It's not uncommon for musically-inclined boys and girls to grow up wanting to play classical instruments like the violin, piano or flute. But who the heck thinks, "Hey mom and dad, I want to learn to play the bass oboe?"
Chicago-native Alex Liedtke, an orchestral fellow at this year's Texas Music Festival, didn't — at all. But for the closing concert of the month-long classical music binge, the 22-year-old is charged with the instrument that's too long for vertically challenged musicians to sound.
The bass oboe, which tunes an octave lower than its regular cousin, is one strange double reed that seldom makes an appearance in orchestral scores. Gustav Holst calls for it in The Planets, Sir Michael Tippett in his Triple Concerto and Thomas Ades in Asyla. Richard Strauss wrote for the bass oboe's German version, called the heckelphone — its name earning a myriad of quips and puns — and asks for it in Elektra, An Alpine Symphony and in his 1905 opera Salome.
An excerpt of the latter opens Saturday's concert led by maestro Carl St. Clair at University of Houston's Moores Opera House. Also on the playbill are Strauss' Four Last Songs with soprano Janice Chandler Eteme and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5.
"If the English horn is like the oboe with a cold, the bass oboe is like the English horn with the flu."
Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils — dark, exotically nefarious, deliciously sinister and manipulatively nubile — is a striptease that concludes with the protagonist surrendering to the feet of Herod, a gesture that orders the head of John the Baptist to be delivered on a silver platter. The opera ends with the temptress locking lips with the severed head — with tongue. Some opera divas refused to execute the dance number as it was considered too explicit. Obviously, they weren't exposed to episodes of True Blood.
Yes, Salome is one charming dame.
For American orchestras, it's tradition for the heckelphone part to be performed on bass oboe simply because the instrument is more readily available. There aren't many of them around, though, so the special instrument, which typically costs upward of $20,000, has to be rented.
"The bass oboe is an experience," Liedtke jokes. "If the English horn is like the oboe with a cold, the bass oboe is like the English horn with the flu."
Strauss orchestrates the bass oboe to add a gritty, intense, unrefined and sinuous timber to the cellos and lower woodwinds, in essence affixing a crude aesthetic appropriate to arouse the spirit of the twirling femme fatale.
Of course when Liedtke is not toying around with the bass oboe, he concentrates on mastering the more common, higher tessitura instrument. When he was in middle school, he chose the oboe in lieu of the clarinet at the suggestion of his mother. The decision turned out to be a good one. Liedtke holds a bachelor of music from the Cleveland Institute of Music and is currently chipping away at a master of music degree at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts while serving as the principal oboist of the Fayetteville Symphony.
The oboe fits him well, he says.
"Theoretically, the oboe is responsible for the woodwind ensemble, like the concertmaster is for the violin section and the whole orchestra," Liedtke adds. "I suppose that sometimes that can bring out a strong quality in players."
Not unlike Salome. But without butchering anyone.
Watch the video (above) for a sample of the bass oboe.
The Texas Music Festival presents "Grand Finale" on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at University of Houston's Moores Opera House. The festivities begin with entertainment in the Jane Blaffer Owen Plaza, followed by a pre-concert lecture at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $15, $10 for seniors and students, and can be purchased online or by calling 713-743-3313.