Oboist Alex Klein
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Klein began his musical studies in his native Brazil at the age of nine,
and made his solo orchestral debut the following year. At the age of eleven,
he was invited to join the Camerata Antiqua, one of Brazil's foremost chamber
ensembles. During his teenage years, he toured and performed as a soloist,
recitalist, and as a member of several professional orchestras in Brazil.
He then studied at the Oberlin Conservatory with James Caldwell, earning
two degrees in music performance.
After a year at Oberlin, Mr. Klein won first prize in the first Lucarelli
International Competition for Solo Oboe Players, held at New York's Carnegie
Hall. He has received many awards worldwide, including at the 1988 International
Competition for Musical Performers in Geneva, Switzerland, in which he was
the first oboist to be awarded first prize since Heinz Holliger, three decades
Mr. Klein joined the Chicago Symphony as principal oboe in 1995. He has performed
as soloist with the Chicago Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre de
la Suisse Romande, and Chicago Sinfonietta. He has recorded for Teldec, Boston
Records, Newport Classics, Musical Heritage Society, and Cedille Records.
Alex Klein won the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra
for his recording of the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto with Daniel Barenboim
and the Chicago Symphony. Klein left the Chicago Symphony in July 2004 due
to the onset of Musician's Focal Dystonia. He currently performs as a soloist
and conductor, and also teaches.
This conversation with Alex Klein took place in June of 2002, during his
all-too-brief term as Principal Oboe with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
We met backstage at Orchestra Hall, and though our time was limited, the
chat was full of serious information and good-hearted laughter. I began
by asking a simple but tantalizing question . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Why
Alex Klein: It
was peculiar! It was unique; there were not a lot of people playing
it in the orchestra. And I was curious as to how can such a big sound
came out of such a small opening. I was curious. I looked at
it and thought, “This is weird! I want to try
BD: Did you start
with oboe, or with something else and then switch?
AK: I started with
oboe, but I couldn’t get an oboe. The local teacher in town insisted
that I get a good instrument to start off.
BD: Which town
AK: In Curitiba, Brazil. So I started on recorder
and ordered a good oboe from Germany that came through the Goethe Institute
there. Meanwhile, I would go to my oboe lessons only with a reed!
[Both laugh] Every week during my lesson, I would play on my teacher’s
oboe, and then go home and practice on the reed only. The poor dogs
in the neighborhoods! They just hated it!
BD: So you were
working on embouchure, but not on fingering?
Because oboe is a very difficult instrument to play, the philosophy of the
teacher was that if it is already that hard to play under normal circumstances,
let’s not make it even harder by starting on an instrument that’s old or
broken up. So I got a good, professional instrument right away.
BD: Did you know
from the very beginning that you were going to do this for the rest of your
AK: Not from the
very beginning. I thought it was interesting and cool to do.
It took me about two years to come to that realization. Oboe and music
filled a void in my life. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do
verbally or explain emotionally, and when I started playing music I found
a friend. By the time I was eleven, I was already touring and I was
soloing. It was very fast. Everything happened very fast.
BD: Was the oboe
your friend, or was it the music that you produced from the oboe that was
AK: The music,
but the oboe met my personality. I am stubborn and I am very dedicated
to what I do. I enjoy a good challenge, so if I had gotten an instrument
that’s easier to play a melody — say a piano or a violin
— I would probably not be as satisfied. I needed something
to work against, and the oboe proved to be a good challenge. The reed-making
and the intonation of the instrument is tricky. All of that needed
to be worked on at the same time.
BD: Does the oboe
play all of the music that you want to play, or is there more music in your
heart so that you wish you were a pianist?
AK: There has always
been more music in my heart than the oboe can provide. Almost immediately
I started playing music that’s transcribed, so by my mid-teenager years I
was already looking into Paganini Caprices
and other concertos. I fell in love with a lot of violin music
— the Brahms Concerto
as well as cello concertos such as the Rococo
Variations. The Dvořák Concerto was a favorite of mine since
very early on, as were the Tchaikovsky symphonies and Beethoven symphonies.
I started conducting when I was ten. I got into conducting also to
help fill that void.
BD: So you’re an
all-around musician, and not just an oboist?
is a big word! [Laughs] I wouldn’t presume! But I love
music as an art in all its forms, from world music to the deepest classical.
It’s an avenue for human beings to express emotions that cannot be expressed
verbally. It’s not only the classical, but all the way to world music
that’s the most non-technical. Classical music is very technical; it
has to be played in a certain way to be understood and loved. If you
don’t do it well technically, people may not get it. World music is
something where the technique doesn’t matter. You can sing any way
you want; you can get a matchbox and play some rhythms on it, and it is expression.
It is art. So that’s a non-technical music, and it also expresses something
that cannot be expressed verbally, and connects people.
BD: So you just
want to express what’s in your heart?
BD: When you’re
playing other people’s music, are you expressing your heart, or their heart,
AK: I’m using their
line to express what my heart says. Say you hear a joke that somebody
tells you. If you like the joke, you go and tell other people the same
joke. It becomes your joke now, but you actually got it from somebody
BD: So the music
from other people becomes your music?
AK: It becomes
my music, yeah. When I go onstage, I play my music. It just happens
to have Brahms’ name on it, but it’s my music. I am the performer.
I own the music.
BD: Are you conscious
of the audience that’s there in front of you, or are you playing just for
AK: I’m very much
conscious of them. But it’s a funny thing — I don’t see myself as the
owner of the music; I see myself as the go-between. I’m there; I’m
with the audience, but the performer in me is not. Alex Klein and the
audience are listening to the oboe player. We’re both enjoying the
same thing. So it’s as if I’m together with friends talking about a
common emotion, and we all feel love right now. We all feel the pain.
I happen to be performing the pain or the love through the oboe, but I don’t
put myself on a higher platform saying, “I am the performer. Listen
to me!” Or, “I am going to play for myself. If you like it now,
clap.” I don’t like that. I haven’t felt comfortable with that.
I prefer to humble myself and stay out of the way.
BD: So it’s really
more of a communal effort?
AK: Yeah, yeah,
it has to be like that. I truly believe that listening is fifty percent
of the job. It’s way too arrogant for musicians to believe that they
know how it’s supposed to be played, and just because the audience may not
know about the details and harmony or fingering that they are using and their
bowing, who cares? Music is produced by the musician, and that’s only
fifty percent of the job. Understanding, listening, is just as important!
And I think that our audiences may know more about the art of music than
we do as performers, because as performers, invariably we get tied up into
technicalities. “Oh, somebody played the wrong note there!” Or,
“Somebody didn’t really match this out of tune thing here!” Especially
at the level of the Chicago Symphony, all of these details are constantly
going through our minds! We’re trying to get a good performance out!
We don’t take time to smell the roses and say, “Oh, this is a really beautiful
moment, so let’s sit back and enjoy it.” I can’t! I’ve got to
count measures and come in, and not in five seconds! I have to come
in right! I have to listen to the clarinet! It’s too much!
BD: But you have
to do that for us, so that we can then enjoy it.
AK: Yeah, I have
to take care of the technique so that the audience can sit back and let it
flow and get the beauty of it without worrying about the technique.
Some people in the audience who are more knowledgeable will concentrate on
technical details, and notice if somebody cracked a note, but most of the
BD: Is this your
advice to audiences, to forget the details and listen to the entire thing?
Exactly. Don’t feel like you have to be an expert in order to enjoy
this; you may already be an expert just because you love it! You’re
already seeing it from a point of view that the musicians will never get!
BD: Just the fact
that you’re there in the audience means that you want it.
AK: Yeah, yeah!
And you can get the message!
BD: Is the music
that you play for everyone?
AK: For everyone
who wants it. I don’t think any music is for everyone. There
are lots of musics out there that I don’t listen to every day, but they are
BD: Should you?
AK: Maybe I should,
maybe I shouldn’t. I would rather be flexible about that. To
be honest with you, I’m a performer, so I listen to technicalities.
If I listen to it all the time, music can become a burden because it draws
the technical side of my brain. I use a lot of the left side of my
brain to understand music, and that can be burdensome at some level.
BD: So you want
to get out and play tennis or swim or run or something?
So I don’t go to concerts a whole lot. I don’t listen to a lot of new
CD’s and new recordings that are coming out of there, because when I listen
to them, I often get tired because I’m getting too much information and concentrating
too much! When I do listen to concerts, when I do listen to CD’s, or
go out and buy something new — and I do, you know, but probably not as regularly
as one might think — I like to go as an audience member and really not care
about technicalities. I just let the music come through me. I
often do that by turning off the lights, putting on my headphones and laying
down on the living room floor and listening to the music. I just let
it flow through and teach me art.
* * *
BD: I’ve seen you
onstage with as many as three different instruments. How many different
oboes and varieties of the instrument do you play?
I like to try something new! I am developing instruments for my instrument
manufacturer, Lorée, in Paris. They send me instruments sometimes,
and I try them out and I send back comments. When I go to France, I
go to the factory and we mess around with it.
BD: Are you ever
going to get it right?
AK: No! [Laughs]
I hope not! We’re getting them better, always. Always better.
I hope we never got to the point where we ran out of ideas and we can say,
“It’s probably good enough.” I don’t want that.
BD: What about the different sizes of instruments
— you play oboe d’amore and bass oboe...
AK: Yeah, I like
to play d’amore and the English horn. I don’t play them in the orchestra
a whole lot. Every now and then we need a d’amore, but an extra English
horn rarely. I think I’ve only done it once in seven years here.
I played once the bass oboe and d’amore a few more times.
BD: As the principal,
would you not like to sit yourself second or third chair, just to play that
other instrument once in a while?
AK: I would like
to, but we are very technically advanced. We have an expert in English
horn that has the English horn position. It would feel awkward for
me to ask him to move over so I can try the English horn! It’s not
something I would consider appropriate.
BD: What about
in chamber music — that gives you little more flexibility.
AK: There, I do.
I just played a concert where I played oboe d’amore and English horn, and
I’ll do it again this summer when I go to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
late in July. I’ll be playing oboe d’amore and English horn probably
on the same night. There’s going to be a beautiful late-Mozart Adagio for oboe, English horn and strings,
a Bach Oboe d’amore Concerto, as
well as the Bach Double Concerto
for Organ and Violin, all on the same night!
BD: So we’re back
to being versatile again?
AK: Yeah, I enjoy
that, I really do!
BD: Should all
young oboe players play oboe d’amore and English horn and bass oboe occasionally?
yes, it’s nice to learn, but they should follow their hearts. That’s
a big problem in education. We don’t really trust our young people
to think for themselves.
BD: Why not?
AK: We want to
institutionalize things. We get our own agenda, our own curriculum,
and impose that on the students because they don’t trust that they can do
that on their own. We fear that if you give them too much free time,
they’re going to go onto the internet and play games. And I’m sorry
to say that! I’m really disappointed.
BD: But if you
give them free time, do they not go to the practice room and play?
AK: If their hearts
are in the right place, they will. When I was a teenager, when I had
free time I went in and practiced. Not all the time; sometimes I wanted
to go out with my friends. I have great memories of my teenage years.
I went to parties, I went dancing, I went to everything, but I also practiced
a lot because I had the free time to do it. I would like to give more
time to students to try things on their own. But before we do that,
of course, we have to do the basic work of teaching them responsibility,
and get them to learn the fun that it is to try new things and explore new
BD: You teach at Roosevelt
University and De Paul University. Are you pleased with what you hear
coming out of the horns of the students?
AK: Yeah, I’m very, very happy with my students.
I have very good students and they’re very dedicated. It is an interesting
process. As much as is necessary, I try to teach them the technical
aspects, then I try to concentrate on the art of music. It means digging
into people’s emotions and helping them find a channel to bring it out.
It’s very easy to play an instrument. You play it in tune and you play
the right notes. If you practice and repeat it long enough, anyone
off the street can play an instrument. That’s not hard! The hard
thing is to turn sound into emotion so that you hear three or four notes
and the word “sad” comes to your
mind, or the word “happy.”
BD: Is that something
you can teach, or must that be in the heart to begin with?
AK: It must be
in the heart, but the teacher must teach them how to open the channel, how
to create the channel, so that they know exactly how to aim their emotion
so that it’s going to come out the end of the instrument. That is the
big challenge for me as a teacher. Sometimes I feel happy with the results,
sometimes I don’t. It depends on the relationship. Circumstances
with privacy are such that I can’t openly discuss with a student, “Okay,
this piece is very sad; it talks about death. Let’s talk about sadness
and death,” during a lesson! It’s not that easy, because it often brings
up terrible emotions in people; they’re going to miss a grandfather who died,
or something. I don’t want to get into that, yet I do want to give
them the tools to explore the music and find those emotions.
BD: And yet you,
as a professional, might have to get up onstage and play something sad the
night your grandfather dies.
Or, I have to remember my grandfather when I play. Take, for instance,
the Bruckner Ninth we’re playing
this week. It’s unfinished; he didn’t even put a fourth movement in
there. We only have three. At the end of the third movement,
there is a passage with the strings — we’re talking about the last minute
or two — that is descending chromaticism. I listen to that, and the
word death, or fear, comes to my mind. I’m getting this message from
Bruckner that he’s catching his breath, he is worried. He’s seeing
the end of his life and he transferred that into the page. When we
play it, those thoughts come alive again and they touch me! Invariably
I’m going to listen to that as well as think about my own mortality.
BD: And then you
have to transfer that into your instrument.
If we do that well, then we’re good artists. That is the challenge.
BD: That’s what
you strive to be — an artist?
AK: Yeah, so that
people can get an emotion out of my playing every second that I play.
If I don’t do that, then I’m not succeeding.
BD: Do you usually
AK: I get an emotion;
I put an emotion into everything I play. Whether people get it or not
is out of my control. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
What’s fun is when I see it and feel it. Take the slow movement of
the Strauss Concerto. It’s
very lovely and serene; eternal. I remember one particular performance
I was thinking of that as being a long trip through a beautiful land.
At the end of the concert, a member of the audience whom I did not know,
came to me and said, “You know what, Mr. Klein? When you played the
slow movement, I thought of this long travel through this eternal place,”
which was almost verbatim to what I was thinking!
BD: So you knew
that person got it!
AK: Well, I knew
that person got something that I was thinking about. Other people might
think it just seems very spatial, very distant, which also has something
to do with travel. Some people might think sun, others would think
yellow, others would think light. We’re all pretty much getting the
BD: So if someone
comes to you and says, “I was thinking about a baseball game,” you’d feel
they missed it?
AK: I would think
that they probably were not listening to what I was playing, or I was really
doing a bad job in communicating! That would not be good!
BD: Have you basically
been pleased with the performances you’ve given these many nights?
AK: Yeah, yeah.
I am very happy. I am very happy to be a musician. It’s very
fulfilling to me. I’m a perfectionist, and as a performer I worry about
details, so I will also tell you that every night, no matter how wonderful
the concert is, I keep thinking I can do better. We can improve tomorrow
night; we can do something different. That’s not to say the performance
was minimized; it’s just because it’s the nature of art. If we
tell a joke to a group of friends, we tell a joke once. Then at the
end of it, if your friend comes from the bathroom and says, “Hey, what did
I miss?” you’re going to have to tell the joke again. Are you going
to do it verbatim, using the same words again? No. You’re going
to just do a short version of it. But it’s just as funny, and the people
who heard it the first time are probably going to laugh the second time as
well, because you changed something. That is art when we use our words
to change something, to express something completely new, and people get
an emotion out of it. In music it’s the same thing. The last
thing we want to do is to play exactly the same notes the same way every
night. That would be like being the most completely boring person in
a dinner party!
BD: But when someone
plays a recording, it will be exactly the same thing every time it’s played.
Is there any ambiguity for you when you make a recording?
AK: My recordings
are not as authentic as a live performance, because I realize it’s going
to be listened to several times, and analyzed as a document. A recording
is a document. It’s something that I write down in my computer, and
then I do a spell-checker, and then I come back to the next day and revise
one paragraph. We cut and paste. We say, “Well in this passage,
by the time we played it the fifth time it got a little bit better, so let’s
paste that one in.” So we create a document that can be published.
It lacks the authenticity, but it still carries a lot of information.
If people like the recording, they’ll probably like a live performance better
in terms of carrying emotions. But a live performance can never carry
as much information as a document.
BD: So they’re
two separate things that should exist in parallel?
AK: Yeah, exactly.
If I go to a conference and I present a paper, I read my paper. That’s
a document. Or if I introduce a colleague of mine that’s going to read
his or her paper, then I’ll probably just introduce them and say a few words.
That’s going to sound a little broken up and not planned, but it’s going
to have a lot of emotion because it’s improvised at the minute. “Oh
yeah, this guy! I met this guy a long time ago. You’ve got to
hear what he has to say!” That’s a lot more inspirational than my saying,
“We are about to hear Dr. So-and-So present...” [Both laugh]
Who wants to hear that? So a live performance and a recording have
this in common. Some people like to record live, and that’s a document
of a specific performance. Again, it’s going to carry less information.
BD: One last question.
Are you optimistic about the future of music?
AK: Oh, yeah!
Music is never going to die. It’s going to change; it’s always changing.
Even for classical music, there are doomsayers out there, but maybe it’s
not classical music’s fault. It may be the fault of performers; it
may be the fault of composers who can’t quite connect. I realize the
intellectual need to create something completely new even if the audience
doesn’t like it. Fine, great! But so what? What does he
mean? Maybe classical music should get a few jolts every now and then,
but overall I think classical music is very healthy. If you were to
wipe out every orchestra, every string quartet in the world, just like it
never existed, the next day somebody’s going to start playing classical music
again because it’s part of us. The Eroica Symphony of Beethoven talks about
liberation, empowering poor people, regular people, to strive for a better
life. I get empowered by that because I see the same thing happening
in our world right now. If I hear the Ninth Symphony, about the joy, about
humans believing in ourselves, not necessarily going against the establishment
but improving on establishment by giving ourselves the strength, the pride
of being human, that’s a message for today as well! And the same can
be said about the Bach cantatas and everything that came before. Classical
music’s about four hundred years old now, and I would give it at least another
two or three hundred years before we need to do something else!
Well that’s more than enough for the two of us, anyway! [Both laugh]
Thank you so much.
AK: My pleasure.
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© 2002 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 11, 2002. Portions
(along with recordings) were used on WNUR two months later. This transcription
was made and posted on this website in 2009, and has been included in the
website Classical Connect.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.
His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website for more information about
his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full
list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the
photos and information about his grandfather,
who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.
You may also send him E-Mail with
comments, questions and suggestions.