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
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 earlier.
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 . . . . .
Why the oboe?
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 that!”
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.
town was this?
Cachoeirinha, 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
BD: So you
were working on embouchure, but not on
Correct. 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 life?
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
BD: Was the
oboe your friend, or was it the music
that you produced from the oboe that was your friend?
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
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
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
favorite of mine since very early on, as were the Tchaikovsky
Beethoven symphonies. I started conducting when I was ten.
I got into conducting also to help fill that
BD: So you’re
an all-around musician, and not just an
All-around 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
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
BD: So you
just want to express what’s in your
you’re playing other people’s music, are you
expressing your heart, or their heart, or both?
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 else.
BD: So the
music from other
people becomes your music?
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 yourself?
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
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
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 people won’t!
BD: Is this
your advice to audiences, to
forget the details and listen to the entire thing?
Exactly! 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.
yeah! And you can get the message!
BD: Is the
music that you play for everyone?
everyone who wants it. I don’t think any music is for
There are lots of musics out there that I don’t listen to every day,
but they are still good.
AK: Maybe I
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?
Exactly. 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
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
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?
[Laughs] 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?
[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
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.
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
it again this summer when I go to the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival
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
and Violin, all on the same night!
BD: So we’re
back to being versatile again?
AK: Yeah, I
enjoy that, I really do!
all young oboe players play oboe d’amore
and English horn and bass oboe occasionally?
Technically, 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
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
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 avenues.
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
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
hear three or four notes and the word “sad”
comes to your mind, or the
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.
Yeah. 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
Exactly. If we do that well, then we’re good
artists. That is the challenge.
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
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
“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 same
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?
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?
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
performance better in terms of carrying emotions. But a live
performance can never carry as much information as a document.
they’re two separate things that
should exist in parallel?
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?
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
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
to do something else!
Good! Well that’s more than enough
for the two of us, anyway! [Both laugh] Thank you so much.
pleasure. See you.
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© 2002 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 11,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNUR two months later.
made and posted on this
website in 2009, and has been included in the website Classical
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.