Ray Still discusses his career with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
BROADCAST: May. 7, 1990 | DURATION: 00:31:32
Interviewing Ray Still, first oboist and director of the Quadrangle Chamber Players, an ensemble of nine musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
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Studs Terkel We know that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a jewel in our city's crown. It may be the nonpareil among symphony orchestras anywhere in the world. Now, with that orchestra, sitting in the first oboe chair, sitting there since 1953, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of its honored members indeed, is Ray Still, oboist, and he joined in 1953. We're talking about 37 years ago and for 36 years you've been the first oboe chair.
Studs Terkel I think Ray before we talk about your reflections, we'll hear passages and works of you performing with the symphony and other combinations too. I've been thinking about the oboe and I'll ask you about the oboe and the role it's played in symphony orchestras as well as in chamber groups too. But before we hear, this is you and Itzhak Perlman, it's the Bach concerto, Johann Sebastian Bach concerto for the violin and oboe and when, what were the circumstances of this one?
Ray Still Well, Itzhak and I had played together several times. We made a record together for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, with Pinky Zuckerman playing viola, Lynn Harrell playing cello, and then he had said he wanted to do the Bach double with me. That was, the first time we met was here in Chicago the day after I was fired from the Chicago Symphony, that's an interesting story, and so Itzhak wanted to record the Bach double so we went to Israel, and I went to Israel for only two days, and we recorded the Bach double there.
Studs Terkel Suppose we hear the Allegro, the, at least a portion of it. Of the first movement of the Bach concerto violin and oboe, Perlman violin and Ray Still oboe. [Pause in Recording] I was thinking of the oboe and the violin as of an affinity there, thinking and hearing it.
Ray Still When you're listening to a whole group of string orchestra, and the violin is a solo instrument and the oboe is a solo instrument, the oboe tends to stick out more because it's, of its difference from the rest of the strings. Whereas the violin tends to.
Studs Terkel Perhaps a word about the oboe for a couple of words, or four or five words, about the oboe and, and music, the history. We think of this as a member of the reed, double reed family. Now what else would be double reed family?
Ray Still Well, the English horn, the oboe d'amore. On this new recording that I, that I made in London it's an oboe d'amore concerto, that's slightly bigger than an oboe but not as big as an English horn. So, those are all the same oboe family.
Ray Still back too? Way back to ancient Greeks and Egyptians and so forth it's. Anytime you take, you've, when you were a kid you took a milkshake straw and pushed it together and made a sound through it, didn't you? Well, you're in fact, you're in effect playing on a double reed then when you blow through a milkshake.
Ray Still It is just like, it's two little slivers, little pieces of cane, which you might, you might consider just like bamboo. We get them, we get this material in southern France we, we scrape it, we gouge it out, and we shape it to a certain shape, and then we wind it on the stem, and then we make our own reeds. I mean oboe players.
Ray Still Oh my God we spent hours and hours and hours every day making our own reeds. That's the reason we don't have such fast fingers as the flute players do because we spend all the time making reeds while they're practicing.
Studs Terkel I'm going to ask your average go along about how you came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and before that. But, since you mentioned influences. You heard the Shubert "Unfinished," you're, I know many of your influences have been jazz men.
Ray Still I was very flattered, I was very flattered recently when a critic in some magazine said that, that I reminded him of some jazz players. Now, you'd think that would be insulting to some players. I thought it was the greatest flattery that they compared me to Louis Armstrong and Ben Webster. So, but my two greatest heroes I think, if you, I mean I like so many jazz players, they're great artists but, probably if I only had to select two it would be Louis Armstrong and Lester Young.
Ray Still Mhmm.
Ray Still Well, there is something about these great artists that they have an emotional quality that goes right to your, right to your heart. I can be playing the Bruckner, Mahler, Beethoven downtown, and I'll come home and put on a Armstrong record or a Lester Young record and I'll, I'll weep. And I'll really cry it's so emotional. In other words, I can do the same thing with the Bruckner or the Mahler. I sometimes play, put those on when I've just played them downtown, I'll put them on again at home.
Studs Terkel Now, now there's something here we have to stick with this for a minute. The emotion, the feeling. So, we know that Louis has the technique. We know that. And we know even when he scat sings it's hard to tell sometimes where the voice leaves off and the instrument begins. And so, as you say, his voice sounds like his instrument, instrument sounds like his voice. But, it's that added something, it's the feeling, tone, you're talking about.
Ray Still Well, I try to get it. I'm, I feel, a child compared to some of these people. But, I try to get that same quality, for instance in the "Leningrad Symphony" of Shostakovich which we recorded last year with Bernstein.
Ray Still And I remember you mentioned before that Louis had the technique. Now, when some people talk about technique, they don't think Louis had so much technique because they're thinking of technique being digital technique and the very flashy, fast stuff a la Dizzy Gillespie and some of the, [not especially?], although Dizzy Gillespie's a great artist too. But I mean, they don't think of Louis as being a great technician but, when you talk about technique, Louis had the technique on the trumpet to touch your soul, to reach you, because he had the ability to make the trumpet speak.
Ray Still And by the way, Bernstein took this about 30 percent slower than I wanted it to be taken and we had kind of a few words about this. I said Lenny this is 92 on the metronome. He said, "Ray, trust me, I'm going to make it at 62, and you'll love it." And I said, "I don't believe it." And so this is about 30 percent slower than I thought it should be. But he was right. It turns out right.
Studs Terkel I want to hear, I want to hear that and I'm sure the audience has that emotional aspect you're talking about especially with Bernstein at the podium and Ray Still, oboe. [pause in recording] That's beautiful. Now, we must remember that the most we know this is the "Leningrad Symphony," dedicated to the people who survived the 900 day siege. And so, you yourself, now how did you do that? There was no breath taking. This was done.
Ray Still Well, I took some breaths in there. Because of the tempo he took it was much more difficult for breathing. But he, he suggested that I do a lot of using of the assistant first oboe, but I told him I didn't want to do that, I wanted it all to be me. There is, there are two notes toward the end of a phrase where Michael Henoch does play two notes for me and it's done so skillfully I don't think you can tell which the two are.
Studs Terkel Coming back to the, to that passage we heard, and earlier heard Louis, there is a connecting link and that is that deep, deep, what I would call feeling, tone. In both instances what you're talking about.
Studs Terkel Suppose, we go back again to influences, you mentioned Lester Young, see. I'll ask then about the conductors you've worked with since it's Bernstein and you worked under three conductors in Chicago: Reiner, Martinon and Solti, perhaps what it is about each of the four, including Bernstein, that you feel what makes each one distinct? Well, let's go back to Lester Young. What is it about Lester Young, and he's here with his favorite colleague of so many years Billie Holiday, what is it about Young that?
Ray Still I just think that he is probably the most inventive, the most singing. Let's, let's put it this way: when, when we play on our instruments we're, the cliche is that we're trying to communicate. But, when you do it successfully, it's as though you're actually speaking your music without words. You're speaking your music to the listener. And he, he spoke better on his instrument to me than, than almost anybody else did. Of course, she did too. Billie. [pause in recording]
Ray Still He speaks on his instrument. That's what we try to do. We don't have the technique of the great jazz players because we don't have the ability with our embouchers to make all these colors that they make, all these different vowel sounds that they make, the glissandi, which are part, they make glissandos which are part of their technique.
Studs Terkel Which leads to a question, a simplistic one I'm sure, but one that's asked a million and a half times. You admire these jazz men, we know jazz, a core of jazz is improvisation. Now, do you, a classical musician, have a chance to improvise as you're playing? Or is, how, is there any possibility of improvisation?
Ray Still Only within very limited, well, it depends on how you look at it. It's unlimited in a way. When you play a Mozart oboe concerto, when you play a Strauss oboe concerto, that's as a soloist of course, you have more license there probably. When you play a Baroque concerto you actually do change the notes and improvise a little. When you play symphonic works, let's say the standard works, the Beethoven symphonies. I've done the Beethoven "Third Symphony," I've recorded it maybe three times, and I've, I've played it maybe, in my life, for three or four hundred times at least. Each time I play that funeral march. Each time I play those spots with the big oboe solos in them. The last movement which is a prayer like finish, the finale of the "Eroica." Each time it's, it's a new challenge. I probably try to play it as though I'm playing it for the first time. I'm not. I'm, I'm trying to play it with, it's like a Shakespearean actor, how do, a Shakespearean actor cannot change the lines. He has to stay strictly within the lines.
Studs Terkel Or nuance depending upon a circumstance in your life or of that of the world or, let's say the day Franklin D. Roosevelt died and you were performing that night. The, that was canceled, but the following night, FDR. I say that because you're my contemporary and it was his death that, of presidents, that most affected us, rather than Kennedy who was one of the generation when he died. And you are playing that "Eroica," that movement, that, the funeral movement, march movement. That would've, that would have had a special, wouldn't it?
Ray Still It would have. Sometimes however, Studs, if you let the, the drama, the, the, the tragedy of the music get to you too much. Let me give you an example, we were doing the Prokofiev "Fifth Symphony," with Reiner, on a concert at Orchestra Hall. And Reiner did this especially magnificently. There's a very emotional slow movement and I was sitting there and I was so overcome with the tragedy in the music, one place especially with the oboe comes in very plaintively with the bassoon and the little triplet figure very slow and the adagio. And, I was so emotionally overcome with this thing that I started to cry, the tears were coming down my eyes, and I thought, in one corner of my mind, I thought this should be an especially great performance because I'm really moved by it. I missed the whole solo. Nothing came out. You can't let yourself be totally.
Studs Terkel An actor, for example, how not to cry. You see, there's a line in "Death of a Salesman," she says, "Willy," the actress, Mildred Dunnock, and so she's Mrs. Loman, and she says, "All paid for Willy at the [unintelligible] it's all paid for." And as she tells it, she didn't cry, the audience cried, you see? She didn't at all, and so in this case, she felt it tremendously deeply.
Ray Still Absolutely.
Ray Still I would like to have you hear some of the first movement, just the end of the first movement, because that's the cadenza that my son wrote for me. He's my oldest son, and he wrote this cadenza for me. For me it's the best cadenza that I've ever heard for the oboe.
Ray Still Traditionally, in Mozart's time, the composer would leave a section after a particular type of chord, a 6-4 chord. He would leave a space for the artist to improvise, and this was usually written by the artist. Later on, the composers got so they didn't trust the artists so they wrote their own cadenzas.
Ray Still Right. And I didn't feel competent to write my own cadenza. And so my son, who is the composer and a pianist, wrote it for me and it lasts exactly one minute. And, I think it's the best writing of an oboe cadenza I have ever heard, it is just terrific.
Ray Still Yes, this was in Steinway Hall that I auditioned in New York City. And, on every audition for the oboe there is one piece. Well, there are actually two pieces: one by Ravel and one by Rossini. And the Ravel piece is called, "Le Tombeau de Couperin". And the piece by Rossini is called, "La Scala di Seta," or, "the silken ladder," "silken staircase," whatever the translation might be. And this thing proves to be a very slippery staircase for oboe players because they really have a terrible time with it. And you can hear in this recording that we made in about 1956 I think it was.
Studs Terkel But that was the beginning. Which leads to the subject of Reiner, Martinon, and Solti, and that now that you work with Bernstein. Each one had a certain characteristic that distinguished from others a certain attribute. What would you say?
Ray Still Reiner, Reiner of course was, I was very close to Reiner's conducting because he brought me to Chicago, in fact, I, in a way, you might say I was the first major change he made in the orchestra. Starker had come the same year, but, but there was a vacancy there for Starker. The cellist had left and so Starker came in the first year on principal cello, but the second year Reiner asked the principal oboe player, a man named Florian Mueller, a wonderful man and a very thorough musician, to change chairs with me. So, that was like, in a way, the changing of the old guard for the new. I represented the young upstart and.
Studs Terkel Clarity.
Ray Still You could hear any instrument in the orchestra that you wanted to hear. There was never any cloudiness, never any sloppiness. And yet, with all this incredible rhythm and inspiration we did some performances like with Inge Borkh with "Elektra," where the audience would come out and just stand in the foyer and on the sidewalk afterwards, they just couldn't go home. They were talking about the performance so much.
Ray Still Well clarity, clarity but, but, emotional communication too. The, the, the, realm, the range of music that he did. All the way from Stravinsky, the Spanish music, some Mahler, not much he didn't really, Mahler wasn't the fad as yet, the Beethoven, the Mozart, the Brahms, all those things, he did a wide range of music.
Ray Still Well, he did a, we played in Boston the "Mother Goose Suite" and I personally congratulated him, I thought that was the best "Mother Goose Suite" I'd ever heard. But his, his best work was done in French music. He wasn't much on the.
Ray Still Solti. Well, Solti of course, his repertoire is similar to Reiner's repertoire in that it's the Strauss, Wagner, Beethoven, Brahms, and so forth, but Solti's with much more emphasis on Mahler and recently Bruckner. And Reiner didn't like any Bruckner and he didn't play much of it. And I think the, one of the big differences between Reiner's day and Solti's day is PR. There's a tremendous amount of PR. You know Reiner left here with kind of bad feelings. He had been here for 10 years and he became ill and he went back and was conducting a performance of "Gotterdammerung" when he died. But, Reiner found out about his being replaced by Martinon by the maitre d' at the White Hall. He said, "There's your successor over there," and they didn't even tell Reiner.
Ray Still And they didn't send anybody to the funeral of Reiner. And so when I went back as an emissary to Mrs. Reiner after he had died to ask them, I was approached by some of the trustees to ask if they would donate some of his scores to the Newberry Library, you can imagine what Mrs. Reiner said. She said, "To hell with them. I'm not going to give it to them." She did donate the works to Northwestern University eventually.
Ray Still Attributes.
Ray Still Solti has a passion of fire. He doesn't give a damn how he looks when he conducts and he looks very awkward much of the time. When he's tired he doesn't look so awkward, you see he conserves his energy. And he, I think he conducts best when he's tired. He is, has a magnificent grasp of an entire composition: "Mosus und Aron," the "B-minor Mass," the "St. Matthew Passion."
Studs Terkel Right.
Studs Terkel many records I have of the his. You make this gesture of all encompassing love. So, we've got to come back to one other thing. Awhile back when you were playing that Billy and Lester he replied to her, just as you did in that, in that audition of "La Scala di Seta," replying to the fiddles. And so here it is in Mahler's "Second," there's a passage in Mahler's "Second" where you, the oboe, are answering the contralto, Mira Zakai, right?
Ray Still Mhmm.
Studs Terkel And so you, as replying to her, continue and so it's heavenly toward reaching as the oboe does. Beautiful. We're talking to Ray Still, and as Ray is offering not simply some passages from his own virtuosity, his own mastery of the instrument the oboe, but those of influences, in Louis and Billie and Fritz Wunderlich.
Ray Still You know, you asked me before about Fritz Reiner. And the amazing thing about Fritz Reiner's recordings is that they're, they're all still in the catalog. We recently were able to purchase through RCA some of the Fritz Reiner CDs. There's a huge, huge stack of CDs which are now in the catalog, and part of the credit for this must go to Jean-do Mandolini, a young Frenchman, well maybe he's not so young anymore, he must be, Jean-do must be 45, who has spent his entire life in the memory of Fritz Reiner. Making sure that, first of all he started the Fritz Reiner Society, and this was later taken over by some other people and made into a magazine called "The Podium," and then I think it was discontinued. But, Jean-do Mandolini is still in Paris writing his letters all over the world and now he has convinced the Hungarian government that they should dedicate a little park to Fritz Reiner in Budapest, and we will be going to Budapest with the orchestra next November and I am hoping that we can be there to commemorate the opening of that little park. It's a, it's a very modest little park with a modest little monument, but I think that a lot of the people in the Chicago Symphony are saying that they would be very, very happy to donate some money for this.
Ray Still Yeah, right. So, they need some money to start this, to put up this Fritz Memorial, Fritz Reiner Memorial, and the address to send them money to would be the First American Bank of Chicago. That's at 50 East Adams, in Chicago, 60603.
Studs Terkel Great.
Ray Still And we'll send the money to Jean-do Mandolini, and we'll get our, they've got the whole monument picked out, they've got the spot, it's on a musical street, a famous musical street in Hungary. So we hope to celebrate that when we go over there.
Ray Still Right.
Studs Terkel So, how do we end there are our hour? As an oboe concerto of Strauss, that you chose, this is by way of thanking Ray Still for his hour. We haven't had you ever on as a guest before, once I think long, oh, 30 years ago perhaps. Just about when you.
Studs Terkel Yeah that was way, way back, and you were offering influences on you and your various impressions and reflections and your artistry. So, a word perhaps about the Strauss oboe concerto, the passage we're about to hear.
Ray Still Well, the Strauss oboe concerto I made two years ago in London with the group called The Academy of London Orchestra, with Richard Stamp conducting. And I had gone over there two years before that and had played it at a concert. I believe it was in one of the big halls there and it was a success and they wanted me to record it so I came back two years later which was just two years ago and I recorded it. We went to, but before we recorded this we went on a little tour to Yugoslavia and Austria, played three concerts in three days then came back to London and made this recording. Strauss is, Strauss by the way is the first concerto that I ever played in my life. I played it with Reiner, the Chicago Symphony. He asked me to play a concerto and I looked at the Strauss I said, "Dr. Reiner, that's impossible. Absolutely impossible to play." So I wrote him a letter and I said, "Dr. Reiner, I've looked over the Strauss and I'd rather play the Handel concerto." He wrote me back, "Dear friend Ray, I want you to know, with me a little Handel goes a long way."