Chicago Symphony finds a principal oboe

Chicago Symphony finds a principal oboe


norman lebrecht

June 26, 2018

After a period of uncertainty going back to the turn of the century, Chicago has finally fixed its oboe vacancy.

Alex Klein, the previous occupant, was hit by focal dystonia in 2000 and resigned four years later. After a remarkable rehab, he won back his Chicago position in 2016, only to be turned down for tenure the following year. Alex has been commendably forthright about his travails.

Eugene Izotov occupied the seat for a while before moving to San Francisco.

Yesterday, the CSO picked William Welter, 24, of Crescent, Iowa, as its new principal.


A Curtis grad, Welter has stood in with Pittsburgh, NY Phil and Cleveland before attending the Chicago audition.

Welter, playing at Curtis, 2014


  • sam says:

    CSO get a principal oboe. News?

  • Malcolm James says:

    You seem to have written Eugene Izotov out of this entirely. He did 10 years or so before moving to SF for undisclosed reasons around 2014.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      “Undisclosed reasons”? Maybe better pay, better climate, likes MTT?? People do sometimes leave jobs for positive reasons, not because they hated their former employer {;-)

  • anon says:

    Muti is very careful and deliberate about picking his principals. Exceptional musicianship of course, but equal temperament, i.e., no prima donnas among equals, ones who would disrupt the esprit de corps necessary for ensemble playing and overall collegial cohesion.

    He still has to fill principal trumpet and horn before he leaves.

  • dorset richard says:

    is Muti leaving if so when ?

  • Oliver Klozoff says:

    “Crescent, Iowa” sounds almost as obscure as “Poofter’s Froth, Wyoming”
    (h/t Frank Zappa) or “French Lick, Indiana”.

  • Tombeau de Couperin says:

    This is a significant appointment. US oboists from coast to coast are breathing a sigh of relief at this vote of confidence for the American school of oboe playing.

    I’ve finally realized that the most erudite of concertgoers and even conductors generally don’t have a clue that there is a very specific, very well founded school of US oboe playing. It dates back to Tabuteau and has its roots in the Phila sound, the tradition carried on by John De Lancie and Richard Woodhams. It’s beautiful, it’s unique and it is nothing like the way Europeans play.The instrument isn’t even held the same way. Europeans tend to stick the oboe out front like a toy horn. You get to a Mahler bells up passage and what can they do? Their bells are already up!

    Dudamel’s complete disregard of the American school of oboe playing when he appointed his fellow Spanish speaker Ramon Ortega as LA Phil’s Princ Oboe was a huge blow to US oboists. Ortega is a superb artist but his style is pure European. Many oboists feared this would open the door to other European oboist taking over in US orchs.

    The very sound of US orchs. is rooted in that US oboe sound. You can identify US from European recordings by the way the oboe plays. It’s a major major stylistic difference.

    Muti’s appointment of William Welter is a huge vote of confidence for the American school of oboe playing. A Curtis grad, his training has been right at the heart of that style, in Philadelphia.

    US trained oboists everywhere are cheering for this appointment. The US style has won a major victory, Chicago is in good hands and the legacy of Tabuteau and Woodhams continues!

    • Jack Burt says:

      Yes, to all this.. let’s not John Mack too…

      • Jack Burt says:

        “Let’s not forget John Mack…”

        • Tombeau de Couperin says:

          Absolutely, John Mack! And perhaps we should add Harold and Ralph Gomberg and Marc Lifschey, too!

          • Michael Comins says:

            –And Mack student long-time Met principal oboe (there are two) Elaine Douvas who also teaches @ Juilliard along with NY Phil principal oboe and Woodhams student Liang Wang.

    • Barry says:

      Philadelphia also needs to fill Woodhams’ seat. He retires after the Orchestra’s summer season. I would guess this Chicago appointment may make it more likely that the principal from the Met, who was being considered by both Phillly and Chicago, may go to Philly. In the mean time, Philadelphia’s associate principal, Peter Smith, is very good.

    • Greg says:

      “The very sound of US orchs. is rooted in that US oboe sound.”

      Don’t mean to sound ignorant here, but this sounds a bit much. Unless I was very well versed in oboe playing I doubt I would be able to identify an orchestra’s nation of origin by listening to the oboe section. I would suggest that the brass section (particularly the principal trumpet) is far more influential in determining the ‘very sound of US orchs.’

      • Tombeau de Couperin says:

        Hi, Greg. I bet you could! It’s a really different type of sound. Especially when you listen to older European recordings. Granted, it depends a lot on the repertoire. If there aren’t any oboe solos in the piece, you probably won’t notice.

        But listen to any works with substantial oboe parts, or recordings of US oboe soloists vs Europeans and it’s obvious

        For extreme examples, listen to recordings of standard rep with big oboe parts on economy labels recorded decades ago in Eastern European countries. It can sound like someone talking with a clothespin on their nose.

        Brass don’t vary that much in the sound they use. Brass differences are more just stylistic rather than actual sound. And they’re louder so you hear them more.

        Maybe an oboist can explain better than me what the difference is. Reeds, instrument? It’s a night and day difference to between US and European (and I include UK in that) to me on recordings and I am not even an oboist!

        • MusicBear88 says:

          The difference is primarily reeds, and the American scrape is very different than European. The French especially favor a woodwind sound that is more individualized (each instrument is immediately recognizable) whereas American orchestras tend towards a more homogeneous sound.

          I remember going to hear the Boston Symphony before John Ferrillo was hired. They had a French oboist playing and from the first I heard him I thought he was the best I’d ever heard, but I also knew that he’d never get the job there because he stuck out of the rest of the orchestra far more than “we” prefer.

        • Robert Holmén says:

          “… in Eastern European countries. It can sound like someone talking with a clothespin on their nose. ”

          What you are identifying seems less a style than a timbre.

          • Don Ciccio says:

            And this timbre is usually less of reflection of skill and mostly due to the fact that often Eastern European musicians used to play on sub-standard instruments.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Which European oboe sound? Oboe timbres and phrasing vary much more in Europe than in the U.S. The difference between oboes in Berlin and Wien couldn’t be more stark, much less discussing the Gallic regions.

      • Max Grimm says:


        @Tombeau de Couperin:
        “Dudamel’s complete disregard of the American school of oboe playing when he appointed his fellow Spanish speaker…”
        In this instance, you may wish to untwist your knickers and redirect blame to those who were really responsible, the players on the audition committee of the LA Phil, most notably including the three remaining principal winds, for that complete disregard of the American school of oboe playing.

        • Tombeau de Couperin says:

          Yes, yes, I know that. I was trying to avoid pointing the finger at them because I didn’t want to sound like a total xenophobicTrumpite.

          The problem is that I think only one of those principal winds is actually American. How can the Princ. Flute Bouriakov, a Russian trained in London, possibly have any respect for, or even knowledge of the Phila oboe style? I forget what country the Princ. Clarinet is from. I think the bassoonist is the only American of the group and who knows, he could have been outvoted.

          The conductor always has the last word. So I still place the blame primarily on Dudamel. It follows other patterns of his, like not appointing Americans, or very few of them, to his Conducting Fellowship program. He favors south American or Spanish speaking conducting fellows and whenever he can, he seems to be doing that for orch. appointments.

          Ortega is not the 1st Spaniard appointed by Dudamel. He also appointed a Spanish Principal Tbone. Dudamel just married a Spaniard. He just got Spanish nationality. It all works out really well for him. None of that has anything to do with the Principal winds. The decision is ultimately Dudamel’s and the appointment of Ortega follows a precedent he’s already established.

      • music_montreal says:

        Berliners play on French-system oboes. Viennese play on Viennes oboes. Apples and oranges. It’s ALL about the reed style when it comes to USA vs the world. Also there are many French oboists have won jobs in fine German orchestras (Leleux in Bavarian Radio, Tondre in Stuttgart and then Leipzig, etc). Now here’s a novel idea: how about giving talented musicians more power when it comes to hiring other talented musicians, as opposed to conductors of North American orchestras who often have veto and way too many other powers?

      • Tombeau de Couperin says:

        Barry, I’m not an oboist but I’ll bite on this one. The Vienna difference is a no brainer because they use a unique instrument which isn’t used anywhere else in the world. It’s a Viennese oboe. It looks different, it sounds different and no one outside of Vienna plays them. So yes, the Vienna oboe sound is different from Berlin.

        Berlin Phil’s Principal Oboe Jonathan Kelly is actually English. France’s premiere oboe soloist Francois Leleux spent a large part of his career playing with German orchestras. So maybe you are hearing a difference but it’s circumstantial. In the top orchestras of Europe (Vienna being the exception because of the instrument) the difference in oboe sounds and styles is minimal.

        Just as in the US, the great oboe soloists in Europe come thru the same teachers, the same schools. In the US, it’s Woodhams or Mack with roots in Phila. In Europe, it’s Leleux or Bourgue or Meyer with roots in Geneva, Berlin or Paris. The same teachers are training the top oboists in Europe so they are not going to sound a whole lot different.

        I am out of my league trying to explain this not being an oboist so maybe an oboist can jump in here and explain it better.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      In Chicago, I would assume there’d be some Ray Still legacy. He dominated that section for a coupla generations. Or is Still not well-regarded among the oboe playing fraternity?

    • Wistou says:

      Hello all,
      This shows a well deserved respect for the US school of oboe playing, created at the turn of the XXth century by Marcel Trabuteau. But where did Marcel himself learn to play, if not in good old Paris’ Conservatoire? And then the US and French schools would be cousins..

  • Manny says:

    Wasn’t John Mack a Tabuteau student? This guy is awfully young to be a principal player in a top orchestra. He has too little experience and maturity, in my view. Why didn’t they hire Jeffrey Rathbun? Or take back Klein? Muti ruined the Philadelphia Orchestra.

    • anon says:

      Pray tell, where do these veterans learn their craft before they become worthy enough to join the Big 5? From lesser orchestras under lesser conductors (and then they have to unlearn all their bad interpretations).

      Muti is selecting someone young and talented (he already appointed 2 other young principals to Chicago basically straight out of the conservatory) who will be eager to learn from the maestros and from the other established principals.

      It is the apprenticeship method of the Vienna Philharmonic, the results of which Muti is well aware after 50 years of collaboration with that orchestra.

  • harold emert says:

    To replace a veteran virtuoso like Alex Klein with a talented youngster, 24, seems odd but Maestro Muti knows everything!

    • anon says:

      We all love Klein’s playing and admire his heroic struggle, but at the end, it was not to be for physical reasons that had a direct impact on the objective production of sound.

      You can’t blame Chicago and Muti for having tried their best to work out with Klein for him to occupy a principal principal chair (the entire orchestra tunes to that chair!) when no other orchestra and conductor in the world gave Klein a second look.

      At the end, apropos your later post about “disobedient soldier”, it was, unfortunately for all, Klein’s body that disobeyed him, not about any player disobeying Muti.

      And as for picking a young player rather than a veteran, Muti is right to think about building a section from the ground up that will endure for decades to come.

      As for Muti knowing best, rather than a veteran principal player, it’s not just Muti, but Haitink, and Barenboim, and all the other even more veteran guest maestros that cross the Chicago stage that collectively know a whole lot. If a veteran oboist has played Le Tombeau de Couperin under 10 different conductors, a veteran conductor will have played it with 10 different oboists. Barenboim’s experience of what top oboists in the world are capable of doing with an oboe solo is valuable feedback he can give to a young oboist.

  • Vaquero357 says:

    Speaking as a naturalized Iowa resident and life-long CSO fan, I can only say….


  • harold emert says:

    Addenda to what was supposed to be an ironic observation: Does Maestro Muti really know everything or does he simply want another young musical soldier under his command who will not disobey?

    • Nick says:

      As a living and financially surviving bassoonist, I can tell you that personality is equally as important as talent. You want to be able to play with people who are pleasant. I have done concerts with people who are horribly arrogant and disagreeable. What goes on behind the scenes are comments like: “you’re short/flat/out of tune/rushing/making the qrong articulation etc.” There are right ways and wrong ways to make such comments. Sadly a number od senior players often find very derrogatory ways of “helping” their cooleagues. The honest truth is that it is often much easier to start over with younger players than go through the trouble of trying to get older players to chabge their ways. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that Maestro Muti has recently chosen a principal bassoonist and oboeist that are incredibly talented and also very young. That have a lot less baggage than more senior players. Sorry to offend anyone but it’s the truth.

      • Tombeau de Couperin says:

        And conversely, there are plenty of young and arrogant new hires who have absolutely no respect for senior players. Many young players come in with egoes and a self importance that’s astounding. They forget that the older players they sit beside have gone before them, have even sat on the juries that accepted them into the orch

        I find much fewer problems with seasoned players, who’ve learned not only diplomacy but who know how to treat all of their colleagues with respect.

        Many of these young players are disprectful, arrogant brats who won their audition and figure they’re better than all the folks who’ve been there for 20 yrs. before them.

  • Thomas Valde says:

    Congratulations to Mr. Welter! He joins fellow Interlochen alumnus Keith Buncke (Principal Bassoon) as one of the youngest first chairs ever selected at the CSO.

  • Barry Guerrero says:

    Frankly, I don’t even like the oboe. I think there should be 15 bassoons, 12 clarinets, 7 flutes and one oboe.

  • harold emert says:

    The worst experience many of us have survived in our musical careers is/are playing with arrogant, disrespectful.and inensitive colleagues.Put the supposedly ” best” together to perform music and the results is not always the best possible music-making.Who likes playing beside someone who is always correcting him or her please raise your hand…

  • harold emert says:

    Who is tombeau de couperin? He or she makes the most sense in my humble opinion …

    • Greg says:

      tombeau de couperin does indeed acquit him/herself well. Replies are both thoughtful and respectful. That is, except for this comment:

      “Brass don’t vary that much in the sound they use. Brass differences are more just stylistic rather than actual sound. And they’re louder so you hear them more. ”

      That simply is not true (well, except for the louder bit). Just as the discussion above touched on different oboes used in different orchestras, so too are different trumpets used. The orchestral trumpet of choice in the US is a large bore C trumpet. Yes, sections will occasionally use trumpets in other keys, as well as rotary valve trumpets on appropriate repertoire, but the C trumpet is used at least 80% of the time. Probably more. UK orchestras still largely favor a standard Bb trumpet. Berlin primarily uses rotary valve trumpets, regardless of which period the music is from. All these instruments generate highly different timbres. Of course there are stylistic differences, too, mostly regarding articulations and use of vibrato. The point remains, however, that different trumpets (as well as horns, trombones, and tubas) make different types of sounds and to my ears are far more influential in determining the overall character of the group than any oboe could be – at least for repertoire scored for full orchestra.

      Now back to your oboe discussion…

  • harold emert says:

    Can’t get this first oboe discussion out of my thoughts…at 24 years of age , just out of the music conservatory,and suddenly sitting in the hot seat of one of the greatest orchestras in the world and playing such solos as Rossini’s” Silken Ladder, “Strausses “Don Juan, ” Bizet’s Symphony (Second movement oboe solo) and of course Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin “seems a bit premature.Or are today’ s young orchestral musicians implanted with musical cyberchips ?
    Won’t Maestro Muti and other conductors–who according to an observer here, have performed these works with top oboists all over the world– get irritated if some detail is out of place?
    I ask this unanswered questionafter playing first oboe only 40 years in various parts of the world.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      There have been numerous examples in recent years of youngsters taking prestigious positions. A couple of bassoonists, a trumpet player, a trombonist – and conductors, too. We don’t seem to wonder about wunderkind tennis or football players, or hot-shot computer programmers who barely shave. It’s quite possible that a young oboist is up to the challenge. Today’s training in music schools is phenomenal. And today’s young performers have a real advantage of being able to listen to nearly 100 years of great recordings of the masters – they can hear for themselves how the recognized masters played and go with it.

      • harold emert says:

        BUT music-making is not the Olympics or football, boxing or tennis playing .There is a certain ease of playing , sensitivity of interpretation and attempted realization of a composer’s emotional intentions which only comes ( usually) from years of repeating the same masterpieces ..but how can I , a humble oboe player, argue with a Maestro who knows all?

        • Cubs Fan says:

          I understand that, but what I am saying is that occasionally, rarely, a wunderkind shows up in any arena of human endeavor. A prodigy, if you will.Look at the large number of youthful, even pre-pubescent , violin virtuosos who demonstrate a master and understanding far beyond their years. It does happen. Midori. Evgeny Kissin. There have been young conductors who have demonstrated more understanding of the classics than many aged supposedly more wise maestros. I’ll withhold judgment.

  • harold emert says:

    I thank all you participants for a civilized, peaceful discussion without insults on this subject Ps I am partial …because in the last century I taught a promising young teenager in southern Brazil who was starting out on the oboe…his name? ALEX Klein…am sure he will go even further as a great musician now that Signor Muti has decided to hire a 24-year-old to substitute him.

  • Jpaulo says:

    I am fairly certain that the newly appointed young oboist will be more than up to the task. His bio lists experience with several major orchestras. I can also say without reservation that 4 years in the Curtis orchestra gave him experience with one of the very best orchestras on the planet. Granted, they are not playing a concert full of new repertoire each week, but these “kids ” will give any full time orchestra a run for their money any day of the week. Throw in the intensity of studying with Richard Woodhams and being coached by him and other Philadelphia Orchestra principals and little even Ricardo Muti asks for will be daunting. I have had friends go through that system. You become amazing, a quick study and tough, or you go home. I think Alex Klein is an astonishing musician, but by all counts was simply not able to perform to CSO standards consistently this second time around. He has had amazing experiences all over the world. I am sure he will land on his feet just fine. The person that manages to remain standing throughout today’s orchestral audition process deserves the year to grow into the artist that the audition panel and music director feel they are capable. Wish him luck !!

  • Jim Peters says:

    I am coming late to this conversation. But allow me to make the following observations, from the viewpoint of 40 years of experience as an oboist, and from personal knowledge:
    > I have known Will Welter since his first month at Curtis, because my wife and I were his host parents at Curtis Institute. I can say without reservation that Will is a kind, hard-working, industrious and tireless young man, who will have the greatest respect for Maestro Muti and his elders in the CSO: Will is no spoiled, nasty, rich kid.
    > After graduating from Curtis (with his fellow oboist Josh Lauretig who won the Buffalo Philh second oboe chair right after graduating), Will studied intensively with Cleveland Orch’s EH Rob Walters at Oberlin, who honed Will’s performance skills even further, and helped Will with the pesky craft of reed-making. Will has also studied with E Izotov in San Francisco during the past two years.
    > Over the past two years, Will has traveled the country filling in on principal oboe with most of the major orchestras, including Cleveland, San Francisco, NY Phil, and the St Paul Chamber Orch (where he had been given a contract for principal just one week before winning CSO).
    > As for the CSO audition ordeal, Will rose to the top against all odds: more than 150 players auditioned in person before a committee of CSO players; after a second round of grueling auditions, finally, three players survived: Will Welter, Nathan Hughes, and Mingjia Liu. Each man was invited to play two concert cycles with the CSO under Mr Muti. Based on all of the above, Maestro and a committee of CSO members unanimously chose Will Welter to be the principal oboe.
    > Addressing Will’s youth, clearly Maestro Muti has faith in Will that he will have the endurance and talent to be a credit to the CSO, as was Ray Still and E Izotov; Maestro will also be able to mold Will into the player he desires.
    We wish Will Welter the best of fortunes.

  • harold emert says:

    My gosh folks sounds a like applying for a first oboe job in one of the world’s greatest orchestras is like applying for a job as a bank clerk …a great artist like Klein is on a better path for him

  • harold emert says:

    Under these conditions Bruno.Labate , Gomberg and Bloom–among temperamental oboists–would never have been hired …or fired!

  • JPAULO says:

    I am a bit baffled, I think very few bank clerks have had to prove themselves that many times to win a position. And I totally agree, most of our famous oboists of the past would not win jobs today. The level of technical perfection, intonation, refinement of sound, and ensemble precision has reached levels never before matched. Artistry…maybe less so. Even after these amazingly trained instrumental athletes are successful at an audition, they have a one or 2 year probationary period before they are offered tenure. I don’t know what bank Mr. Emert uses, but I don’t think the ones in my area require 20 years of training to even get an interview . I also totally agree that the age of the temperamental orchestral musician is ending. Too many hungry, competent players waiting in the wings.

  • harold emert says:

    I can only applaud your observations jPaulo but lament the uniformity of these first oboists today ..we used to be able to identify the Nyphil with Gomberg, Philly with Delancie, Chicago with Still…oboists should be a bit crazy , have a screw loose somewhere which drives their passion in a capitalistic-minded society … as for bank clerks ….

    • JPAULO says:

      I agree totally, we are losing distinct regional and national styles. Maybe the trend will swing back in the other direction someday. A little bit of eccentricity always seems to enhance the music making, so long as you don’t have to live with them offstage. 😛 best wishes.