LA Phil loses star principal

LA Phil loses star principal


norman lebrecht

November 22, 2018

We hear that Ramon Ortega has left his position as principal oboe with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Ramon, principal of Bayerischer Rundfunk in Munich for nine years, deliberated long and hard before accepting the post a year ago. When he finally decided to leave one of Europe’s top orchestra for the Dudamel-Disney hall, the reason he gave was that the LA Phil was more adventurous, less tradition-bound than Bavaria.

Evidently, that has not worked out.

The LA Phil has posted his seat as vacant.

At the time of his appointment, there was much dissent expressed on oboe sites over the abandonment of an American tradition, fostered by DeLancie and Tabuteau, for a modern European sound.

Word on the vine is that Ramon is returning to his Munich position.



  • Victor says:

    Vacancy one year after hiring means the brass decided that he wasn’t their guy. Hopes he bounces back somewhere else. LA Phil is an orchestra where they’ll hire a virtuoso as their principal, but lets them go after a year when there’s consensus that he/she can’t lead the section. Another way of saying “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It happened to their cello and viola as well. Tough gig

    • Anon says:

      Not a question of leading the section nor does the brass make the call. Seriously, the brass?

      This is most likely a stylistic difference. European oboist in US orchestra. Different sound, different pitch, style, you name it.

      Those in the know were aware from the beginning that this might not work. US oboists were skeptical. It’s no surprise. A top US orchestra needs a US trained oboist. Unlike any other instrument in the orch., it is that specific a school of playing.

      As an extreme example, you’d never appoint a Viennese oboist to a German orch. or vice versa either. Again, 2 incompatible styles. Even their instruments are different.

      Conductors for the most part are blissfully unaware of these differences. I seriously doubt that most conductors have much understanding of the Philadelphia/US school of oboe playing vs. the European school. Or the Viennese, for that matter.

      I see this as a big oversight on the part of Dudamel, who conducts internationally and who should have some idea of European vs. US oboe styles, for not nipping this appointment in the bud. Any experienced US wind player could have predicted that it probably wouldn’t work. Problem is that there’s like one US born, US trained Principal Wind in LA Phil right now. Dudamel’s continual efforts to “internationalize” (read: his approval of major appointments to non US players) backfired bigtime in this case.

      In any case, very eager to hear from LA Phil’s outstanding and always on target blogger, C. Dexter Haven (“All is Yar”) on this topic. He will offer us some insight, surely.

      • anonymous says:

        (Brass as in “top brass”, presumably, not “brass section”)

      • OboePerso says:

        What absolute tosh, anon (). America needs, and has, principal winds of real quality that can take the solo voices and shine. In Ramón they got that, it was going wonderfully in terms of blend, style and sound.
        I suspect it’s the difference between the work schedules of LA and Munich that have caused the problem. Also Ramón’s wife, Tamar Inbar, is a fabulous musician utterly unable to work in the States. We’ve seen this situation before, most notably with Alex Klein and Catalina Guevara Klein in Oberlin.
        They have an adorable young child and I think work life balance matters to them as much as anything.
        By the way, their instruments are not different, as you say, as they are between Berlin and Wien, and the wind section was sounding fabulous when I hear them there 3 weeks ago, as was the whole orchestra.
        Also, if you think conductors don’t know the difference you are truly misguided.
        We can agree that the Brass would never as a group have had the say in it, not that anyone was saying anything 2 months in!

        • Anon says:

          Sorry but you are mistaken. I’d reckon that you are a European with absolutely no knowldge of the US oboe school. It is simply not the same, and evidently not interchangeable. LA was an oboe experiment gone wrong.

          Every other wind instrument is relatively interchangeable internationally, but not the oboe. This is why you see very few US oboists working in the UK or Europe.

          Alex Klein trained with James Caldwell who was a de Lancie student. That’s the US/Phila style straight up. His reasons for not continuing with Chicago have nothing to do with his training. He is a US trained oboist and an outstanding example of the US school of oboe playing. Maybe if we’re lucky he’ll comment here, as he sometimes does.

          Vienna does play on different oboes. US and Europe play the same instrument, but the style and scrape of the reeds are completely different. The sound is different. The way they hold the oboe is different. Pitch is lower in the US.

          Your reply is just way out there, I’m afraid. Has nothing to with schedules, with his family or with having an adorable child. It’s really sweet that you know the personal details of his life and want to share them but many orchestral players have adorable children. And I think every single one of the LA Phil Winds players have spouses who play the same instrument who’ve made the professional move successfully to LA, so that also is not an issue.

          He’s a great player, but he’s a great European player. He does sound good and LA winds do sound good but it’s not a homogenous blend of styles, apparently.

          If you can’t hear the difference, you need to educate yourself. America is not awake yet. And it’s Thanksgiving there today. But I’d guess that before too long there will be a lot of US oboe players weighing in here who can express much better than me why what you’re saying is not correct.

          • Luigi Nonono says:

            What is with this differentiation? Tabuteau was FRENCH, like Salzedo. That doesn’t make it an American school. American players have better sound on most instruments than Europeans, and that is a ripple effect from Leopold Stokowski’s influence in Philadelphia on the orchestra and the Curtis Institute of Music. The same effect exists in harp and flute, due to Barrere-Kincaid, and Salzedo. Europeans remained murky and dull, with a few exceptions.

          • Ruben Greenberg says:

            Anon: I would add that US players and European players don’t usually the same brand of French oboes: Lorée in the US and Marigaux and Rigoutat in Europe. Tabuteau was Lorées tester.

        • MacroV says:

          I have no idea whether the key factor is stylistic compatibility vs. work schedule. I tend to think American oboe types get way too hung up on this “US/Tabuteau school” thing. Ramon’s a great player and I assume they could work out the style issues.

          As for the inability of his wife to work in the US, that shouldn’t be an issue if he got the proper visa. He should certainly qualify for an E-1 employment-based immigrant visa for an “alien of extraordinary merit.” An E-3 employment-based immigrant visa would also work. In either case he would get US permanent residency as would his spouse and children. In which case he wife would be totally free to work in the U.S.. Only if he came to the LA Phil on a H1B visa would she be ineligible to work.

          • Anon says:

            Exactly. LA Phil Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov (Russian, trained in London)’s wife Erin Bouriakov is also not American. She’s also a flute player and was recently hired for a plum University level teaching position in LA.

            This actually kind of sucks when you consider how many high level unemployed US flute players there are. She comes in as a foreign born, foreign trained wife of an LA Phil player and right away gets this top teaching position because she’s his wife.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            There couldn’t be any possibility that she got the job on merit, could there?

          • Anon says:

            Of course, she is well qualified for the appointment, and will do a wonderful job, but given the tough competition, you have to wonder if she would have been considered if she wasn’t Mrs. Bouriakov. That’s all.

            I do remember hearing complaints in NY when he was at the MET and she was called to play ahead of several regular long time flute subs.

            My point is that being able to work in the US as a non-US orchestra spouse probably was not an issue for Mr. Ortega’s oboist wife. It hasn’t been a problem for Mrs. Bouriakov.

          • Nikolaus klarinette says:

            You are very inaccurate about many things, Anon. Mr. Ortega was leaving the orchestra for artistic reasons of his own, and not related to his family situation or the section being not happy with him. He was too disappointed with the programming and the level of playing in the strings of the LA Phil. The blend and sound differences in schools are nonsense, the wind section sounded the best ever with him.

            Clearly you don’t know enough about the situation around Bouriakovs either. First of all, Mrs. Bouriakov was not hired ahead of anyone at the Met, the regular subs kept playing more than her, even though their level is far lower than should be ever allowed at the Met. They were mostly either best friends or spouses of other orchestra members as well, by the way. Second, Mrs. Bouriakov IS a US trained flutist – went to US schools for 9 years, including Interlochen arts academy and Oberlin Conservatory. Lastly, she was not the only person considered for the university job, it was advertised and open to everyone. They do a team teaching at the school from what we heard, and it’s working very well and benefits the students. So stick to what you know. And speaking of foreigners taking US jobs – it should always be a priority to hire the best person for a job, not based on their nationality or citizenship. USA is a country of immigrants, after all.

          • an academic says:

            I see your point but husband and wife, in this case, may be sharing a studio. Package deals do occur in academia. At big schools, potential hires can negotiate their terms. In the sciences, for example, terms may involve many perks, including housing, post-docs, etc. A “tag along” that doesn’t require an additional tenure-track line is modest in cost and doesn’t take a position away from anyone.

          • Luigi nonono says:

            Those “package” deals for couples are blatantly unfair to other applicants, as two jobs get taken for one hire to be made. The spouse is often less-qualified, and only given a job as an inducement.

          • Luigi Nonono says:

            Far too many of our precious positions go to foreigners, when we do not have easy access to their more-abundant jobs. Visas should not be given to these musicians, as there are numerous Americans just as good. They are hardly exceptional. We need to take care of our own first, just as they do in Europe and elsewhere. They want our jobs because the pay is so much better. It’s hard to take a job like teaching at the Royal College of Music in London, for example, when the pay is a measly 55 pounds per lesson, as opposed to perhaps $200 at Juilliard.

          • NYMike says:

            It’s not just style issues – the sound is different making blend harder. Further, practically all if not actually all major American orchestras have “Tabuteau school” principal oboes and oboe sections including English horn.

          • Mallory Jones says:

            How many Euro oboists at the level of Ramón have you played with? Or is just your opinion as an American trained oboist(or whatever) that they’re somehow
            “harder” to blend with? It’s hogwash.
            Kudos to the LA Phil, that they don’t seem to give a fig what “practically all, if not actually all major American orchestras” do. They can look for the best artist and fit for themselves, unburdened by an outmoded dogma.

          • Ballerina says:

            “Unable” or “ineligible”? Subtle difference here. Maybe there is simply not the work for her or that anyone is prepared to give her.

    • MacroV says:

      Actually, if he has left after only 2-3 months, then most likely it was his decision to leave, concluding it wasn’t for him. A tenure decision usually comes at/after the first year.

      • Anon says:

        True. Actually this is what I’m hearing now “on the street”. He wasn’t happy. He knew it might not work out which is why he took a leave of absence from his Munich job. It was his decision.

        And with apologies to those who suggested it earlier which I pooh-poohed, the work schedule differences apparently did have a lot to do with it. His schedule in Munich was much lighter than in LA, allowing him more time to spend with his family.

        • MacroV says:

          It’s pretty common around the world that if you win a job in another orchestra, you get to take a leave of absence for a year or so in order to decide whether the new job will work out; so most likely no special arrangement was required.

          And whether it’s family time, or just more time for solo/chamber/teaching, he’d have more of it in Munich. But he knew that going in.

  • Wai Kit Leung says:

    This was quick. Only a couple of months into the season.

    I am sure Rámon will find another top position. I have heard him live four times. He was fantastic.

    • Max Grimm says:

      No need to “find another top position”. He retained his position with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks while he played in Los Angeles.

  • Bassoonist says:

    There are indeed differences between U.S. and European oboe sounds. I live in LA and one things the LA Phil winds have done well over the years is blend. The last few years have seen some major changes in all of the principal wind chairs and it shows (and not necessarily for the best). Each of the players that has been hired is a great technical musician but it does take time to get a homogeneous sound. I am personally saddened that Mr. Ortega didn’t make it but I am really not surprised. As reminder, there was an East coast oboist who was accused of raising the pitch slightly just to tick off his cohorts and he was eventually fired. Even a few ticks of pitch up or down is going to throw everyone off. I can’t imagine sitting next to a player whose sound is so different you can’t figure out whether you are in or out of tune. And mind you decisions about pitch are made almost instantaneously. At the level that these people are playing anyone who is consistently out of tune or perceived to be out of tune is going to upset their fellow musicians. Next to coming in on time for your entrances, pitch is the next most important thing to musicians in an orchestra. No one has to like you, they just have to play with you. Good luck Mr. Ortega. (Can we ask Ms. Ghez to come out of retirement?)

    • Karen says:

      “I live in LA and one things the LA Phil winds have done well over the years is blend.”

      I agree. This is quite evident when you listen to their “new” Nutcracker recording, made live in concert from 2013.

      Also, Ms. Ghez is a FABULOUS player. I always looked forward to hearing her whenever a new LA Phil broadcast came out. Shame she left the orchestra…

    • Anonymous says:

      No offense, but you have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Pitch or blending was not the issue. His playing is wonderful, and the wind section never sounded better than with him. It was Mr. Ortega’s choice to go back to Munich, and there is nothing more to gossip here about.

    • music_montreal says:

      Homogeneous? What’s next, we also should have players devoid of personality? There are a few ‘European-style’ oboists in a number of North American orchestras, just like there are ‘American-style’ oboists with darker tones and some who prefer brighter sounds. In the end Mr Ortega has simply chosen to return to his previous employer, the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra, where he had way more time off to do other projects and is not always obliged to stay in town when the music director is in town. Thanks for some amazing concerts in L.A., Mr Ortega!

  • EMRLA says:

    I had the chance to attend his concert at the Colburn School in October. His virtuosity astounded the audience, which included many of the areas top oboists. While nominally appointed over a year ago, he didn’t play many concerts with the LA Phil. One of the last ones was the complete Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet also in October. To my ears, he had the ability to blend into the ensemble. But when it came time for his solos, my God, it was a truly beautiful sound. I suspect that the concert was recorded either for eventual release on DG or webcast – so you can hear for yourselves.

  • C_U_L8ter ReedBiter says:

    All sizzle no steak this Ramon Ortega. Let’s hope they hire a “Tabuteau-School” trained oboist who prioritizes sound quality, intonation, and phrasing (musicianship) over fingers and fireworks.

    • Wai Kit Leung says:

      Are you suggesting that Mr. Ortega, the first oboist to receive the first-prize at the ARD Competition in 40 years, is lacking in sound quality, intonation and phrasing (musicianship)?

      • C_U_L8ter ReedBiter says:

        Correct. I am suggesting that the musical demands required to win and keep a major North American Principal Oboe Chair are different than those necessary to win a solo competition. Consequently, the two systems of evaluating candidates will justifiably prioritize different aspects of playing. It is possible for an accomplished player such as Ortega to excel to the highest level in one area and not the other. In addition to one’s abilities as a concert soloist, the top positions in North America prioritize a player’s ability to consistently execute as a member of the orchestra and section. Tabuteau went to great lengths to evolve his European tradition into a style of playing where a higher concept of sound could be obtained on a regular basis. Today, top players from around the world come to North America (just as Tabuteau once did) to study this style of oboe playing and then go on to occupy the top positions in North American orchestras (NYPO, CSO -> Calgary, SFSO principals to name a few.)

        I apologize if you felt offended by my initial statement and hope this helps clarify.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          What is a “higher concept of sound” and how would I ever hear it? Or is it something that only especially knowledgeable people are able to discern? Maybe this is where the Europeans fail?

    • John says:

      The most idiotic comment I have read in a long time. Ignorant.

  • Turlock says:

    Is it possible Mr. Ortega left because he had trouble adjusting to the populist programming of the LA Phil? The current season is filled with pop music, film music and minimalism. The orchestra already spent much of October backing pop musicians. I imagine this is quite a change from the Bayerischen Rundfunks repertoire. I’m just posing the question.

    • MacroV says:

      It’s possible, but one would assume he had access to the internet and had reviewed the LAPO programming. And one of his stated reasons for taking the job was that the programming is more wide-ranging than at the BRSO. And for the parts he wouldn’t want to do? There’s always an assistant principal to lay it off on.

  • To an idiot says:

    Anon, your comment that most conductors are “blissfully unaware” of the difference between US and European oboe playing is ridiculous. Stick to what you think you know.

    • Anon says:

      This is what I know. I deal with this on a regular basis and believe me, I speak from experience.

      Maybe American conductors are more aware of the differences. But consider the young European conductors coming thru the ranks who haven’t conducted in the US yet. Most have never even worked with an American oboist or heard or seen one live.

      And contrary to what someone here mentioned, you just don’t see many US trained oboists working outside the US. Yes there are a few, but not many.

      Among more experienced conductors if they are aware it just doesn’t seem to be a priority and it should be. I was really hoping that someone of Dudamel’s stature might have given the stylistic differences some consideration.

      Let’s just say I am on the front lines with regards to this issue. I work with a lot of conductors, I’ve sat on plenty of oboe juries with them and I do not see that they are particularly enlightened or even concerned about the often diametrically opposed differences between US and European oboe styles.

      It is very annoying to me that so many conductors assume all oboists are created equal and that not considering the stylistic differences might affect others in the wind section.

      • Gerhard says:

        US wind players of other instruments have obviously not the least trouble playing and blending well with their European oboe colleagues when they play in orchestras elsewhere, which is by no means a rare constellation. Yet according to your argument it is utterly problematic to do the same once they play together in an US orchestra. Can you explain this surprising phenomenon?

        • Anon says:

          That’s what I just explained! It definitely CAN be a challenge for a US wind player to blend with a European oboist. In the US or in Europe.

          We do it by choice, because we can and because we are motivated to do so. We pretty much have to if we want to work in Europe! Also, there are fewer and fewer US players on any wind instrument in Europe, so it’s not actually a common situation.

          Wind players in US orchs. which are at a level which would attract a European player do not have to compromise stylistically. They are the creme de la creme, they earn top salaries and they shouldn’t be expected to.

          A US wind player working in Europe is much more inclined to adapt to the European style of oboe playing. You can’t win a European job and then demand that they hire an American oboist! You adjust, you adapt. You learn to see the beauty in both schools of oboe playing and you learn to be flexible and blend well with both.

          I hope this answers your question!

          • Mallory Jones says:

            Nonsense, utter nonsense. “Adapt to the European oboist” , with the implication being that that’s somehow more difficult or onerous. On the contrary. As an American wind player, in my experience it is vastly easier to blend with a European
            (meaning every where on Earth other than the USA) oboist than an American one. I noticed in some of your other posts (if there’s only one”Anon”) a distinctly nationalist bent- oh how it sucks- a”foreign born, foreign trained” musician getting a job in OUR country! What an outage! It’s a shame Hugo Burghauser, Gino Cioffi, not to mention (in the ultimate irony) Marcel Tabuteau were allowed to take jobs from Americans who were “just as good”. Your definition of just as good doesn’t, fortunately, mean Jack.
            And what makes you so convinced conductors (including Dudamel) don’t appreciate the differences between USA trained and foreign trained oboists? Dudamel may not be your cup of tea, but he’s a smart cookie, and I would bet my bottom dollar he knew exactly what he was choosing- the best artist who showed up to the audition. By all accounts, he was right- the blend and artistry were first rate. Pity the workload was too much, or his wife couldn’t work, or whatever. He’ll be missed.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Anon writes: “Among more experienced conductors…it just doesn’t seem to be a priority”

        Imagine that, the only people who actually care about this “American oboe playing style” are…American oboe players.

        • Wai Kit Leung says:

          You have hit the nail on its head.

        • Nydo says:

          Actually, there are plenty of other people that would prefer an American oboe playing style in an American Orchestra, among their colleagues in the other wind sections, and those in the audience that have listened closely to them and can tell the difference.

          I have worked as a professional woodwind player for almost 40 years now, and there is a distinct difference in schools of playing from different countries that has been blurring for a number of years now. If you can’t actually tell the difference, that just shows that you haven’t done much close listening to woodwind playing over the years.

          It is best to try to keep those schools of playing intact, simply for the sake of diversity. I am not all that familiar with Ortega’s sound approach (I live on the east coast), but I would imagine that it is fairly different from the rest of the section, and would require a large adaptation on the level we are talking about here, unless he is capable of adjusting to the American school of playing.

  • Arthur Serating says:

    Attention, Ms. Borda.

    • NYMike says:

      The NY Phil has had Curtis descendant principal oboes since Harold Gomberg ’43. It’s not going to change now. Further, the hiring of principal players is in the charge of the players’ audition committee and conductor.

  • Angeleno says:

    In every interview, and on his website, he featured his position at Colburn. Maybe the problem wasn’t with LA Phil.

  • anon says:

    1) Why do most commenters here assume it was the LA Phil’s decision? Seems odd that contractually an orchestra can deny a player tenure just a few months in. Of course, seems odd that contractually a player can up and quit with so little notice. Then again, seems odd that someone would relocate his entire family across the world just to leave a few months late.

    2) Hey, I heard Liang Wang is looking for a job. He had auditioned for the job under Salonen and didn’t even get a call back, then he landed in NY.

    • MacroV says:

      You are probably correct: This far in it seems far more likely that it was Ortega’s decision, that the job doesn’t seem a good fit. Though surprised he would act so quickly and not wait out the year. Not to mention all the talk given to his vaunted oboe studio at Colburn; walking out on them after just 3 months?

      As for Liang Wang, I could be wrong, but my understanding is that he WON the LAPO audition back then (at a time he was winning practically every audition), and they didn’t hire him. Then offered it to Eugene Izotov (evidently trusting the MET’s audition process over their own), who turned it down.

  • anon says:

    You know what the LA Phil is like?

    That hot Hollywood actress that you have to date at least once in your life just to see what it is like.

    Some of the world’s brightest classical musicians have heeded the siren call of Los Angeles, some stayed forever, some left soon after.

  • moon says:

    It does appear that the American’s *need* their half-price televisions. Certainly not worthy of lining up in a crowd or getting in a physical fight over one…

    • Anon says:

      Not sure what your comment has to do with the thread, but as long as you brought it up, why is it that the rest of the world has jumped on the “Black Friday” bandwagon, extracting it out of context from the US and turning it into a commercial feeding frenzy which far surpasses anything in the US? It’s appalling.

  • Bill says:

    Maybe he just didn’t like living in LA. Believe it or not, some people do value their quality of life as much, if not more, than a job.