oboetoastoboetoast Alison Lowell
Principal Oboist of the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra (South Africa)
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Loboe Madness: So many A's, so little time


Showing the Loboe to another oboist recently got me to thinking more about the oboe's relationship to "A". Besides many important solos that highlight "A" pitches, the most obvious association with this pitch comes from the tuning note traditionally given before every orchestra concert. Scholar and oboist Bruce Haynes has dedicated an incredibly interesting book on the subject called "A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of "A"'.

The fact that the Loboe gives us an additional "A" is significant. The more time I spend with this oboe, the more I am convinced that this is the natural next step for the instrument.

Oboists who has spent any time at all studying orchestral excerpts or taking orchestral auditions know all too well how critical our octave "A"s are in winning a job. While one should obviously strive to play every note beautifully, of the standard excerpts, several come to mind that demand some very special attention to these pitches.

Brahms composed one of the most beautiful violin concertos but for oboists, this piece instantly conjurers up feelings of dread when achieving that perfect entrance on the octave "A". The music below doesn't reflect the two bars of horn chord intro, as the oboe doesn't technically begin the second movement. This melody is then picked up by the solo violin.  As an excerpt, it is considered one of the most common and usually makes it way on every orchestra audition list.

Speaking of entrance "A"s that make or break a solo, I think that Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4, third movement solo is worth noting. The oboist rests for the movement's opening 132 bars as the strings work their way through intense pizzicato passages. The bottom literally drops out at the hight of the string climax when the solo oboe enters with a glorious (and loud) octave "A" that needs to just fill the hall, or the audition room. It is a very assertive entrance and demands a very distinct tone color that is a world away from the delicate entrance of the Brahms. 
Tchaikovsky: Sym. No. 4, Mvt. III
Another staple of any audition list is the opening of Ravel's "Le Tombeau de Couperin". Here we again find a very different demand of the "A". The name of the game is precision; there are "A"s on every large beat in the first three bars alone. This excerpt is certainly on the quick side, but it is the thoughtful approach to the "A"s that allows for the real musicality to shine through in this solo. 
Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin, Mvt. I
There are countless beautiful and important oboe solos and many of them do not start or significantly highlight the pitch "A". However, as any current or former music conservatory student can tell you, there are a handful of standard audition excerpts that can quite literally define one's career in the orchestral world. Among them, the three excerpts I have looked at above demand very different techniques and approaches from the oboist and are a core part of an oboist's training. Who knows if having an additional "A" would have had an impact on the way composers wrote for the oboe. However, one thing is certain; the relationship between the oboe and "A" is one unlike any other. With the addition of a third "A", it is exciting to think of the possibilities!

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