Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews January 15, 2019

Philippe Tondre: The oboe is the tool to let your body sing

How is it possible that someone becomes an oboist by accident? Do you really need to be a genius to play Mozart? How does the BFO family look like from a French point of view? Interview with Philippe Tondre, one of the soloists of our Concertino concert in January.

Browsing your website, I figured out that you dress and behave in a rather modern way, you like graffities and wearing blue jeans, and as I have learned, the young audience is as much interested in your performing as the elder ones. What is your real secret?

Philippe Tondre: There is no real secret, I think the most important is to work hard every day with devotion and passion to be able to give your best at any time: on stage, in front of students, during rehearsals with friends and colleagues. Of course, the world changes, maybe the classical music scene also with it, in its own tempo, but things evolve, and we need to react to that, to react with that. To attract new audiences, young audiences especially, has always been a priority for me, for all of us, we need to give this love of music to others, to the younger ones but also all the other people. Our world is currently so wild, I really believe music has an important role to play in binding communities, societies. To answer on the more personal part of your question, yes, I like to be modern but still in a very sober way. I love art, do lots of different sports, I try to stay very active.

You are relatively young among the great oboists of the classical music scene. Does it mean that your way of playing the oboe is different from how the elder generation plays the instrument?

Ph. T.: This is a very interesting question because I don’t think I can answer it very precisely, I will try to put this with my words hopefully saying the correct things. Before talking about generations, central about oboe is: style, by definition is this case, the different schools of oboe playing. This is a big topic, there are many schools: French, German, British, American ... it’s fascinating because they used to be very “identifiable”. Nowadays, the instruments got better technically, more powerful, materials are universal, in fact I truly believe we recognize the differences less. So maybe two aspects have evolved: the different oboe “aesthetics” and the styles due to the natural changes of generations. In my case I was fascinated by the differences and tried to put in my playing all positive points from each “school”: the French virtuosity, the German sound richness, the British flair and expression, the American technical stability and flexibility... all of this to create my style, matching my personality, serving my best the music written by these amazing composers to play and focus on styles, articulations, phrases, energies, colors, structures, etc… The elder generation has given us everything, us, young oboists, I really respect all of them for that, we are very lucky to have such baggage and knowledge from them, to be able to write further on and furthermore the history of our instrument.

The Concerto series of the Budapest Festival Orchestra is a new invention of Iván Fischer. You probably know that the soloists are partly chosen from the musicians of the BFO, who have won the Végh Sándor Competition. Do you know Balázs Szakszon, trombonist, the other soloist of the concert in Budapest?

Ph. T.: The BFO is one of the finest orchestras in the world, I am honored and proud to be part of this amazing ensemble. First of all, because it’s not just an ensemble, it’s a big family, with incredible personalities, you feel home, you feel safe, you want to give everything for them, you can feel the generosity in their playing. Secondly, this ensemble is amazing because they know how to excel every day more, push the limits, search for the best quality. The Végh Competition goes in this direction, it gives the musicians the possibility to show their talents, I think it’s an excellent idea: it creates extra motivation and new goals for us, musicians. I know Balázs Szakszon, he is amazing, when I listen to his playing in the orchestra, I always enjoy his incredible sound largeness and depth. It’s with joy and honor I can share this concert with him.

How did you start playing the oboe?

Ph. T.: It is a quite funny story, I wanted to play flute at first. So I took flute lessons for the first six months at the music school of my hometown Mulhouse in France. Unfortunately, I wasn’t successful with this instrument at all, I couldn’t get a sound out of the embouchure, somehow, it was not made for me...With so many difficulties and not much fun in the lessons, my mum and I decided to change instrument, so we went up to the office and asked what were the different options instead of flute... The secretary said everything was full except the oboe class! One place was at the time still available! I went there, tried to blow in the reed, it worked immediately and started this instrument. The professor, Yves Cautrès, was great, I owe him everything, he made me who I am now, we had 10 years of collaboration.

For me – if I can be personal – the oboe is the most beautiful instrument. It would be great if you could give me some explanation for why it is so wonderful to play and listen to the oboe music?

Ph. T.: The oboe is a very powerful instrument in many senses, there are many special things about it. First of all, I think it’s special because it’s intense, to produce a sound, you need lots of energy: in breathing at first and then in how you use your air speed and setup the resonance spaces in your body. It’s like a potion, all the ingredients have to be well set up so you have the best possibilities to make the instrument sing. Then, in my opinion, we can produce so many colors, the sound can be: penetrant, melancholic, bright, dark, spicy, edgy, large, nasal, warm, cold...The palette of expression is huge and depending on the player, it’s also very personal. Every oboe player has his sound, though the reeds (every oboe player makes his own reeds) which add of course some character to the playing depending on how they fit to the players morphologies (thin lips, bigger lips etc ...) When you listen to an oboist, sometimes you ask yourself, “what is this?”, I believe it’s not only an instrument, it’s a voice, the oboe is the tool to let your body sing.

The piece you will play in Budapest on the 26th and 27th of January‬ is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major. This is the only oboe concerto of Mozart. What shall we know about this musical piece?

Ph. T.: Mozart was such a genius, I suppose to play his music well, you need to be as genius as he was. As far as I am concerned, I tend to say Mozart is always difficult to play, even if you think you know a lot about it, in fact, you probably know so little. This I fascinating about his music, you learn every day from it. This concerto is incredible from the beginning. For example: the entrance of the oboe should be with the first theme what the violins propose at the start of the exposition. Instead of that, Mozart writes a completely different entrance for the oboe, virtuosic but escaping into a different direction, while the violins play again the main theme under it, just brilliant. From the beginning Mozart respects the rule of writing of the time, the sonata form of the first movement is there but with some “genius spice”, to make it evidently special. The oboist must put things together in a very delicate but classical way with lots of homogeneity and character. In my opinion the key is the capacity to play in a very balanced way, so that it sounds light, joyful and pleasant. The second movement is a real song, it’s just about singing, the melodies are pure, simple, lines and phrases are full of warmth and love. The third movement is more “burlesque” in a folkloric way, lots of variations with thirds and fun general pauses to make some interesting cadenzas.

What do you have to keep most in mind, when preparing for that piece?

Ph. T.: While preparing, I try to focus on the important things to put forward in the piece, in this case it’s a concerto, so I need to be very accurate and deal with many elements. But I know many friends will be playing so I feel very excited about the concerts and looking forward to seeing them all again.