• July 11, 2023

Artist Profile: Richard Woodhams

Artist Profile: Richard Woodhams

Artist Profile: Richard Woodhams 768 1024 Welcome to Kingston Chamber Music Festival | Kingston Chamber Music Festival

If you ask Richard Woodhams, principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra for over 40 years and one of the world’s foremost oboists, what inspired his celebrated career as a musician, the answer comes quickly: “I owe a great deal to my early musical experiences.” Woodhams is the youngest of five, and he remembers his home as being full of music. His family often listened to the radio or LPs, and there were a variety of instruments being played between them: violin, piano, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, accordion, guitar, trumpet, harmonica, and more – “but nothing was amplified,” he adds. “My hearing is still pretty good!” The prominence of music in Woodhams’ early childhood also prompted some memorable, formative moments. “One experience sticks in my mind from when I was about three years old,” Woodhams says. “My father took me to his concert band practice, where he played the baritone horn, and let me sit next to him. It was thrilling to me to hear marches of Sousa at such close range. When I went to bed I could still hear the music vividly in my head, and it was exhilarating but a little disturbing! A few years later I heard my sister’s youth orchestra play Schubert’s Great C major Symphony and the oboe solo really captivated me. It was perhaps the first time I identified the oboe and I subsequently grew to love the melodies which feature it in orchestral music.” 

The importance of reeds

Throughout his career with the Philadelphia Orchestra and as a soloist, teacher, and recording artist, Woodhams has had many revelations about the life of a professional musician, among them: “If you hold yourself to a high standard, you are seldom bored.” He rarely tires of the music he is “fortunate” to get to play, and the physically taxing parts of playing the oboe became easier with age. Why? “Because my reeds improved,” he says. “Oboe players make their own reeds and spend much time fussing with them. The quality of the reed is frequently more important to a good result than the quality of the instrument we play on, but the lifespan of a good reed may only be a few concerts. An excellent oboe can withstand perhaps a decade of professional use, but having at least two good reeds on hand (in case one breaks) is a daily preoccupation. That’s a bit of uncertainty that can add a little drama to the music, I think. Climate and even altitude affect the performance of a reed, which is scraped down with a very sharp knife to be thinner, in parts, than a human hair! But none of these challenges should be apparent to the listener, of course.”

His return to KCMF

Woodhams’ last played on a KCMF stage at founder David Kim’s invitation in the 1990s. At the time he performed with his wife, Kiyoko Takeuti, pianist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. This year our summer festival kicks off on July 26 with Woodhams’ return to Kingston in a concert that will feature a compelling repertoire that showcases his musicianship. “The Paul Hindemith Oboe Sonata that [KCMF Artistic Director and pianist] Natalie Zhu and I will perform is a piece that I’ve long admired but have never played,” Woodhams says of the opening piece of the concert. “It was written by this great composer in 1938 after he left Germany because of his opposition to Hitler and the Nazis. Despite the terrible political climate of the time it is largely an affirmative and jolly piece, but not without some deeply serious moments. It contains fleeting references to both the early baroque and to popular American Music of Hindemith’s time and also displays Hindemith’s distinctive, alluring harmonies and sly rhythmic trickery. All of this in twelve minutes’ time!” 

The best ears in Paris

On July 26, Woodhams will also play Jean Françaix’s The Quartet for English Horn and Strings alongside violinist Ayano Ninomiya, violist Che-Hung Chen, cellist Clancy Newman. “I enjoy playing the English Horn, which is actually not a horn at all but a larger, deeper pitched oboe,” he says. “It is often used to portray sadness, longing, and loneliness by composers such as Wagner and Berlioz but Françaix cleverly upends this practice by writing in a charmingly humorous way for it. All of Françaix’s music is characterized by a rarefied craftsmanship and an aesthetic sense that is contrary to many of the musical trends of the century in which he lived. It is said that the formidable modernist composer and conductor Pierre Boulez declared Françaix to have ‘the best ears in Paris.’”

“One of my favorite pieces to perform”

Woodhams will join the Grammy-nominated Dover Quartet on a KCMF stage on Sunday, June 30. “I am really looking forward to playing the Crusell Divertimento with the brilliant Dover Quartet,” Woodhams says of this concert. “This is an expertly written virtuoso work for the oboe from the early 19th century and one of my favorite pieces to perform. Crusell was a clarinetist born in what is now Finland but was then Sweden. I feel some affinity with this music; both of my maternal grandparents were Norwegian emigres to America and Ancestry.com indicates that back in the middle ages we were tree choppers in Finland, so no wonder!” After a successful career with the Philadelphia Orchestra until his retirement from it in 2018, what keeps Woodhams returning to KCMF? “I am very grateful to be able to perform with these wonderful musicians at this outstanding festival and I always love playing chamber music,” he says. “It brings players and listeners together in an intimate experience and is so healthy in maintaining a civilized society.”