This evening, Ramón Ortega headlines a chamber music concert at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall featuring oboe-centric works by Mozart, Koechlin, and Gounod. It marks the first official public appearance by Mr. Ortega as Colburn Conservatory’s new oboe instructor. Later this week, he officially begins performing at his other gig in town — Principal Oboe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic — as part of the orchestra’s opening concerts to its Centennial season.
These won’t be his first concerts in Southern California. Mr. Ortega played first chair with the LA Phil for Das Paradies und die Peri, Schumann’s rarely heard oratorio, at the end of their 2017-18 season. In conjunction with those appearances, he spent the last week in May auditioning students for his newly established oboe studio at Colburn. It was during that time that I had the chance to sit down and chat with him.
It happened to be one of those picture-postcard late-Spring afternoons in Los Angeles: sunny and warm, with barely any wisps of clouds to interrupt the clear blue sky; a “Chamber of Commerce” kind of day, as Vin Scully often described it. In the midst of it, Mr. Ortega fit right in: casual and relaxed, with sleeves folded up, shirt front partially open, and button-down collars undone. He was still a visitor to the area, not yet having found a place to live in the area, but he seemed remarkably comfortable in his new surroundings.
“Actually, the landscape looks quite similar to south of Spain where I grew up,” says the native of Granada. “The trees, the air — it reminds me a lot of this part of the world. It doesn’t feel so foreign. Many people ask me, ‘Why LA?’ When I went to Germany, it felt much more foreign I have to say than when I come here.”
The climate isn’t the only thing that reminds him of home. “It’s another continent and another culture as well, but here you have also a very strong Latino community. So, it’s funny, but when I see the names on the highways it’s Spanish — La Cañada, La Brea, Alhambra — this kind of stuff. So in this way it feels very welcoming for me as a Spanish person.”
He jokes a bit about getting used to the local pronunciation for places like Santa Monica, going back and forth between his naturally lilting, articulated Spanish accent (“San-ta Moh-nee-ka”)and the more slurred American accent with softened consonants and flattened vowels (“Sehnna Mahnickuh”). He does something similar with his new city’s name. “Even LA — Los Angeles, Los Angeles,” he demonstrates with a grin.
It’s not something he ever could do when he went from España to Deutschland. “When you go to Germany, that’s a shock. You don’t understand a word.”
Despite the cultural challenges, it was in that country that he made a name for himself as an oboist, most notably as Solo Oboist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. So if Mr. Ortega’s transition to Los Angeles is at least as successful as his move to Germany was, he’ll be just fine and local audiences and Colburn students will be in for quite a treat.
The path to Germany and eventually Los Angeles began in his own home in Granada. His father was a pianist and conservatory teacher in town. When he was about six years-old, Mr. Ortega’s older sister would come back from her piano lessons and practice at home. “I would just go on the piano and try to imitate her,” he remembers. This eventually led to conflict between the two siblings, both wanting to time on the lone instrument at home.
His father recognized his musical talents but also wanted to increase the peace in the house, and suggested to then eight-year old Ramón to take up a different instrument. “I think because his best friend at the conservatory was the oboe teacher, it was quite natural I think,” he offers with a smile. “Probably they spoke, ‘Ah, what to do with my son? He’s already annoying the sister because he wants to play piano.’ And then he said, ‘Oh, give him an oboe!’ ”
That suggestion came with a word of caution, however. “I remember the teacher said, ‘He should try oboe, but not everyone can play. It’s very special.’ ”
“And actually, that was quite motivating for me because of this feeling as a child that what you are doing is something special, that not everyone is able to do. So I remember trying very hard and very seriously. It went very well from the beginning I have to say. Quite naturally.”
His teacher encouraged him to play a lot, focusing less on particular sound quality, at least initially, and more on expanding repertoire. “I always was quite fast. Moving forward, always keen and curious to go on, to continue. He didn’t have a problem with that. He was, ‘OK, he’s able to play this, we can go on.’ Some teachers are, ‘Ah, but you should play more perfectly,’ or, ‘more in this way.’ And I think in this age – at least for me in my case – you want to discover and learn and play more things rather than to perfect or master one single piece, right?”
“Yeah, those are wonderful years that you miss, where everything happens very naturally. You listen, you want to play, you imitate and it’s more instinctive playing then when you get older you kind of start analyzing things, which is important too, of course. But yeah, I think it was quite natural this way.”
His teacher also took pains to make learning the “special” instrument easier. “He gave me wonderful reeds I remember. Very comfortable, very easy to play. Maybe not the best sounding reeds, but I think when a child starts playing oboe that’s the best way because you have the feeling that it’s fun. You have to approach music as something that is fun and pleasurable to do, not a struggle. Then later of course I would take harder reeds that had rounder sounds and better, nice sound also.”
Ah, yes. Reeds: the constant nemesis of oboists everywhere. They’re a unique challenge that is particularly acute for a young musician, causing struggles with which his friends playing other woodwind instruments did not have to deal.
“You know your friend plays the clarinet. I remember going to the band or to the orchestra – the conservatory orchestra – and your friends play flute or clarinet and that’s kind of easy. And then you want to play also like them, not getting red and struggling like many oboists do.” he says, laughing. “So I think that was very important for me, and this teacher really helped me a lot on that.”
Those lessons continued for five years until his father’s friend retired. He continued to play for about a year and a half without formal instruction when, at the age of 15, he auditioned for and was accepted to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra led by Daniel Barenboim. Gregor Witt, solo oboe of the Berlin State Opera and noted pedagogue, was coaching the winds. “I was searching kind of for a teacher and he was there. And also, Barenboim encouraged me too, to come to Berlin maybe once every two months – something like this – because I was 15 at that time.”
“He was completely different to my other teacher, ” Mr. Ortega explains, “because he comes from the traditional German school of oboe playing, like the guys from the ‘80s, ‘70s: Lothar Koch or Manfred Clement, this kind of playing. Very traditional German, which was very different to Spain. I think in Spain it was more close to the French school or oboe playing. And yeah, it was a shock for me. Also, the reeds, the way he made them. And the sound much darker with much more body. But it was very interesting I think to get a picture – the whole picture of oboe playing. Lighter, more virtuosic sound I would say to a more heavy and darker sound.”
It was not an easy transition, at least at first. “It took a year I would say until I really got comfortable to this set up in this way,” he confesses. The reeds weren’t the only difference. His new instructor was more rigid, or as Mr. Ortega describes, “More kind of Germanic way of teaching. And also, as a player I think.”
But it was a good transition, an important transition, and the exposure to contrasting styles of oboe playing laid the foundation for him to find his own musical aesthetic, his own way of working reeds, and of playing. “Yeah, this was a time of thinking, of experimenting. Also, I remember working with some colleagues, ‘Maybe we would try to do something in the middle.’ But yeah, it didn’t work as good as his reeds. So at the end I ended up playing fully this set up,” with a Ludwig Frank oboe, he explains. “But that was only one year, and then I switched back to Marigaux.”
“And then after I got my job and got kind of independent I found my own way, which I really think is the nature of both in the end.”
His own way worked out quite well. In addition to landing a plum job in Munich at one of the world’s best orchestras, he has many solo and chamber music recordings to his credit. Those recordings feature playing that is neither strictly Germanic nor French in style. It’s a sound that Mr. Ortega has cultivated based on the breadth of his musical influences he has had combined with an idealized oboe sound he’s had in his head. And it’s a sound that continues to evolve.
“You hear recordings of yourself, and I have to say when I was 19 and got the job at the orchestra, it also opened my boundaries and my ideas of the sound because the way they play in Munich — the orchestra, you know, the other wind colleagues, the other oboists — was different. And the one I was learning by Gregor or the Barenboim style, which is a little more like, I would say, a more traditional German way.”
“I tried to adjust to find something a bit more flexible,” he explains. “I think I really identify with a dark and soft oboe sound. I think that’s how oboe sounds the best. I don’t like too much when the oboe is too clear, too pointed, too brilliant. Oboe in itself is a sound that comes through very easily I find, so I think the most refined way is when you try to make it softer. Yeah, dark (chuckling).”
“But at the same time – this is a balance of any instrumentalist, even in piano, the balance between a big and round sound and a flexible [one],” he continues. “I think any instrumentalist has this issue. So, it’s really an art, mastering these two parameters.”
We talk about his oboe heroes, and one name immediately comes up: Heinz Holliger. “As a little boy I got recordings of Heinz Holliger. Also others, but then always when I listened to Heinz Holliger that was kind of a – a little above the others. It was like, ‘Oh, he’s the best.’ Yeah, and he also recorded a lot, so he’s of course a reference in the oboe world.”
Mr. Ortega’s admiration of Mr. Holliger stems not only from his playing, but from his overall influence on oboists and the oboe repertoire. “His work — I think is how you say in English — ‘unreachable.’ Really. Because he has done so much for the oboe that it will be hard that someone would really even match this kind of – you know, working with composers and – he really has recorded everything. Also the new stuff. I mean, he’s still commissioning and people still write pieces for him. So he’s so long – he’s still playing. He’s so long in the business now, on the scene, it’s really amazing how much he did.”
We go on discussing Mr. Holliger for several minutes, and I ask about how Mr. Ortega would describe his sound: “Oh, he’s clearly on the traditional French side,” he’s quick to say before adding, “Yeah, but Heinz’s sound is — I think at the end it’s his own sound. The way he sings through the oboe. But if you analyze, I mean many people have an issue with the fact that he sounds very clear, not very brilliant on his sound,” he says. “But it’s really a matter of after you hear him more than one minute, than you are carried away by his musicianship and what he does with the song rather than how is the sound itself.”
And it’s that musicianship that makes Mr. Holliger — or any musician, for that matter — stand out to him.
“I think that’s actually the goal of any instrumentalist, to sing through the instrument and to really forget that you are playing an instrument. I don’t want to play an instrument; I want to play music. And I hear a tuba player which sounds marvelous when singing through his tuba. I’m very happy with that.”
“I think what is important is the musician behind the instrument rather than – that’s why when many people say, ‘Ah, but in America they play American oboe. And you are European.’ I think, ‘Yeah, it’s just an instrument – the music is of course above all of this.’ So I think that’s what we shouldn’t forget and get too much into the differences between this sound or this other sound. I think we all – players should be judged as musicians first and what do we do with our musical ideas rather than what we do with our materials or our instruments. I think that’s the goal of music making.”
When asked to name his other favorite oboists besides Heinz Holliger, Mr. Ortega mentions two Europeans — Albrecht Mayer (current Berlin Philharmonic Principal Oboe) and François Leleux (soloist and previous Solo Oboe of the BRSO) — before adding two Americans, Alex Klein and Ray Still, both former Principal Oboes of the Chicago Symphony.
“As a student already one of my idols of Alex Klein,” he says. “I remember a friend passed me this recording of Schubert’s works he has, which is marvelous. It’s really a “one” recording among a million releases. It’s really marvelous playing. I didn’t care if he sounds American or European. It’s such beautiful playing. I think he’s still up there. I heard some recordings of Ray Still also with the Chicago Symphony. I remember a Strauss recording. I think he has also the Marcello Concerto recorded. Beautiful players”
He explains how after winning the audition in LA, he started to do more research on American oboists and found many whose playing he admired. “There are really beautiful players, like the guy from Boston, John Ferrillo. He sounds very musical, very beautiful.”
He describes his thoughts on the traditional American oboe style: “What I love of it is that the sound is more intimate. I think that’s the right word. You kind of have to get close to it rather than he’s getting into your ear. You have to really want to go and listen to it and then you discover marvelous colors, marvelous dynamics and modulations of the sound. So I think that’s the main difference between – the European playing in comparison is more open, more extravert kind of playing. I would say maybe more soloistic or brilliant. Maybe that’s the word.”
“But it always depends from player to player,” he cautions. “I mean, there are also European players which are really intimate playing. And I guess the opposite also. Also, if you hear Ray Still, he’s quite a soloist, quite a strong personality. But yeah, I would say that is the main difference.”
He also mentions Allan Vogel, legendary American oboist, former Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra principal, and his predecessor as instructor at the Colburn Conservatory. We discuss how Mr. Vogel’s playing definitely has an American quality, yet not strictly in the traditional Tabuteau style. No matter. “He’s an artist himself and that’s why I love him. I remember a Saint-Saëns sonata he has recorded. A friend of my passed me a recording of it and it sounded really – like he can really sing. When you listen to him it’s a beautiful sound. But then what’s most important for me he’s a beautiful musician, what he’s doing with the sound on the phrasing and the colors. So that’s interesting for me.”
That prioritization of musician above specific choice of instrument, of musicianship over musical style or school, is what led the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel to pick Mr. Ortega to be their new Principal Oboe, and for the Colburn Conservatory to follow quickly with an offer of their own. Picking a great musician for either post would seem to be the baseline requirement, regardless of where that person was from.
It didn’t change the fact that the appointments raised more than a few eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. One didn’t have to look to hard on the internet to find detractors:
- That a leading American orchestra would pick a European oboist of any flavor — Spanish, German, French, or whatever — and not a disciple of Marcel Tabuteau and the American school of oboe playing (as were previous LA Phil principals Ariana Ghez and David Weiss) was inconceivable. Here’s an opinion shared on Facebook from a professional woodwind player based in Southern California: “Based on the sound sample, he plays in an antiquated style . . . It is a step back into the dark ages: the weird, slow vibrato, the lack of tone color variety, the retrograde phrasing, all a thing of the past. Woodwind playing has become an American phenomenon and there is a reason for that.”
- This ditty from Norman Lebrecht on Slipped Disc: “When we reported two months ago that Ramon Ortega, principal oboe of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, was leaving one of the best jobs in Europe to join the LA Phil, there was widespread bemusement. The BRSO is a virtuosic ensemble with elysian working conditions. Ramon, along with other principals, is required to work no more than 20 weeks a year. He can be on the ski slopes within half an hour of finishing rehearsal and on an Italian beach within an hour’s flight. Why give all this up for the smogways of Hollywood? Especially when you’re only 29.”
That said, those aren’t universal opinions by any means. One prominent American oboist sees no problem whatsoever with Mr. Ortega getting offers from two prestigious American institutions. Claire Brazeau is the Principal Oboe of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and is a Colburn alumna who studied there under Mr. Vogel, her predecessor as LACO principal. She is unequivocal in her praise: “Ramón is a spectacular oboist and musician, and we’re lucky to have him in LA.”
More importantly, both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Colburn made it very clear that each of their overarching goals was to find a great oboist and musician, regardless of school or style.
In a previous article, I described how the other LA Phil woodwind principals approached their search for an Oboe Principal with an open mind. As Denis Bouriakov, Principal Flute, said:
“To me, the “school” by itself is not so important, it’s more the particular player and their sound, their phrasing, how they use their vibrato, and things like that. It’s more important than how they cut reeds.”
I asked Lee Cioppa, Dean of the Colburn Conservatory, what thoughts or concerns she and/or her colleagues might have had about the fact that he came from the “European School” of oboe playing instead of the American tradition. She replied:
The search committee for the oboe faculty position spent quite a lot of time in very thoughtful discussion about what sort of teacher would be right for the future of the Conservatory. There is a considerable range of aesthetic within the American school of oboe playing, and the music world has become so global that the differences with the European school have become less pronounced.
So the bigger question became what sort of musicians we wanted our students to be, and when Ramon went through our process, it was evident that he is truly a once in a generation artist. We believe that he will be a huge international draw, and that the oboists he teaches will end up performing all over the world.
While Mr. Ortega isn’t worried about being a European oboist in America, he is certainly aware of the ramifications and is keen to avoid potential conflicts.
It starts with his new studio at Colburn. “I just wanted to make sure with the students. Of course I can offer then to teach them the European way of making reeds, if they want to. But it doesn’t have to be. I’m very fine if they keep playing on American setup and we just work on technical or musical stuff. But I want to make sure that they are confident on reed making; that was my main concern. So, yeah, if they are fine with it and independent on these things – because I, myself, am not knowing how an American reed works. I can play on it, but I cannot help them improve their reeds; that’s the thing. But if they are confident and independent with it, I was very fine.”
“At the end reed making – I find – is very personal and you have to discover yourself the way to do it, because everyone of us are different. You know? The air, the mouth cavity and the lungs, the way you blow, the way you hold the reed, so some people like harder materials, softer material. Some people like wider shapes, narrower shapes. It all depends. So you have to discover what works better for you.”
He’s very grateful to have been entrusted with the important positions at the LA Phil and Colburn.
“First of all, it’s a big honor for me to be able to do that now. And yeah, again it was a matter of chance that both positions were free at the same time. I am very excited to take the class, because it will be my first own class – oboe class. And I love the fact that it will be small. A maximum of five people, which means you really can concentrate on working with each of them in detail. And getting results. I mean, I have done some teaching – master classes and private teaching – but I find it hard actually this way, the master classes, because you come for two days and you listen to a person maximum twice. Of course, you can try to inspire or try to help or spotlight some problem, but you cannot do a regular work and see if there’s some improvement. If what you are telling is being of any uses – if it’s something useful or not. So I’m very much looking forward to building something up with each of them, and yes, see how it develops.”
He talks about the importance of preparing his students for auditions and careers as orchestral musicians, where learning symphonic excerpts is vital for success, while also grounding them in solo and chamber music repertoire.
“If you are a violinist or a pianist you can think or dream more of a solo career. But with the oboe it’s very hard to make it basically because of the repertoire and the history. Orchestras are not used to program oboe concertos that often. So our repertoire is maybe a little bit smaller than those instruments – in general wind instruments. On the other side of the orchestra we have a marvelous repertoire to play. Like Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler symphonies – that’s really amazing to play. So myself I also love having this combination of two things, but again I think the base of a wind player is to be an orchestra musician.”
“So the students, they want to get a job in an orchestra. And that’s why it’s getting more and more in this direction. Also teachers. The way that you’re successful as a teacher is when you get – when your students win a job. . . . At the end, as an oboe teacher, you listen to Mozart, Strauss, and a lot of orchestra excerpts.”
“I would love, of course, to focus on the [other] repertoire too – and this is very important – because there is an amazing repertoire. Like all of the baroque repertoire is a base. And it helps you open your horizons, your playing. If you’re able to play Bach sonatas you have little problems with Mozart concertos. And you understand this music better, because it comes from the earlier music. So I don’t want them to miss that. That’s why I learn the Bach cantata solos or the Vivaldi concertos, which are very important, too. So I want to give them also a bit of open perspective as possible.”
I point out that the love of Bach is something he shares in common with his predecessor, Mr. Vogel. He’s happy to hear it, and makes it clear his new students will get a healthy dose of the Baroque master’s music. “It helps me to really understand up to Mahler, Ravel – everything came after that. You cannot understand Brahms, Mozart – anything – if you don’t really know how to play Bach I find”
He’s also keen on contemporary music from the 20th Century and new music from living composers. He premiered a new oboe concerto, “Legacy,” written by Oscar Navarro and dedicated to Mr. Ortega. He’ll get the chance to play tons of contemporary music during the LA Phil’s centennial season. And to him, that’s great.
“Oboe repertoire is highly affected by the 20th century, 21st. Thanks again to Heinz Holliger who worked with Lutoslawski and Penderecki. Himself, Heinz Holliger, he wrote amazing pieces. Yeah, [new music] is a very important part of the repertoire. You know we have the baroque was the oboe was actually the first wind instrument that joined the baroque orchestra and the string orchestra. And then have classical romantic centuries, not so much focus. But again, on the 20th century, composers came back to the oboe and wrote. We have theMartinů Concerto and many other wonderful pieces by Vaughan Williams, John Williams, Elliot Carter.”
“So you cannot understand the oboe today without the 20 and 21st century composers. as a student you have to be able – you have to know – the Berio Sequenza, the Holliger Sonata, the Holliger studies. I hope they dare to get into that!”
He is clearly energized by the opportunities in Los Angeles, both professionally and personally. He is effusive with praise for his new colleagues in the LA Phil, both in the oboe section and especially for the other wind principals — Boris Allakhverdyan (clarinet), Whitney Crockett (bassoon), Andrew Bain (horn), and the aforementioned Mr. Bouriakov (flute) — with whom he’ll soon be appearing as the Los Angeles Philharmonic Wind Quintet. “We are all five very excited about it. They are marvelous guys. This is really a plus for me coming here. I know that they have very good atmosphere on the wind section. And yes, I am very excited to start playing with them at the orchestra and in the quintet.”
The wide variety of available cuisines — Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Filipino, and yes, Spanish — is a big plus. David Rejano, the LA Phil’s Principal Trombone and fellow Spaniard and former resident of Munich (he came to LA from the Munich Philharmonic), has already taken him to a few places, including Grand Central Market, the kaleidoscope of flavors in Downtown LA mere blocks from Colburn and Walt Disney Concert Hall.
His only concern is the distance to Europe for him, his wife, oboist Tamar Inbar, and their three-year old son. “Yeah, it’s physically very far. You have to fly over 10 hours to get to European where we still have of course a lot of important things in life. I play lots of solo stuff there and I will have to come over. And our families are there. So we need to see how we manage with the distance and coordinating trips and flights and jet lag and all of that. (Laughs)”
Still, he’s not worried. “But yeah, and I mean again, we’re looking forward to building up a new life here,” he reassures. “It’s a very exciting time.”
- Comings and goings at the LA Phil and beyond (End of Summer 2018 edition)
Colburn Chamber Music Society
Ramón Ortega, Oboe
MOZART Oboe Quartet
MOZART Oboe Quintet
KOECHLIN Sonata for Seven
GOUNOD Petite Symphonie
- Portraits of Ramon Ortega: photos by CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
- Gregor Witt: courtesy of the Barenboim-Said Akademie
- Heinz Holliger: photo by Priska Ketterer courtesy of Colbert Artists Management
- Allan Vogel CD cover: courtesy of Delos
- Claire Brazeau: photo by @jordankphoto courtesy of the artist
- Los Angeles Philharmonic Wind Quintet and Gustavo Dudamel: courtesy of Denis Bouriakov