist. They met "eons ago" in Philadelphia, when he was in pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania. The couple married and moved to Colorado in 1972, when he got a job as an environmental specialist with the Park Service.
"We'd played in community orchestras, and after I retired in 1998, I started a bassoon studio," Fleet says.
Now, the two sit side-by-side among the wind instruments of the Lakewood Symphony -- where Mary Anne also serves as executive director. They'll be attending the next International Double Reed Society gathering in New York City, where Fleet intends to wave the flag for Colorado as a double-reed mecca.
"I'd like to present a recital here on a yearly basis, with local players," Fleet says. "We have a wealth of talent.”
Indeed, not only has Cooper played and given master classes regularly at International Double Reed Society events, but he's also performed in Europe and Asia and with several prestigious American orchestras including the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
He's also commissioned five oboe concertos. The latest, a work by Eric Ewazen, will be unveiled by the Colorado Symphony next season. Cooper will be playing the oboe solo.
Cooper loves his work, despite the hazards and hassles. "What the oboe does best is sing and dance,” Cooper says. “That's one reason why Bill Douglas titled a piece he wrote for me, 'Songs and Dances for Oboe and Strings.' "
Douglas, a popular Boulder-based composer, pianist and occasional bassoonist, will contribute a "Trio for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano" to Cooper's February 19 concert.
Lesser-known composers include Paul-Jean-Jacque Lacôme, Ludwig August Lebrun, F. J. Détrain and a young up-and-comer from Utah named Alyssa Morris. What better way to discover their music, as well as the lovely songs and dances of the oboe?
Marc Shulgold is a freelance writer, teacher and lecturer. He was previously the longtime music and dance writer at the Rocky Mountain News.