Defining ‘beautiful’ in the passions of an oboe professor

Ian Franklin thinks the modern oboe isn’t supposed to be heard up close.

A bit like the bagpipes, the instrument was developed to have a hard, penetrating sound. Large groups tune to the oboe because it can be heard above all else. Difficult to adjust and tune, when dealing with an oboe, it’s better to make everyone else conform to it.

But for many, the oboe is an exotic instrument they cannot identify by sound or appearance.

Franklin is trying to improve that situation. On Wednesday, Oct. 19, he was the soloist in Orchestra London’s Cathedral Series at St. Paul’s Cathedral. And this winter he will hold an Oboe Day with workshops, masterclasses and activities aimed at developing players.

Seeing and hearing the oboe up close and personal may create more people who disagree with Franklin’s criticism about hearing his instrument in tight quarters. It really can be lovely to listen to – especially in the hands of such a pro.

On Oct. 19, Franklin played C.P.E. Bach’s Oboe Concert in B flat.

“The halls were small in Bach’s era, so instruments didn’t need to project so much,” Franklin says. “Like Schubert’s musical evenings, people could sit next to the piano. St. Paul’s is nice for players. It’s a lovely setting and lovely music. What could be better?”

It was a rare opportunity to hear this seldom-performed work.

“I had never heard this concerto until Alain (Maestro Alain Trudel) mentioned it to me,” he says. “He had heard it online and liked it and asked me to play it. First, I had to find it. But when I did, I discovered it is a masterpiece.”

Bach wrote it for oboe and strings in 1765. It’s in his middle period, not as classical as earlier works and not as personalized as later ones.

“There are wonderful embellishments and thematic development,” Franklin says. “The ornamentation is a study in itself.”

Hearing it live is completely different than a recording maintains Franklin. “They can make a whole range of dynamics in a recording. There is a bit of dishonesty in recording. I love to see how excited people get when they go to a live performance. It is different from anything you’ve experienced.”

Franklin learned the oboe after starting on piano. He also sang in a choir and had tried violin and trumpet. With that experience, his Grade 7 teacher thought he was a good candidate for oboe.

“I started in my first band practice after two or three lessons. I didn’t know a lot about the oboe.”

But he knew he didn’t like the beginning sound he made on violin and trumpet. “It was a disaster. I liked that the oboe was made of wood and warm to touch.”

Part of the type of sound an oboist creates depends on the reed, two pieces of shaped cane, that fits into the top. Franklin started making his own within three weeks of starting on the instrument.

“You can tailor your sound – good or bad,” he says. “I began monkeying around with the reeds and now make what I think is a beautiful sound. You have to project your ears out into the hall to think about what it sounds like out there. The natural resonance of the instrument guides me in the right direction.”

While he may call making a beautiful sound on the oboe “a smoke and mirrors” effort, Franklin also believes there is no absolute for beautiful.

“I differ from some other players. There are schools of playing. I try to make my sound different for different composers. Every note, every phrase demands its own sound, using the limitations of what the oboe can do. There is a magical appeal.”