Oboist among festival’s elites

Oboist James Austin Smith is an active participant in the festival’s Chamber Music Series.

James Austin Smith, virtuoso oboist and super snazzy dresser, has to avoid computers. The cyclical motion of typing can mess with his fingering ability, and an oboist who can’t use his fingers properly isn’t much of an oboist.

Oboists have to take a lot of seemingly silly measures nutrition-wise and exercise-wise; they can’t eat heavy meals or drink the night before a performance — “You just feel bleh,” Smith says, making a face suggestive of encroaching illness — and they have to keep their fingers fit and their facial muscles strong.

Smith, whose brother plays professional hockey for the Chicago Blackhawks, is among the elite musicians involved in the Spoleto Festival’s daily chamber music concerts. He practices about four hours a day if he has no performances, warming up for an hour, then playing and resting in hour-long intervals.

“The oboe has more physical limitations than, say, the piano or cello,” he says, prodding his own cheeks. “These muscles get tired. After a few hours of playing it’s like taking a shot of Novocain to the face.”

The oboe, for those who have not yet become acquainted with the squalling little tube, is an intricate apparatus, comprised of myriad small parts that require assiduous craftsmanship. A soprano-ranged woodwind, the oboe often is compared to the clarinet, probably because they both have tonal holes and reeds and black bodies.

But the two are different in significant ways. The oboe is conical, the clarinet is cylindrical; both use metal keys that depress and block the holes, consequently spurring the desired notes (“or sometimes the undesired notes,” Smith notes).

The oboe’s distinguishing detail is its double reed, which the oboist must make himself.

“It’s a deeply personal instrument,” says Smith, his eyes gleaming with unadulterated love, “and no oboist ever leaves home without his handy-dandy reed repair kit.”

Smith reveals an Altoid tin full of tiny parts and a small leather pouch, out of which he pulls an awl, a screwdriver, a knife and bits of wood.

“It kind of sucks, but it’s part of the life,” he says. “You forget this and you can’t fix your reed, you’re screwed.”

He describes the oboe’s evolution as being akin to the advancement of aquatic vessels.

“You can paddle a canoe across a lake,” he says, “Or you can use a motor and do a lot more stuff; you can even do fancy tricks, jet skiing, whatever. The oboe is like that. They can make oboes with more precision now, which is why most complex oboe compositions are from within the last hundred years.”

The oboe is a descendent of the shawm, an embryonic medieval instrument that looks vaguely like a wooden vuvuzela, and subsequently birthed the hautbois (“high wood” or high-pitched woodwind). Baroque-era composers Bach and Vivaldi were among the first to write major pieces for the oboe.

Though it’s a rarified and generally uncommon instrument — how may oboists can you name without the aid of Wikipedia? — the oboe has been sought-after. Steve Rosenberg, chairman of the music department at the College of Charleston, explained how in the 1950s and 1960s it wasn’t uncommon practice for music teachers to drive high school oboists to school in cold weather so the young players wouldn’t get sick. “The oboe was a cool instrument,” he said, and it wasn’t easy to find back-up players.

By the 1990s the oboe lost some of its sheen — at least in Smith’s school.

His aleatory introduction to the oboe occurred as he was entering fifth grade: “We were picking our instruments, and when it got to my turn the oboe was the only instrument left on the table,” Smith says. “Fourth-grader ignorance, really. I’d never even heard of an oboe, and it looked so sad by itself.”

Since then, Smith, who turns 30 this month, has made considerable progress with his German-made oboe, studying in the land of its origin under the tutelage of Christian Wetzel, and attending a two-year academy at Carnegie Hall.

“A musician has to be a sponge,” he says of his seemingly perpetual state of studitude. “Chamber musicians are so rich and diverse. I’m always learning from them.”

At this year’s festival, Smith knocked unsuspecting audiences silly with a livid solo performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza VII.” He looked kind of like a mad man denied oxygen as he attacked the bi-polar piece, a sort of latter-day Coltrane-esque excursion into mania with occasional lapses of droning. A single pre-recorded B-note rang out from the speakers, creating a baseline around which Smith wrapped his frenzied solo.

“I want to tease out the embedded expressions in Berio’s music,” Smith says. “There’s so much to explore in his music, so much color, so much emotion. ... Berio’s sheet music actually dictates how long each bar should be — two seconds, one-point-seven seconds, five-second rest.

“But sometimes it doesn’t sound quite right to me — too fast or too slow — so I’ll feel it out, stretch a two-second bar into three seconds. It’s a mathematical composition and every oboe player turns to it as THE composition for oboe, but I’m not keeping score, I’m not a mathematician. I like to feel the music. It’s not just numbers.”

Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.