Music Director Peter Oundjian sat down with Colorado Music Festival Principal Oboe Olav van Hezewijk for a fascinating discussion about Olav’s musical education, career path, and much more.
Watch the interview or read the full transcription below. [Recorded in 2020.]
Peter Oundjian: Welcome, everybody. I am delighted to have with me this afternoon the most wonderful oboist, Olav van Hezewijk. He’s an old friend, actually. I’ve known him for many, many years. Olav, welcome.
Olav Van Hezewijk: Thank you very much, and welcome, as well.
Peter: Lovely to see you. So I always like to start off by asking anybody how they started playing their instrument because I think that’s the one thing. We see you play. We hear you play beautifully, but nobody in the auditorium can go up to you and say, “Wow, how did this all begin?” So tell us you started playing the oboe.
Olav: Yes, absolutely. In Holland, where I grew up, where I was born, we have a little bit of a different system from here in America. If you want to have music lessons or theory lessons, music theory lessons, you’re basically on your own. Music lessons in school are negligible, really. There is really not much going on. Carl Orff percussion instruments, a little clapping, a little singing, and that’s about it.
Peter: That’s amazing. Honestly, I think that’s amazing to me because I always imagined, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Holland, as you know, that everybody in school is making music like half the day because it’s such a musical country, and there’s so many orchestras and so on. Continue.
Olav: Yeah, it’s true, but it’s all private endeavors. So Harmony, which is actually a band in this country, Harmony, is extremely common in the southern part of Holland where I grew up.
Peter: Which town was it?
Olav: I grew up in Weert, 20 minutes south of Eindhoven, where the Philips company was born. Anyway, so when I was eight years old, my father was a semi-professional organist. He really made his money with other things, but he played organ as much as a professional organist in probably three different churches, in the cathedral downtown and other places, too. So he wanted me actually to be a musician because during the war… It was during wartime that he was interested in going to conservatory in Holland, in Nijmegen where actually I was born in the big academic hospital. And-
Peter: Very beautiful concert hall in Nijmegen.
Olav: Yeah, yeah. By the way, it’s the oldest town in Holland.
Olav: I was in Holland some years ago, and there was a rivalry between Maastricht and Nijmegen about who the oldest settlement was, and Nijmegen won that title. At that point, it was 2,000 years old.
Olav: Yeah. So, anyway, his father would not allow him to go to the conservatory because mostly he would have to do that by train, and the Germans were frequently taking trains under fire. So he said, “No, you’re staying home. I’m a shoemaker, and I need help. I’m teaching you the trade.” Well, the rest is history. He became a shoemaker, I mean a shoe repairman. They also sold some shoes and so on.
But when I was born, he seized the opportunity to try to get at least one of his kids to be a musician in the family because my three sisters before me took piano lessons, and it was a crying game. It was just crying all the time. They hated it, and I was a natural in terms of liking it. I always wanted to be a pianist, by the way, just so you know. Piano was what I wanted to do.
So two years of theory… My father made sure that I had two years of theory, which is a private music school downtown where you have to go. And you have to get diplomas. So you get one diploma, and you get the second diploma. After the second diploma, then you are allowed to start an instrument. Yes.
So the local Harmony, they would go door-to-door to find new talent. They knocked on my dad’s door, and they said, “We would like to have your son tested for an instrument.” So we went to the famous white town in Holland, Thorn. Do you know this place?
Peter: I have never been. Where is it?
Olav: Well, it’s 15 minutes by bike from my house. It’s very close, and the famous Adams family, it’s a very musical family, they live there. And half of the timpanis from all around the world, the Adams timpanis are all made there and sold from this place, which is very interesting because it’s really worldwide. If you ask your timpanist from various orchestras, you will see that they will say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We have Adams timpanis.” And I know this house. I know the kids. I know the family and all this kind of stuff. Well, anyway, back to the story, I travel to this little town with some other people. Incidentally, that town is all brick houses and all bright white. Every single house is white. It’s a white town.
Peter: Any particular reason?
Olav: I don’t know the history of it at all, but I can tell you this. No other town in the world reveres musicians more than this town. They erected monuments and sculptures all around town, and they’re all musicians. It’s all about music. The whole town is about music.
Peter: That’s an extraordinary thing. I mean, it’s not as if you’ve got a huge amount of sun in Holland that they would have to make over buildings to be white.
Olav: No, no. No, we don’t, although that’s changing, as you probably realize.
Peter: Actually, I lived there for four years, part of the year, and every time I went there, the sun was shining. So I always thought they were just teasing me.
Olav: Oh, no, no, no.
Peter: Clearly, from the color of the grass, it rains plenty.
Olav: No, no, no. It’s very gray and dark, but that is changing. That has changed the last two years, I would say. But, anyway, so there I was tested and quickly, out of that came clarinet, flute, or oboe, I think, something like that. And I don’t know how they figured that out, but that’s what they did. Well, anyway, it so happened that somebody, sadly, died in the band, a man very old, of age, and the oboe had been sitting there for a couple years, just sitting there. So there was an oboe available. They said, “Well, actually, there is a…
So this is how that works. They knock on the door, and they look for talent, and you have to have your theory diplomas. Then what they will do is they will sign you up for the local band. In my case, that was a church band. There’s a state band, and there was a church band. Mine was a church band, much more classical music, less Sousa type stuff, all arranged by-
Peter: More Baroque things, I would imagine.
Olav: Yeah, Mozart and Bach arranged by the conductor himself. That was a wonderful thing. So, anyway-
Peter: Are you 10 or 11 or something like that now?
Olav: Yeah, 10. So, anyway, I became part of that band. At that point, I was allowed to use that instrument as long as I took private oboe lessons and passed the exams once in a while. There were ultimately four of them before you go to conservatory. As long as you keep passing them, you can keep playing on the instrument.
Peter: Okay. Now, you can’t talk to an oboist for very long without mentioning the dreaded word reed. So we could talk about how much time you spend making reeds nowadays or as a professional, but what about when you were 10 years old? You get an instrument, but it doesn’t come with reeds. So how did that…
Olav: It’s a funny story because here I was… And I was happy playing the oboe, although I wanted to be a pianist. But I played the oboe, and things were going well. I remember my teacher was going to give a recital, and I was very excited about this. It was in a church, of course. It was taking place in a church.
My father and my mother were there, and we went to this recital. We sat down, and the recital started. It was some recorder music. That’s fine. And I started to wonder after half an hour, “Is there going to be any oboe music?” It turned out he was basically a recorder player. I never knew. I just assumed he was an oboe player. I think he played one movement. In that whole recital, he played one movement on oboe, but he was basically just a recorder player.
So reed-making, no, forget that. That wasn’t part of it. However, I don’t know why he was let go or why he was replaced, but soon somebody else came. And that person taught me reed-making right from the get-go. So I think it was probably-
Peter: But for those years, you would just buy reeds which were okay to play, just buy ready-made reeds? Who made them for you?
Olav: Oh, you mean in the very beginning?
Peter: Very beginning, yeah.
Olav: Oh. No, the teacher would provide them.
Peter: Oh, okay. So the teacher was making the reeds?
Olav: Probably not. My guess is not. He probably got them from some colleague or something like that. But as soon… I’m going to show you a device here. This is a gouging machine. As soon as this other teacher came, I started buying equipment, crazy equipment. Yeah.
Peter: Wow. Okay. While you’ve got that out, show us how you deal with the reed.
Olav: Here’s this device. It’s called a splitter. You split the cane. I’m going to do that right now. You split the cane. You see that? You see that? Like that.
Peter: Wow. Can you come to my garden and take care of the bamboo that’s growing all over my garden?
Olav: Yes, of course. In fact, it might even be my next oboe reed. There is some cane growing in Connecticut that you might be able to use for oboe reeds. So then you have this kind of thing, right?. That needs to be… Hold on because I have all this equipment tied to my desk because it’s not meant to move, really. But I can’t show it to you unless I…
This is a guillotine. You look for a straight piece of this piece of bamboo, and that then goes into the guillotine. I’m going to show you.
Peter: Can you lift the guillotine a little bit so we can all see it?
Peter: Oh, okay. Wonderful.
Olav: Watch. I cut it.
Olav: See that? Well, since… because we’re looking at this rounded kind of surface, you need a knife on the guillotine that is round. You see it?
Peter: Right, right.
Olav: Yeah. So you can’t just cut that with anything. In fact, that doesn’t work at all. It will crack the cane. Then what I do is I have a very expensive… This is a gouging machine that China came up with. It’s not very good for a gouging machine, but it’s perfect for pre-gouging cane, pre-gouging. I know, I know, I know. You’re getting an education here. I’m surprised you don’t know yet, because of your nephew.
Peter: Well, I’m just pretending I don’t know. No, I’m actually kidding. I’m kidding.
Olav: Oh. Well, there you go. That’s good.
Peter: I have never seen anyone demonstrate this to me. I hope we’re all as fascinated as I am.
Olav: Well, watch out. So this has to be pre-gouged. You can see that the thickest part of the cane has to come off. You see that?
Peter: Oh, my goodness me. Right.
Olav: I’m doing this all in midair, which is a little uncomfortable, but bear with me. Now I have something much thinner. Then this goes on a very fancy gouging machine, this one, which I actually sharpen the blades myself.
Peter: Really? With what?
Olav: Well, with diamond stones, with grinding wheels first, and then I want to make sure that these are very sharp and very smooth, all of that stuff. Otherwise, it’s not going to go well. Okay. That thing is now being gouged. And I’ll show you. I protect the blade with electric tape. So now it’s in the machine. See that?
Peter: Okay, see it. Yep.
Olav: That gets gouged like that. But honestly, you’re supposed to soak this for an hour before you do this. It may not… Yeah, it does. It does. You can see it.
Peter: Okay. That’s what we call planing, right?
Olav: Yes, exactly. We’re planing, but there is a lot of science behind this. I think Marcel Tabuteau from the ’40s, from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the principal oboe from France, he’s the one that did most of the groundwork and the thinking. And out of that grew these machines. So now, basically, if you can find a repairman who can maintain these machines really well, you’re in business.
Peter: That must be tricky. You have somebody who can do that, presumably.
Olav: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I have somebody in Philadelphia who works with the Philadelphia Orchestra members and has been doing this all his career. In fact, he was called in to come to Philadelphia by Richard Woodhams, the former principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra because he knew that he needed a phenomenal repairman with him for his students, for himself. So he took over-
Peter: Made him move there? Where did he make him move from?
Olav: He was working for Paul Covey making oboes in Maryland.
Peter: I see, okay.
Olav: Yeah. So he took over the shop from Moennig, who was a very famous repairman in the old days, mostly known for clarinets, though.
Peter: And also the Moennig family dealt in string instruments, very famously.
Olav: Right, that’s right. And in fact, the place where it all took place, the first couple floors were all string instruments. And the top floor was an oboe repair shop.
Peter: Incredible. So what’s the next step now? You file that down.
Olav: Well, I cracked it to smithereens because it’s all dry. You see that. But you have to pretend that that didn’t happen. Then you have this thing.
Peter: You’re like Julia Child.
Olav: God, yeah, except that these things don’t taste very good. So you have this. Now all of it is, of course, supposed to be soaked. Then you have another expensive instrument, and I’m going to show this to you. This is a shaping device, and there is a template on there that is the shape of the reed. So what you do is… I’m going to show this to you. I can’t believe we’re doing this.
Peter: Oh, it’s wonderful.
Olav: Yeah, it’s kind of fun, right?
Peter: Well, because there’s no other instrument that spends as much time.
Olav: No. I mean, yeah.
Peter: A violinist, the most they ever do is change a string. Everything else is done by somebody else, re-hairing the bow or whatever.
Olav: Yeah, and I have developed this. Oh, yeah, just incidentally, just so you have some background on that, when I was doing my doctorate in Stony Brook, New York, my lecture recital was on reed styles from all over the world.
Peter: Oh, interesting.
Olav: So I’ve actually given reed-making a lot more thought than your average oboe player.
Peter: I would imagine, yeah.
Olav: I actually had a company that was designing reed-making tools. Well, we ran out of options, and I’ll tell you briefly about that. So you put that under the template, and then you have to lock that in like that. It’s easier to do when it’s on the table. And now you have these knives here, and you’re going to trace the template and come up with something. I’m going to show you, when I’m done, what that looks like because I can’t do this in midair. So now I have this. Can you see that, this new form?
Peter: Yep, yep, yep. Yes.
Olav: It’s no longer just a straight piece, right?
Olav: And that gets folded, see that?
Olav: Then that gets… Hold on. That gets tied to a staple like this. See?
Peter: Okay, right.
Olav: With thread.
Peter: That’s beginning to look like something. Yeah.
Olav: Yeah. Then you cut the top open. Then you start with knives, very sharp, very smooth but sharp knives, you start manipulating the cane.
Peter: Okay. Now we’re seeing things that you bring on stage.
Olav: That’s right. This is my microphone. Yeah. You go…
Peter: Not only that, the knife. I mean, I see oboists on stage…
Olav: Oh, it’s true. Oh, it’s true. Oh, yeah. There is some crazy oboe players who… I know of one story, a former teacher of mine from the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was supposed to play the Brahms Violin Concerto solo, Second Movement, and literally he cut his reed 10 seconds before the solo started.
Peter: Oh, my goodness me.
Olav: On his lap, he’s like… I know this from the second oboe player. He told me. And so he cut his reed, and he puts it in his mouth, and there he goes and plays it.
Peter: Without even really trying it.
Olav: Yeah, but we are so sensitive to these minute, tiny little needs. It starts with… You play on something, and you’re like, “Eh, it needs something.” Then you also control how to get there.
Olav: I can almost make a reed without playing on it.
Peter: One more thing that I think would be interesting, certainly for me. You’re in New Haven. It’s rainy. It’s humid in the summertime. Then you go to Boulder, and there’s maybe 18% humidity. What happens to the reeds?
Olav: Yeah. Well, 18% humidity is being very generous because I’ve been with the orchestra for almost 30 years. In the old days, it was actually more like 8% because you could see it on the news. They would announce it that night. It was 8%. And there’s a very interesting development that’s happening, probably globally but certainly in Boulder. It has gotten more humid over time, and that’s a good thing because in the beginning, it was a nightmare.
Peter: I can imagine.
Olav: I started as principal oboe at [the Colorado Music Festival]. My first contract was principal oboe, and I had to play all this major repertoire. And I had never played high-altitude anything, let alone dry.
And Giora Bernstein… I don’t know if the audience or people that are listening to this interview have any experience with this man at all. But I would say he was very scary, to say the least. He put very high demands on us. One of the things was… You know, when you start a tone as a violinist, you can come out of nowhere. That’s one of the challenges on the oboe.
Peter: No question, oboe and bassoon. Double reeds, it’s much harder.
Olav: Exactly, and since he was a violinist himself, he kind of demanded that of us. I will never forget it. It was one of the Mendelssohn symphonies in slow movement. It starts in a low E. [hums the melody] You know what I’m talking about, and he would just… He went like this to me. It was the first time I played in the orchestra, and I got to play this. And he’s like, “Don’t push. Don’t push.”
And he would be, again… He stopped. “Don’t push.” He didn’t want to hear the beginning of the note, basically. Well, that sent in a frenzy in terms of like, “Well, how am I going to do this? How am I going to do this, making reeds?” You survive the first rehearsal, but then you go home. And then you just frantically start making reeds and trying to figure out how you can come out of nowhere with high-altitude reeds.
Peter: Okay. So what does that require to be able to play very softly the beginning of a note, which you do extremely beautifully, I have to tell you? Is it a slightly softer reed? What makes it possible?
Olav: No, it’s a balanced reed. This reed is dry. I’m doing this on purpose because what a dry reed does, it mimics what we were going through when it was 8% humidity. We were constantly soaking the reed, but by the time you would play it a little bit, it would just dry out. And you were constantly worrying about these attacks. So, when you have something like that happen, what was just happening, you just have to take a little bit more off and try to get it to be a little bit easier, at the expense of the sound.
Peter: Okay. So, if it gets too thin, does the sound get thin, as well?
Olav: The sound gets a little bit thin, too. Yeah. Plus you throw the balance off that you have so carefully put together at home. So, when you have a reed that’s supposedly responsible, when it’s more humid, you go with air, lots of air. You see what I mean, like that. You get a more immediate response, and then it goes. It was a big challenge in the beginning to do that. But survival digs in. Survival instinct kicks in, and there you go.
Peter: Well, let’s be grateful to Giora because he didn’t just push you. He pushed the entire orchestra.
Olav: Oh, no. Yeah.
Peter: And he created a fantastic orchestra.
Olav: Yeah. We were all sitting on the edge of our seats.
Peter: Right, so that I could come years later and just enjoy myself. [laughs]
Olav: Well, I don’t know about that. I mean, you put demands on us, too, but you have a different…
Peter: Okay, fair enough.
Olav: You have a different way of doing it. You do it with a smile.
Peter: Hopefully that goes a long way.
Olav: There’s a lot to be said for that, Peter.
Peter: Let’s go back, then. Thank you so much for that reed thing because I think it’s really intriguing. And it is the only instrument where, if things aren’t feeling right, you have to do all kinds of things to… It’s very likely to have something to do with the reed…
Olav: That’s correct.
Peter: … and so on, and it’s fascinating. But, anyway, go back. You’re in Holland. Now you’re in high school. You must’ve developed quite quickly. I want to know where you went to college and what brought you to America.
Olav: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to tell you the whole thing. Very quickly, you do four diplomas in private music school in your town. Then, usually people around you will say, “Hey, have you ever thought about conservatory?” Well, in my case, no, never, ever. I remember very clearly listening to professional recordings and going to concerts and never counting myself among those ever in my mind, ever.
So, when somebody actually said, “Would you be interested in auditioning for conservatory?” I was shocked. And I couldn’t give an immediate answer, either. I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” But, anyway, my father basically answered that because I didn’t know anything about an oboe. He signed me up for the oboe. I didn’t know anything about conservatory life or professional life, and he basically signed me up for that, too. So I just followed my nose. So I auditioned for conservatory when I was 15.
Peter: Okay. In which town was the conservatory?
Olav: In Enschede, and at that point, actually I was being asked to go and study with Han de Vries, one of the former principals of the Concertgebouw. And for some reason, I didn’t do that because my teacher in my hometown studied with the same teacher that I studied with. And I have to say he was a phenomenal teacher for a little while. He was the direct lineage from Jaap Stotijn from the principal oboe, the former… a long, long, long time ago in the Concertgebouw. In the glory years, basically, of the Concertgebouw he was the principal oboe.
Peter: With Mengelberg …
Olav: Yeah, exactly, with all the famous recordings that they have and the Mahler symphonies.
Peter: Right, when they were the only orchestra in the world playing Mahler, pretty much.
Olav: Exactly, and they have all these Mahler… And that’s where my oboe sound kind of developed in my own head because I would hear that, and I’d be like, “Oh, my god, this is just… Plus the music is just so… Also, the string sound in that particular hall. You know probably very well, the Concertgebouw hall is a very beautiful hall.
Peter: One of the most beautiful sounds, one of the most wonderful places to play.
Olav: Yeah. My father sang there, and he felt like it’s like the voice is being pulled out of you.
Olav: So, anyway, I did study with this man. It was his most promising student, really. In fact, in those old days, the teacher would often be double-booked for a recital or some kind of project. And my teacher was the one standing in line. He described this to me. He said, “You have no idea.” He said, “Olav, sometimes I would be called…” And Holland is a small country. “I would be called to all of a sudden go and play a recital somewhere.” Literally, they would pick him up with a helicopter.
Peter: Oh, my gosh.
Olav: Yeah, they would pick him up with a helicopter, fly him to wherever. As a result of that, he taught me, I remember it well… I was working on the Berio Sequenza. And I was working on some really hard stuff, which by the way, there, is very common. Here, not so, but there, very common. The repertoire for my final recital was insane, Pasculli and Castiglioni and Berio all on one. Then also Strauss from memory and so on. It was insane. But that’s what-
Peter: Generally speaking, it’s true to say Holland, for the last many decades, they like music written by composers who are alive just as much as those who are no longer alive.
Olav: Absolutely. Avant garde was… Absolutely. So, as a result of this helicopter stuff with his teacher, he basically taught me with the attitude, “Olav, when I press the button, you play.” That was his attitude. He said, “When you get called to do a concert somewhere, you say yes. And then you figure out how to do it. First you say yes. If you have to stay up all night long to learn your stuff, it doesn’t matter. Then you do it.” That was the attitude.
Peter: Good policy.
Olav: Yeah. Well, he was a fantastic, Giora-like type oboe teacher, very scary. I would say nearly all the members of the studio would cry, come crying out of the room. I was the exception because I think I was the only one that did what he wanted. I was stupid enough to just follow his commands and do them. Anyway, it got very ugly at the end, and I must tell you this story very quickly because it ties in with how I ended up in America.
Towards the end of my several degrees because you have to do chamber music, pedagogy for teaching, and you have to do your solo recital if you go all the way.
Peter: Just so we know where you are, is this still in Enschede?
Olav: This is still in Enschede, my fifth and sixth year. Yeah.
Peter: Your age is now…
Olav: I’m now… How old am I now? I started at 16, so you do the math, 20, 21.
Peter: Okay, got it.
Olav: Somewhere in there, yeah. Well, my teacher started to fall asleep in my lessons. Literally, he was on his couch. He would have the paper over his head, and he was snoring. I was playing scales and stuff and crazy stuff. It was like… I was at that age where, “I don’t need this. I don’t need this aggravation.” So I went to the dean of the school, who happened to be the dean of my music school in my hometown. I knew him well. His daughter and I, we were in the same class. I knew him very well.
So I went to him, and I said, “I’m sorry. It takes me an hour through traffic to get to conservatory. Then I have a two-hour lesson and then an hour back. It’s four hours of my time that I can use at home preparing for other things. I am no longer going to my oboe lessons because he’s too sleepy.”
During this conversation, he knocked at the door, and he poked his head in a little bit. And my friend, the dean, he said, “Not now, not now,” and he coaxed him out of there. Anyway, he said, “Olav, you have to. You have to take lessons.” I said, “I won’t. I won’t.” But this had been deteriorating for three years.
Peter: Were you close to graduation or something like that at this point?
Olav: Yeah, yeah. So I have to go back very quickly. An hour goes by fast, but I’ll try to tell you as much as I can. He came to my dormitory room, and he stayed until like 3:00 in the morning maybe. And he was drinking my expensive cognac, which was very common in those days, by the way. We had wine. We had cognac. We had Jenever. We had all these things.
Peter: Are you talking about the dean or the oboe teacher.
Olav: I’m talking about the oboe teacher. He came to my room, and he said, “Olav, if you want to go study with Han de Vries…” This was the second time. “I can arrange that for you.” I said, “No, I don’t want to study with him because I’m very happy with you,” which I was at the time. This was at the end of the third year.
Little did I know that after that, it went downhill really fast. But he wouldn’t tell me. He wouldn’t come to me and say, “I don’t think I have anything to teach you anymore. You need to go do this.” That’s not what he said. He was asking me, and I said, “No, no. I have no reason to do this. I’m not going to do it.” Well, it was disastrous, combined with him being in an accident and being out of commission for a while. And I picked up some of the slack, which he never paid me for, but that’s another story. It just kind of deteriorated.
Well, okay, now comes time to make your art supplement or your art recordings for auditions for other places. I graduated with honors, and you know what that is. I had a 9.5 average. And Jan Spronk was the invited guest to come and hear the recital. He was the current co-principal of the Concertgebouw. He was really the number one oboe player in the country, who incidentally… Now we’ve got to go back. I have so many sidetracks, but he played at CMF.
Peter: Oh, really?
Olav: This is interesting, Peter. This entitles me to be there, in my opinion. He played at CMF. Koen van Slogteren, who was also very famous, a very huge man, very famous in Holland, he played at CMF. And the second oboe player and the associate principal oboe player of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I studied with the associate principal, they played at CMF. I studied with both. So I’m the combination of that lineage a little bit, I feel.
Peter: Right. Who is the second oboist or the associate principal at that time?
Olav: Jonathan Baumgarten. He’s been there forever with Woodhams. Woodhams picked his second, and honestly, they played extremely well together. I mean, it fit really well. It could not have been, really, anybody else. Well, both of them played at Colorado Music Festival.
Peter: Interesting. It must’ve been in the fairly early years, I guess…
Olav: Well, no, no. I came in ’93, and Pete Smith, who’s the associate principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he was there in ’91, so not that long ago. Jonathan before that, and Gun van Schlatter and Jan Spronk at the very beginning.
Peter: Right, right. Interesting. Okay. Now, just one moment, because I think this is a moment to talk about oboe sound just for a second. And then you can go back to your story. Because in Germany, and especially the Berlin Philharmonic oboe sound, it’s famous for being a specific way. Tell us a little bit about these different oboe sounds in Holland, in Germany, generally European style, American style.
Olav: Well, quickly, I’ll just show you this scrape of an American-style reed, this. In Germany and in France, too, we start the scrape here. This is sort of an average American-style reed, which I now have to use for online teaching. But they start here. In France, they would start the scrape maybe here. So they would only scrape this much. It’s a very short-scraped reed, and the rest would all be bark, and in Germany, maybe split the difference or something like that.
So that, in itself, is very, very different. In my country, the opening was not easy to control. So they had a wire around the reed, like English horn reeds often have wires. You have copper wire, and you put that around your reed. That allows you to manipulate the opening, but it makes it more strident and different-sounding. Combine that with the fact that, in America, they cut the ends of the reeds slanted often, like this. In Europe, they cut them equal length. Well, this is a very interesting thing because if you think about equal length… I’m going to show you. You cut them equal length like that, right?
Olav: But you play them at an angle because here is your tongue, and here is your face. So this one protrudes. In America, they cut them slanted and then play them like this. So you kind of articulate on both blades at the same time.
Peter: It almost equalizes it in a sense.
Olav: That makes it different, very different. So that’s one reason why American oboe players sound different from European oboe players.
But I think, really, Tabuteau is the guilty one because he came with a French reed and a French oboe sound to the Philadelphia Orchestra. And the Philadelphia strings, in particular, in the ’40s were very famous for this luscious, beautiful sound. And he couldn’t blend with them to save his life. He just couldn’t do it. So he started with all these machines and all these crazy things by hand and later with machines and so on to design, and on the stage because that’s another part of it.
What sounds good on stage is not necessarily good in your own little, private home. It may not sound so good. So he was learning to do all of that on stage, and eventually he came up with something that started to blend with the famous string sound. And out of that, I think, grew the quintessential American longer-scrape reed. It came out of that.
But I think, also, concept, now, nowadays… When I heard an American oboe player in Holland back in the ’80s, I was stunned like, “That doesn’t sound like an oboe. I don’t even know what that is.” And I hated it, by the way. I hated it.
Peter: Interesting. Okay. So now let’s go back. Here you are, not liking American oboe sounds, and you get to the end of this Enschede thing. So carry on with the story.
Olav: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. So my teacher refused to help me with the recording. Luckily, I had my own reel-to-reel. It was 25 kilos heavy with big Sennheiser microphones and so on. I went back home, and I came back to record my own stuff with my pianist.
But you know who my pianist was? My teacher’s pianist. So that didn’t go over very well, either. Well, anyway, I made my recording very quickly, no rehearsing, just play it all, and just send it away. I auditioned for Harvard, which I had no idea they didn’t have a performance degree; Yale, Curtis, Juilliard. No, that’s it. I think that was pretty much it.
Well, Harvard said, “We don’t have a performance degree. So that doesn’t matter.” I was one year too old for Curtis at the time. So that didn’t work, either. And Yale accepted my tape before I heard from Juilliard. So I never even… I didn’t really think about that.
Incidentally, it was all around that same time that Jaap van Zweden was studying in Juilliard. We were the only two Dutch kids that went out to America.
So I was accepted at Yale without an actual audition. They took me on the tape, which is an exception because they don’t usually do that.
Peter: And the oboe professor was Ronnie Roseman, right?
Olav: It was Ronnie Roseman at the time, yeah.
Peter: Wonderful man.
Olav: So, as I told you, my average was a 9.5 for my degree recital. That qualifies you for the Prix d’Excellence, and I was a candidate for the Prix d’Excellence. But bad luck had it that they stopped that that year when I graduated in 1982. The money was still there, and the maximum amount that was allowed was 7,000 guilders at the time, which is not really $7,000. It’s a little bit less.
And that allowed you to go take some private lessons with the principal of the Berlin Philharmonic, Lothar Koch, at the time, with the famous Swiss oboe player, Heinz Holliger in Freiburg. You could go there or Maurice Bourgue who was his famous second oboe player for all the double oboe concertos in Paris.
That’s what my teacher did for my hometown, and that’s what others did. And I was going to do the same thing, except I had no interest in it. I didn’t want to go study with these people because at that point… I mean, the story’s very long.
I was in the local orchestra at a very early age, maybe at 17. I was so, so incredibly excited about this. The first concert on the program was Tchaik. 5. I had never heard anything like that in my life. I’m sitting in this orchestra, and I’m just listening to this piece and going crazy. My colleagues are flipping pages on magazines. They couldn’t care less. They couldn’t wait to get off the stage so they have their beer and they could play the stock market and things like that. Well, that left a deep impression on a 17-year-old, let me tell you.
Then the second thing that we would do and go on tour with was the whole Christmas Oratorio by Bach, which, well, I don’t need to tell you, as an oboe player, that’s the jewel of all jewels. So I was so excited about all of this and so disappointed with my colleagues. It resulted in, towards this with my teacher and all of this stuff, almost thinking, “You know what? Maybe I’ll just quit because I never wanted to be an oboe player in the first place, and this was all this crazy stuff.”
Well, luck had it that the Prix d’Excellence money was still available, and they were going to grant me some money. And you know who called me in my dormitory? The Minister of Cultural Affairs himself, a very famous man, called at the telephone booth, inside telephone booth, at my dormitory.
And some of my flatmates, and they said, “Olav, you’re not going to believe who’s on the phone, who wants to talk to you.” He’s on TV all the time. He’s this guy. So, okay. He said, “I understand you’re Olav van Hezewijk, and you are studying oboe with Ever Teneyck.” Ever Teneyck by the way, incidentally, was the head of all the music teachers in Holland, very political figure, very powerful. And he was the chairman of the committee distributing Prix d’Excellence money. So, well, there was no chance in hell that I was going to get a penny out of that one.
So the Minister of Cultural Affairs decided to leave him out of this debate after he talked to me on the phone. So he said, “Why don’t you tell me your side of the story?” That’s what he said. And I told him, “He fell asleep in my studio, and I didn’t want to waste my time with him anymore,” and so on. Then he didn’t want to help me furthering my career. And one of his former students, a principal of the orchestra where I played already, offered for me to finish my degree there,” and this and that and the other.
It was a turbulent time. The Japanese conductor of the orchestra… I was the principal oboe in the orchestra. He was ranting and raving, running through the hall, “Where’s my principal oboe? Where’s my principal oboe?” because when I decided not to take oboe lessons, I was suspended for a week. They kicked me out of school. But all these concerts were coming up, and I was the principal oboe. It was just not a good time.
Combine that with something very interesting. I was walking in a beautiful old cloister hallway. That was the conservatory in Holland, old cloister with stained glass windows, just gorgeous. And I see my name and my pianist’s name on the wall, on the door, actually. There’s this recital announced that I’m going to do. Nobody asked me anything.
So I went back to my friend, the dean, and I said, “What is this?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re doing a recital with your…” We were, at this point, a well-known duet in Holland, opening for big shows in all the famous halls in Holland with Dutch composers.
We would play for half an hour, play a pre-concert thing in the lobbies, usually. We would go all around the country, and we were fairly well-known. So, anyway, they booked us for a recital, and I was at that age, I was very defiant. And things were very strange at that time. I saw my pianist in the hallway, and he said, “Olav, are you going to this?” I said no. And I said, “Well, are you going to this?” He said, “Yeah, I’m going to go to this.” I said, “Well, you should because it’s probably not good if you say no.”
So I went to the dean, and he said, “Olav, listen. You are a student here, and while you are a student here, you are ours to do with as we please from 9:00 to 5:00.” I couldn’t believe the response, and of course, he was my friend, and I started laughing. And I was like, “This is ridiculous.” You have no rights. You should at least have the courtesy and the decency to ask me or tell me or something. What if I had never seen it? But, anyway, that resulted-
Peter: Did you quit?
Olav: That resulted in quitting. I just quit. But in that moment, money started pouring in through the Minister of Cultural Affairs. So 7,000 guilders was the max to come and study at Yale. They gave me 33,000, which barely covered the tuition at the time for Yale. But it gave me a reason to come here because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford it. As it was-
Peter: Did you intend, originally, just to come for one year, for example?
Olav: No, no. I wouldn’t have been able to. It would’ve been too expensive. They let you come, but I think they gave you 2,000 guilders or something, teaching assistant kind of thing, and the rest you have to come up with on your own.
Peter: Right, right.
Olav: So the man from the government gave me a way to come. Then, with my father, I co-signed a loan approximately the same amount, 30,000 guilders, to complete the studies.
Peter: So you were studying at Yale for two years?
Olav: Three years, did my master’s, and then Ronnie practically begged me to go audition for my doctorate in Stony Brook. I had no intentions. I actually wanted to go back. But the story is long and complicated. So, during the time when I was studying at Yale, I had to go back, because of the student visa, every summer to Holland. There, I made money teaching piano in the summer.
Peter: Really? [laughs]
Olav: Yeah, I never taught oboe there. I taught piano. Luck had it, I had a very smart lawyer student, a very elegant speaker, elegant writer. We had conversations about stuff. Unbeknownst to me, he wrote a letter to the Minister of Defense, saying, “Listen, this kid is studying oboe in America with your money from the government and then he’s doing his doctorate in Stony Brook. Then he has to come back and do boot camp.” Oh, yeah, without an oboe, by the way, because we had an army where we were selected.
Peter: It was compulsory to do boot camp in Holland in the ’80s?
Olav: In those days, yeah. And I had an interview with a sergeant, and he was very mean. He said, “No, you can’t bring the oboe. Absolutely not.” Well, anyway, to make that story short, my pianist student, he wrote a very elegant letter to the minister, and he got me out.
Peter: How long would that boot camp have been, if you’d had to go?
Olav: That would’ve been four months, four months of boot camp, and then you still have to serve 10 more months. Then you’re done.
Peter: My goodness. But you have to serve those 10 more months and still have to live in Holland while you’re serving them. You couldn’t have gone to America.
Olav: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, as soon as you’re done with your studies, you have to come back to Holland, and they grab you right away. And you go into the army. Yeah, and that’s-
Peter: But you got out of that. So you finally managed to get to Stony Brook.
Olav: Yeah. So I was at Stony Brook. I auditioned, and, sadly, my friend, a clarinet player, also auditioned, didn’t get in. And I got in. I got a letter, actually, from Sam… It was Sam Baron.
Peter: Sam Baron?
Olav: Sam Baron, and Ronnie and Arthur Weisberg and a few other people, they wrote this recommendation letter that I have the highest recommendation letter of any student ever to audition for the doctorate program in Stony Brook. And they gave me a lot of money. I lived in Stony Brook and later in Sound Beach in Long Island with a private beach. It was very luscious and wonderful. But sadly to say, I have to say that was a complete waste of my time, that whole studying there. I didn’t really learn much. It was an extremely awful place to be because the man who designed the university was famous for designing prisons in this country. Well, have you seen Stony Brook?
Peter: Yeah. I never looked at it from that point of view. [laughs]
Olav: All these concrete, ugly buildings. Coming from an old cloister in Holland to that, it was tough.
Peter: I’m sure, but-
Olav: It wasn’t a great time. But incidentally, in between, after I did my master’s at Yale in 1984, I went to… I can’t think of it right now, in Connecticut, where I met you.
Peter: Oh, Norfolk, of course, Yale summer school. Yeah. What year were you there, ’84?
Olav: ’84, and you were there with the Tokyo String Quartet.
Peter: Exactly, yeah. That would’ve been my fourth summer, actually.
Olav: Oh, okay. How many did you end up doing?
Peter: Well, I started in ’81. I graduated from Juilliard in May and started playing with the Tokyo Quartet the day after, pretty much. So, yeah, my first summer at Norfolk, about half the students were older than me. It was kind of embarrassing, but there we go. That’s another story. So that was before that.
Olav: I remember you had black hair. You fit in really well.
Peter: Yes. I still do, actually. This is just the color of the dye.
Olav: Oh, I see. You dye it. You dye it to look more distinguished.
Peter: Yeah, because otherwise you wouldn’t recognize me.
Olav: Same here, same here.
Peter: I’m sure. So you finished Stony Brook and-
Olav: It was a complete waste of my time. No, I didn’t. I was 90% finished with my studies there at Stony Brook. I was involved in a project with Berio. I forgot the title of the piece now, but it involved oboe, English horn, and oboe d’amore. The oboe was mine, and the oboe d’amore and the English horn was from school. The doctoral students had their own office with a key and so on. Well, April Fool’s Day of some year, I think it must’ve been ’86 or something like that, my oboe was stolen.
Olav: Out of the office. Oh, boy. It’s a long story, Peter, but it’s worth hearing. Trust me. So my oboe was stolen, and shortly thereafter, the oboe d’amore was stolen, also. That’s when Ronnie really got involved because that belonged to the school.
Well, to make that story really short, I was with my repairman in Philadelphia having lunch, and he described this crazy oboe that he just worked on. And I said, “Can you describe that again?” He said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I said, “That’s my oboe,” because I had several keys put on the oboe for me because with all the crazy avant-garde music in Holland, it needed it, to go up to B-flat and crazy stuff. So I had extra keys put on that normal oboes just wouldn’t necessarily have.
Peter: This guy had it in his shop or had worked on it?
Olav: He was working on it, and then this person left again. I won’t mention any names, but we knew who it was. I had him describe the person who brought the oboe. I already suspected this person, and the police had already told me, with the investigation, that it was probably an internal thing.
Well, now I’m skipping way faster ahead. Marta, not so long ago, my wife, Marta, our former second oboe player there, she couldn’t sleep one night. She went online, and she was just looking at eBay. That’s what she does. She goes to eBay, but never looks at oboes. That night, she was looking at oboes. She woke me up in the middle of the night, and she said, “There’s this oboe here.”
Peter: How many years later is this after it was stolen?
Olav: Well, the oboe was stolen in ’86 or so, I think, and this happened maybe four years ago, something like that. Yeah, a long time!
And this oboe has made its way, all the way, three owners later in this place. This guy’s trying to sell it online, and it’s a full plastic oboe, by the way, which has another story on its own, but very unusual. Even the bell, even this, plastic, really? If oboe players go plastic, it’s only the top that they usually go plastic. So it was unusual for many reasons.
Well, anyway, I contacted the guy. I said, “Listen, you’re not going to believe this, but this is my oboe.” He said, “Well, how do you know this?” I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll describe the parts that you cannot see on the pictures that you’re showing online. And then I will tell you what they are for because you don’t even know why they exist, why they’re on the oboe.” And I did.
Well, I piqued his interest. He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. If you can produce the serial number, and you can go back to the Lorée factory in Paris, I’ll split it with you, the cost. We’ll sell it, and you get half.” I said, “Well, I’ve kind of buried that whole story. That was really painful. I’m kind of over this whole thing.” I said, “But, yeah, sure. Why not?”
Well, he ended up taking that task unto himself, and he claimed that the Lorée factory doesn’t keep the serial numbers from the ’70s. I’m not sure that that’s true. But, anyway, I closed that chapter for good, and he has the oboe. What he did with it, I have no idea.
But as a result, I couldn’t finish my doctorate in New York because I had only my orals and my final recital. But I didn’t have an oboe. Ronnie was sweet enough to say, “You know what? My son, John, he’s not really into the oboe too much. I have this oboe lying here. Why don’t you take this one and play on it?” And I had one recital left of the four, and then you go to the final recital. My fourth recital was all Bach. I wanted to do all Bach. Well, Peter, there’s an octave key here. Do you see this thing?
Olav: So, when you go from G to A, you have to go like this. Well, I didn’t have that. I learned to do this, not this. Also, this key, I lifted. And now, you have to do this, plus this key, that’s an F, I could play the right hand without lifting. And now you have to time it. Well, I lost my technique.
Peter: I’m sure.
Olav: I couldn’t play the oboe for three years, basically. I just couldn’t play. I mean, I did the Bach recital. I had the recording of it, and I listened to it some years later, and it sounded really angry.
Peter: Yeah, I’m sure.
Olav: Yeah, it wasn’t good. So, finally, I bit the bullet, and I said, “Listen, I’m going to switch. I’m going to try, but not right away.”
So I went back to Amsterdam because I didn’t have an oboe, stopped my studies, stopped in Stony Brook, got a real job in Amsterdam, was offered the Head of Advertising in a very… sort of like headquarters of Macy’s equivalent, very good job because my father was an advertiser. He made his money in advertising. I knew about that.
That’s another long story, but during that time, one of my sisters was the secretary to one of the big bosses upstairs, and she got me this job. I lived with her in Amsterdam. And I went to my father. I said, “Can you help me out? Can you help me out? I need an oboe. I can’t do anything at this point anymore.”
He said, “You’re really out of luck because I just renovated my house. I just spent 50,000 guilders or something renovating my house. I don’t have any extra cash.” He said, “But I’ll tell you what. I’ll run an ad in the paper,” because he was an [advertiser]. “I’ll run an ad in De Telegraaf.” It’s a national paper coming out of Den Haag. “I’ll run this little ad for you.”
Well, Peter, unbelievable, at the end of the summer, there was one response, one. This lady responded with 100 guilders, which is $30, very sweet of her. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to call her. I didn’t want to do anything. My father said, “No, no, no. You have to call. You have to thank her. You have to thank her.”
So I did, and she said to me, “I would like to meet your parents.” That’s what she said. Well, I’m going to skip ahead because the stories are all very long. You know who that was? That was Mrs. Avis from the Avis fortune. I’m not joking. Lukas Foss and myself were the only two that she sponsored.
Peter: What year are we in now? Is this after Stony Brook?
Olav: Yeah, yeah, right around ’86, I think. Yeah. She sponsored me until she died at the age of 93.
Peter: My goodness me. So, at that point, where did you live when you left Stony Brook? Did you go back to Holland?
Olav: I moved in with Marta here, and we got married in ’87, so here, in this era.
Peter: Okay. So you were living here. She was sponsoring you. What were you doing professionally? When did you join the New Haven Symphony?
Olav: Oh, in ’93, the same summer as CMF. But I was already freelancing with them for five years, so five years prior to that. I was working at Atticus Bookstore as a supervisor for five years, for $3.75 an hour, initially.
Olav: Oh, no, it’s amazing. It later went up to $6 an hour. That was the final as a supervisor. Can you imagine that?
Peter: Incredible. Incredible.
Olav: Yeah. So I was very fortunate to have Mrs. Avis in my life. She made it possible for me to do competitions. She was very knowledgeable about America, of course. When there was an audition in New Orleans or something like that, she said, “No, no, no, no, no. You don’t want to live in New Orleans. You don’t want to do that.”
She was guiding my future that way. But I did manage to go to the Gillet competition in Graz, in Austria, and I won the bronze medal. I probably… No, I think I would’ve won silver for sure, but I had so much water collected in the octave key that I actually ended up playing an octave too low to hide the high notes because it was the full automatic, plastic instrument that collects water.
This competition was not because of Avis, because that was in ’84, but later on, I did other competitions like Munich. I did do stuff like that. And I have Munich stories, as well. I didn’t win the Munich competition, but I was offered principal oboe in the Munich Operetta.
Peter: Fantastic. But you didn’t take it.
Olav: No, I didn’t take it because of Marta. And Marta told me some years ago, not too long ago… She said, “I would’ve gone with you.” But I didn’t know. I assumed that we were just getting to know each other then. That was out of the question. So I just turned it down on the spot, essentially.
And it was Leleux, the famous François Leleux, the, in my opinion, number one oboe player in the world who sought out my parents. He was there in the audience. He heard my thing for the Munich competition. He said, “Don’t change anything. Don’t listen to anybody. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re a beautiful player. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
I had no idea it was Leleux. I put the pieces together many, many, many years later. He won the Munich competition. He was there. I was like, “Well, who is this French guy, and he said this?” Well, eventually, it all came to me, and I realized who he was.
Yeah, so I’ve gone through some ups and down. But, really, what you haven’t heard, and I think that’s the most important part of it, is I was in a car accident when I was 19. I was slated to be the principal oboe of the Residentie Orkest in Den Haag because my teacher had big connections there. The principal flute was his best friend, practically.
I was a good oboe player, I think, at the time, and I probably would’ve gotten it through the connections. But I was in the car accident, and unbeknownst to me, it had taken a toll on my breathing apparatus and stuff. When I was practicing the Strauss and some other things, right before the audition, I bit through my lip.
Olav: Literally, like a little bleeding, bit through it.
Peter: As you were practicing?
Olav: As I’m practicing. Obviously there was something wrong with my breath support, but I didn’t really realize it. It was a gradual decline, and I was working harder here than I did before.
Well, I went to the audition. It was very embarrassing. I couldn’t even give an A with the piano. I came home crying, straight to the studio. He already had heard the whole story from his friend.
Okay. So I didn’t get that. Then I went to Yale for my master’s, and one year in, I lived in Helen Hadley Hall… You know where that is. I crossed the street for Clark’s Pizza, and I lost my feeling in my legs, literally just paralyzed, I would say, for probably three or four seconds. I just, right in the middle of the road, in the pavement, I sank to the ground.
I was able to get up again, and I was in excruciating pain. That started the whole series of physical therapy and chiropractors and things like that. Then, ultimately, as I was studying in Philadelphia, I did Rolfing on the behest of my oboe teacher, which he recommended it.
Also very interesting, Linda Grace, the former oboe student from Chicago, gave up her career and became a great healer. She is still probably doing Rolfing.
Peter: I know Linda Grace.
Olav: Huh? You know Linda Grace?
Peter: I have been Rolfed by Linda Grace.
Olav: She’s good. And she works-
Peter: Her son is a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Olav: Yeah, I know, and she works for a lot of Philadelphia Orchestra people. This lady is so sweet. I played a Bach concerto with one of the church orchestras here that Marta put together. She came all the way from Philadelphia to study my posture and then went back.
And I went there for my Rolfing, 10-week session. Every week, you do a little bit more, while I was studying with Pete Smith in Philadelphia or maybe Cindy Koledo first. You know what she said to me? You said, “It’s a very good thing that you came to be because you’d be dead in 10 years.”
Olav: That’s what she said. She said, “All the things that’s supposed to move freely and independently are all glued together. If this moves, it’s going to take that with it. As a result, your organs are not being massaged properly, and there’s atrophy in the major organs. That’s a very serious affair, and you would basically be dead in 10 years.” That was back in… Oh, god, I lose track, ’89 maybe, somewhere in there. Anyway…
Peter: Tell us about this because I think he’s going to have to compress, anyway.
Olav: Oh, I know.
Peter: I do want him to be able to get the story. Let’s go to… You join the New Haven Symphony in 1993 as a formal member. How did the Colorado Music Festival opportunity come about?
Olav: Oh, it’s fantastic. As I was studying in Boulder with Pete Smith, who was the principal, I went to the orchestra.
Peter: As you were studying in Philadelphia or in Boulder?
Olav: The Philadelphia Orchestra… He was actually not asked back by Giora, believe it or not. His sound wasn’t big enough, Giora didn’t want him back.
Peter: Oh, I love Pete’s playing. He’s brilliant. Yeah.
Olav: But, anyway, he got the Philadelphia Orchestra job, and he didn’t care, of course. But I was studying with Pete.
Peter: Did you say he was teaching in Boulder, Pete, at that time?
Peter: Okay. Let’s go back because you said he was teaching in Boulder.
Olav: No. He was teaching me privately.
Peter: Ah, okay. Let’s go back because this won’t go well to…
Olav: Oh, sorry. Yeah. So…
Peter: Go back to… Tell us. You joined the New Haven Symphony in 1993, and that’s the same time you get this opportunity. Tell us how that all happened.
Olav: Well, actually, I would go to Boulder every summer, already, before that because Marta grew up in Boulder. Her parents were there. Every summer, we lived in Boulder, Colorado. This is my first summer that I’m here since 30 years plus.
Olav: Very strange experience, but that’s another thing. So I would go to the orchestra. Milan Turković was the principal bassoon. Pete was the principal oboe. It was a phenomenal group of people, all superstars, and they were doing Tchaikovsky 4 and some other things.
And Marta had this crazy idea. She knew Giora well from CU, was the conductor and teacher. She said, “Why don’t you find out if they need a sub someday? Maybe someday you could be fifth oboe in a Mahler symphony or something like that.” I said, “Are you nuts? Are you listening? Are you actually paying attention to this?” She said, “Well, you just don’t ever know.” I said, “Fine, if you want me to do that, you do all the work.”
So she sent in the request. You have to have 15 minutes of live performances. You have to make a tape, a cassette tape at the time. So Marta had to compile 15 minutes of live performance of myself and send it. At the time, the personnel manager, he said, “Giora would like to hear you audition.”
So I played on the 39th floor, high altitude, 39th floor in the Sheraton Hotel in New York, where Giora was. And it is the funniest thing, Peter. I thought very highly of the orchestra, and I didn’t know what to think of Giora. He looked like a scary man. And they didn’t tell you what to prepare. I didn’t want to bring anything.
I did bring stuff because I had to bring stuff, but I didn’t want to bring anything I didn’t want to play, so like Le Tombeau de Couperin and Pulcinella, all those things, in the hope I wouldn’t have to play them. So I get to the 39th floor. He opens the door. I’m thinking there’s going to be a proctor and a warm-up room and this and that. It’s in the middle of the winter. It’s in March.
He shakes my hand, and he says, “So, what are you going to play for me?” Quintessential Giora style, and I’m flabbergasted. I sit at this dining room table, and I put my reed in my mouth. I don’t even want to do that. I’m like this. I’m getting my oboe out, and I’m sitting here like that, hoping that the oboe is warmed up enough.
He said, “So what are you going to play for me?” I said, “Well, I don’t know.” He said, “Well, why don’t you play Tombeau for me?” You know this thing, right? I had to play it from memory because I didn’t want to bring it. So I played the whole thing from memory. This is a true story.
He said, “Okay, why don’t you play Pulcinella for me?” I also didn’t bring it, and I had to… which I’ll actually play it for you, very poorly, but I’ll play it. You know all that, right, that solo?
Olav: I had to play it. I said to him, “Oh, I’m not sure about the rhythm in the middle so much.” He said, “No, no, no. It was fine.” Then he said, “What else do you want to play?” I said, “Well, I brought this whole stack of music.” I had to play Mahler’s 7 and some other things. He was just looking through the whole thing.
Then he sat me down on the couch, and he said, “Your vibrato is very different from our principal oboe. What are you thinking of the orchestra? What are you doing? Are you taking auditions?” And he said to me, “Are you taking auditions?” I said yes. He said, “Well, it’ll only be a matter of time.” That’s what he said.
And I was thinking, “Oh, that’s one of those lines. See you,” especially knowing Giora through Marta’s eyes. I couldn’t believe it. I got this phone call, “Giora would like to hire you for the first three weeks as principal oboe of Colorado Music Festival.”
Olav: But that was a shock like you can’t even imagine it. Then I would move to assistant principal because Bill Benovitz, who has died, he was the principal. And in those days, we had almost eight to nine weeks’ festival.
Olav: And the first three weeks, typically, the principals weren’t there. They wouldn’t show up the first three weeks. So the assistant principals, or in my case, a separate contract, you were a principal, you would play the first three weeks as principal. That’s how I started there.
But I need to tell you very quickly because it ties in with my car accident and so on… At some point, Giora had hired a different principal oboe player, quite incompetent, just could not do it. So, when we do the Schubert symphony, the octaves were really out of tune, and I would switch. I would play the upper part, and he would play the lower part. Then we could play it in tune because he couldn’t control the high register.
I will never know how he got that job, but it doesn’t matter. Anyway, during that season, I had a complete breakdown. I’m sitting on second oboe, and I’m playing, and all of a sudden, nothing comes out of my oboe. My first thought was the reed cracked in half, but I wasn’t sure. It was towards the end of the chamber music rehearsal. So I could go home, but I couldn’t play. I gave it to my colleague, and he was playing it. Peter, this was the sound I got out of the oboe. Do you hear what I did? That was the oboe sound.
Peter: Is this the summer of ’93, when you’re first there?
Olav: No, no, no, much later, much later.
Peter: Later, okay.
Olav: Yeah. So I had a complete breakdown, and I couldn’t play anymore. I was just about to sign on my house here, to buy a house, couldn’t play the oboe anymore, couldn’t make a sound. I started coming up with all kinds of house remedies. I went to this chiropractor in Boulder during that summer. Later that summer, Steven Elijah… You remember him, the cellist?
Peter: Yes, of course.
Olav: Steven Elijah, his sister, she went to the same chiropractor. She was a viola player in the orchestra, and she went to the same chiropractor. She invited me to a Reiki session at her apartment. I didn’t know anything about this, but she could see auras. As it turns out, I was a born healer.
So, to make that story short, she recommended that I go study Reiki here in Connecticut. I did. I found a teacher, only one teacher in Connecticut. I did my thing, and at my graduation, she had another woman there, and they were laughing at me, just laughing, sitting on the floor, laughing, laughing, laughing. And I was like, “Why are you laughing?” She said, “Someday you will know.” That was the answer.
Well, Peter, I became a healer for 10 years. I became a spiritual healer. I went to cancer wards in hospitals. I’ve done healing for Lynn Harrell, may he rest in peace. He threw his shoulder out. I put it back. I did healing for Michala Petri, the recorder player, all kinds of people, healing in China when I was playing there. It was fantastic.
And through the study of Buddhism, all of a sudden, it went away, a very unexplained thing. I was studying very intensely in White Plains, New York, Buddhism. Basically, they passed each other. So the healing went away, and the Buddhism went up. And I’m still privately working on what that is, and I’m meditating every day. There’s a whole story developing in my head that is too incredible and too fantastic to talk about. But nevertheless, it seems to be kind of what’s happening.
So, through this breakdown with the oboe, I became a healer. I think, to be honest with you, that was probably always my destiny in life from the word go. There was one setback after the other, from my teacher, you name it, always something. My oboe was stolen. And when I was doing well in the Gillet competition, I had so much water. It was Nicholas Daniel who won the first prize. Nicholas and I became good friends for a while. We lost touch, but for a while, we were good friends.
Peter: Let me ask you one final question because you’ve touched on a lot of interesting subjects. When you’re about to play one of the beautiful oboe solos… And let’s face it, composers choose the oboe for sometimes almost spiritual moments, right?
Peter: Is there something in you that says, “Here’s my opportunity to use my healing powers”?
Olav: While I was a healer, yes. The healing would actually go out through the playing. Yes, absolutely.
Peter: It’s a very important quality. Everybody has a different element that goes through their mind when they’re performing. When you have an instrument, it’s much easier to feel it, whereas a conductor, it takes many years to get to that point because you’ve got so many other worries.
But certainly I feel that what we do musically when we play all this incredible music has some other dimension to it that we very often don’t talk about. I think that’s why we feel it’s such a privilege to be performing musicians and sharing our love of it and this great repertoire with people who choose to come and listen to it. And it’s also why this quarantine [in 2020], while it’s difficult on so many different levels, I think a lot of us who do what we do feel very starved from that.
Olav: Oh, absolutely.
Peter: It’s very difficult not to be able to communicate. And I thank you for spending this time with us and sharing so many thoughts because this is an opportunity for people, next time they hear you play, to say, “Ah, I think I know that guy a little bit better than I used to.”
Olav: Oh, it’s been my pleasure, absolutely.