Oboist  Alex  Klein

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Alex 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 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 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Why the oboe?

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 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.

BD:    Which town was this?

klein 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?

AK:    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 fast.

BD:    Was the oboe your friend, or was it the music that you produced from the oboe that was your friend?

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 violinI 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?

AK:    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 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?

AK:    Yeah.

BD:    When 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?

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 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 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 people won’t!

BD:    Is this your advice to audiences, to forget the details and listen to the entire thing?

AK:    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.

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 still good.

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?

AK:    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 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.

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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?

AK:    [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?

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.

klein 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?

AK:    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 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 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?

klein 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.

AK:    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 your instrument.

AK:    Exactly.  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 succeed?

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 same idea.

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 w
e 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!

BD:    Good!  Well that’s more than enough for the two of us, anyway!  [Both laugh]  Thank you so much.

AK:    My pleasure.  See you.

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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.

Award - 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.