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A spotlight on… our oboe staff

Thu 11 June 2020

Our Wind Brass and Percussion department has world-class teachers who enjoy incredible professional performance careers while inspiring and supporting our students.

Our roster oboe and cor anglais staff is no exception, with five Principals of major UK orchestras:

Described by Gramophone magazine as “an elegant soloist”, professor Ruth Bolister is Principal Oboe of English National Opera, a position she has held since 1997. She has been teaching at Trinity Laban since 2016.

Chris O’Neal has been a teacher at TL since 2002 and an established principal oboe player for over 25 years. He holds Principal Oboe positions in the Orchestra of St Johns, the London Mozart Players and the New Queens Hall Orchestra.

Tutor David Thomas is the former Assistant Principal Oboe with the Hallé Orchestra and Principal Oboe of BBC Symphony Orchestra, and held the position of Principal Oboe with the Royal Opera House Orchestra until 2015 before going freelance.

Alan Garner Principal Cor Anglais player with Royal Opera House Orchestra and holds the unusual distinction of having held full-time posts in all three roles within the orchestral oboe section. He previously worked as Second Oboe of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Principal Oboe with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera.

The newest member of the double reed staff team, Maxwell Spiers is principal cor anglais with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and is a regular guest with the English Chamber Orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, the Orchestra of English National Opera and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

We caught up with them to find out more about what they love about teaching their instrument at TL:

What’s been your best Trinity Laban moment? 

Ruth: Playing alongside my students in the Side-by Side orchestra.

Alan: The joy of finding ways of conquering a particular stumbling block for a student is a lovely thing to see – the sudden ‘light-bulb’ moment when they realise that they have found their way!

Chris: Conducting the Wind Ensemble last Summer in the Royal Chapel and St James’s, Piccadilly.  The students really stepped up in a tricky programme of unfamiliar works.

David: Welcoming our new members of teaching staff to the oboe department really was a red-letter day.

Maxwell: The day all the new reed making machines arrived for the oboe students to use. We now have one of the best facilities in the country.  It has been fantastic to see the oboe students develop and blossom as musicians since then, facilitated with much better reeds.

What do you love about your instrument?

Chris: The sheer viscerality of the oboe tone makes it possible to express music in such a variety of colours.

Alan: I love the pitch and sonority of the Cor Anglais. It can take on many different roles in an orchestra… One of the most rewarding aspects of playing the Cor Anglais is really getting ‘inside’ the sounds of other instruments to create new colours is.

Ruth: It’s such a personal instrument and it’s really true that everyone has their own individual sound. Also it’s incredibly expressive.

Maxwell: It still captivates me the same today as it did the first time I ever heard it, singing out of the television set at me, aged 3; the oboe featured a lot in television theme tunes back in the day.

David: Some wonderfully expressive music has been written with the oboe in mind. It’s always challenging to try to do justice to these pieces whether it be a Bach cantata, solos in the ballet Swan Lake or an opera like Der Rosenkavalier but extremely rewarding to play.

What are the highlights of being a professional musician?

Alan: It is such a huge privilege to work with my world-class colleagues and visiting artists at the Royal Opera House. We in the orchestra are but one part of a massive ‘family’ from a wide range of skills, all combining to make these incredible works of art come alive. It’s hugely exciting and rewarding to see the sheer emotion on the faces of the audiences.

Maxwell: I sometimes deputise for players who hold chairs in West End shows, which I really enjoy. Currently I play in the musical Wicked which is a brilliant show and lots of fun in the pit.  The oboe part requires the player to double on cor anglais and penny whistle, which is always a challenge. I can occasionally be found secretly playing the organ at my local church too, but only when they’re really stuck!

Which instrumentalists do you most admire?

Maxwell: The first player I ever heard as a teenager who really made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up was the late and very great Lothar Koch. But I also hugely admired the playing of my first oboe teacher’s oboe teacher, Janet Craxton, my oboe grandmother!  Her elegant style was always so beautifully phrased and her sound was lovely – light and vocal.

Ruth: I don’t have one favourite player but enjoy listening to lots of different artists and try to think what I love about, for example, their sound or dynamic range or the way they shape a phrase or vary the articulation.

What is your favourite piece of music to play?

Ruth: I love playing a range of music but especially from the Baroque era which really was the heyday of the oboe. I particularly enjoy playing music by J. S. Bach and Handel. Of course the instrument has evolved since then, but we can take the best style and custom from our period instrument friends to guide us on our modern oboes.

Maxwell: The ballet I’ve enjoyed playing most is Ravel’s score to Daphnis & Chloe. In opera I’d have to go for The Cunning Little Vixen by Janacek, which is just gorgeous.  The Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninov are great fun to play, as are the symphonies, because he writes for the oboe and the cor anglais so brilliantly. 

Alan: When I was a student I never really liked the concept of opera – it was chamber music and orchestral stuff for me – but having found myself in an opera orchestra I discovered this astonishing treasure-trove of jaw-dropping music. And what’s more, the Cor Anglais has a massive role in this repertoire. It’s such a dramatically-useful sound, especially for tragedy. I get to play some of the greatest solos, day-in, day-out.

Listening recommendations?

Chris: I would recommend every instrumentalist listen to as much opera as possible, from all eras. That’s where the true expression is. Listen for the cries from the heart of the myriad of 19th century tragediennes, the humour from so many of Mozart’s characters, and the sincerity and brilliance of Handel’s works.

Alan: Listen to the Oboe/Cor writing in Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Walkure, where a heartbroken Wotan is committing his ‘soulmate’ daughter Brunhilde to be imprisoned within a ring of magic fire. It is almost transcendental in its beauty tinged with tragedy and regret. Sublime!

Find out more about our double reed department on our Wind Brass and Percussion pages

Image L-R: David Thomas, Ruth Bolister, Maxwell Spiers, Chris O’Neal and Alan Garner (credit JK Photography)