Magazine: The Bogus Oboe

Gonzalo Ruiz explains the mystery behind The Bogus Oboe

What is it about oboe players and their obsession with reeds? Just ahead of the 2nd Jarmila Novotná Festival, Gonazalo X. Ruiz explains.

Mr Ruiz performs as principal oboist and concerto soloist for leading period-instrument groups in the US, and performs widely in Europe. He’s considered an expert in historical reed-making techniques. And he’s bringing his oboe back to the Czech Republic for concerts Sept 6-8 at the 2nd annual Jamila Novotná Festival in Liteň (see box, below).

So he should know a thing or two about oboists and their reeds. In an interview during the Novotná festival last year, he introduced Opus Osm to The Bogus Oboe.

So what exaxctly is The Bogus Oboe? Test your knowledge: is it –

a) a collection of exercises for the Baroque oboe, by the French oboe composer François Bogus (1642- 1701);
b) a rare, early oboe by famed Italian oboe maker Guiseppe Bogus (c. 1590);
c) a comment by two teenagers looking at an oboe in a museum exhibit.

If you chose a) or b), congratulations. You have a good imagination, because the correct answer is c). Bogus is slang for something which is presented as being authentic, when clearly it isn’t.

So here’s what happened. One day Mr Ruiz (also a professor at the famed Oberlin Conservatory and at the Juilliard School), was looking at some 20 oboes from various periods on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Now, in museums all over the world, the oboe is usually displayed without a reed.

Does that really matter? “That’s like showing a violin without any strings,” Prof Ruiz answers.

At the Met’s display, however, somebody “in some well-meaning but misguided attempt” put random old reeds on all the oboes, whether they actually fit the oboe – or not. “A couple of the oboes had store-bought reeds with broken tips. They could never have made music,” Mr Ruiz tells Opus Osm. “It was pathetic; it would have been better to display them without anything.”

Watch Mr Ruiz demonstrate double reeds here, in a short video by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra:

If you’re not an oboe player, you still might think that this blunder was perhaps just a tad bit less than headline news. After all, the most important thing about an oboe is the oboe itself, right?

Not so to an oboe player. Not even to teenaged oboe players. “Standing next to me were two teenaged girls,” Mr Ruiz recalls. “One said, ‘Oh God! Look at those reeds. There’s just no way.’

“The other said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. That’s just bogus.’”

In his best imitation of a teenage-girl voice Mr Ruiz says he thought, “Yeah. There’s just no way. That’s bogus,” he chuckles.

So he introduced himself to the exhibition curator, and by the end of their conversation was offering to hand-carve the correct reed to match each oboe on display.

For example, the exhibit’s early Italian oboes required rough-looking reeds. But the ornate oboes with elegant carving and silver keys from a later period required something more sophisticated and appropriate.

“All [the reeds I carved] worked, and they all made sense acoustically with the instrument,” Mr Ruiz says.

The Jarmila Novotná Festival, Liteň

The annual Jarmila Novotná Festival presents music, workshops, and exhibitions about the Czech soprano / film actress who enjoyed a 16-year career with The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Selected Highlights, 2nd Annual Festival Sept 6-8, 2013:
Sat, Sept 7:
- Afternoon Recital, 1 pm – Richter-Haydn-Dvořák-Martinů; Harmonia Mozartiana Pragensis, Hans Krása Quartet, Lucie Hilsherová, mezzosoprano.
- Opera Workshop for Children, 12:30 pm – hands-on activities related to Handel’s Apollo and Daphne.
- Apollo and Daphne, 3:30 pm – Musica Florea, Tomás Král, Monika Sommerová, with participation by the children’s workshop; directed by Gonzalo Ruiz.
- Gala Concert, 6 pm – Marais-Handel-Bach; Musica Florea, Ivana Pavlů, soprano; Lucie Hilscherová, mezzosoprano, Petr Nekoranec, tenor; Tatiana Daubek (Jarmila Novotná’s grand-daughter), violin; Gonzalo Ruiz, oboe.

Sun, Sept 8:
- Concert, Church of Sts Peter and Paul, Liteň, 11:30 am – Tatiana Daubek, violin; Lucie Hilscherová, mezzosoprano; Linda Čechová-Sítková, organ.
- Apollo and Daphne, 3 pm.
- Concerts by Prague Conservatory students and others, 5:30 pm.
- Gala Concert, 6:30 pm.

Exhibits and film clips from Jarmila Novotná’s career will be presented throughout the festival.

Obsession? Or Art?

Like fly-fishers who painstakingly tie their own bait, Mr Ruiz, like most oboists, prefers to carve his own reeds. It takes him about 45 minutes to make one, he says, and it can be played for a total of about 20 to 30 hours before the constant vibrating wears it out.

“You’re blowing through a little sliver of cane to make music, like a larnyx. You’re basically carving your own vocal chords, over and over and over,” he explains. “It’s very, very delicate. You can have a good reed and — one bad stroke of the knife and it’s over.”

Reed makers’ arsenals contain technical weapons of minute accuracy, such as a special knife to split and trim a piece of reed evenly, a micrometer to measure the thickness and evenness as the reed is scooped out, and a radius gauge to check the proper curve of the reed.

On the other hand, this material being shaped so painstakingly is really just a plant. The oboe variety grows 6 or more meters tall, but in the end the exposed part of the musician’s reed will be only about 25 cm long. Reeds grow in different seasons in different parts of the world, and each plant can vary from one to the next. The best material for oboe reeds comes from “reed farms” in France and Italy, Mr Ruiz says, but the plant commonly grows along ditches and brooks anywhere, especially near vineyards.

“The vineyards chop it all down once a year,” he smiles. “–It’s a weed, you know! But that’s what people have been using to make music for thousands of years.”

The Reed Detective

Mr Ruiz seems to be a kind of hands-on-detective kind of oboist obsessionist.

In addition to making the reeds for the museum, he wrote a paper on the topic and then put together a catalog of the different types of materials and construction used in reed-making. He also suspects that all historical etchings, drawings, and other early visual records of oboe reeds are actually inaccurate. Why? Because they were made by artists, not musicians.

As an experiment, he once asked students in a university art class to draw an oboe and its reed. He says none of the 20 students drew the reed the same way. If they saw it from the side, they drew it as a skinny line; if they saw it from the front, they made it a wide triangle.

And like the reeds on the bogus oboes at the Metropolitan Museum, none of them would have worked.

Mr Ruiz caused a stir in the Baroque music world with his statement that Bach’s Orchestral Suite No 2 popularly featuring flutes (“Even on telephone ring tones everywhere!” he laughs) was most likely originally written for the oboe, not the flute. He came to this conclusion when he tried to transpose the music from flute to oboe and found to his surprise that the notes naturally suit the range of the oboe much better.

So the next time you go to a concert featuring the oboe (or to Mr Ruiz’s concerts at the upcoming festival), give a thought not only to the artistry of the musician, but to the oboe’s artificial “vocal chords” creating beautiful song from just the thin little shaving of a marsh plant.

Note: You can read more about Jarmila Novotná and her violinist-grand-daughter Tatiana Daubek in the Opus Osm article published last year. Click here. — oo

– Mary Matz

Photo Credits: Miroslav Setnička

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