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Instrument Envy and Perfection: An Interview with San Francisco Symphony's Principal Oboist

“Perfection doesn’t exist, because your idea of perfection is constantly evolving. It is impossible, but you can try to get closer every time.” Eugene Izotov is the first Soviet-born musician in history to hold a principal wind position in any major American symphony orchestra. Appointed byMichael Tilson Thomasin 2014, Izotov is currently the principal oboist of theSan Francisco Symphony. Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus chatted with him about recording the Schumann Cycle, oboe playing, instrument envy and ‘perfection’ in classical music.

R. Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra recently released the Schumann Symphonies 1-4, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Schumann’s music is very dear to me – there is such a genuine and even fragile tenderness in his writing, it has always touched me since the first time I heard “Dichterliebe” when I was a child. Also, Schumann’s language is very open and melodic, which speaks closely to my Russian heart. I was very happy to be a part of our Schumann Symphonic Cycle – it gave us a completely different set of challenges from repertoire like Mahler, Strauss, and Copland. I think these recordings demonstrate a special kind of vitality and versatility of the San Francisco Symphony. We certainly enjoy the great triumphant moments – they are always exciting to play, but to me it has been even more remarkable to be a part of performances where the orchestra had the courage to expand its dynamic range, particularly playing in softer dynamics, and to create intimate and almost haunting moments of quiet.

Why the oboe?

Why the oboe? It is still the same question I ask everyday (laughs). My father and uncle are musicians: my dad a violinist, my uncle a pianist. Growing up, they didn’t want me to become a musician because according to them it would be too hard for me. Yet when I was 4  or 5 years old,  I started showing what they called the symptoms of becoming a musician, I was good with rhythm, I would sing in tune, and so on. When they saw that I was really interested, even from such a young age, they said, okay maybe he will become a musician, but not as a string or piano player, maybe he can choose something easy like a wind instrument.

So they took me to Gnessin School of Music in Moscow. I remember vividly, hearing the sound of an oboe for the first time felt like a lightning strike. It was so beautiful and magical. And when I looked at it, I just felt the need to posses it. I said right then and there that I wanted to play the oboe. Well they said, oboe, how hard can it be (chuckles)? So with my father's blessing I could become a wind player.

Was that also the time that you decided to play music for the rest of your life?

Ever since I can remember, I never considered doing anything else but music. I didn’t even understand why people would choose other professions if they could be musicians. Later as I grew up and found out about the world and other things outside music, it became a decision that I need to re-affirm. I’ve been a professional musician for 25 years. In the end, it comes back to the realization that music is something which gives me a continous purpose in life in a way nothing else does.

What was your greatest challenge when you just started? In which way has it changed throughout the years?

I guess the biggest challenge was to really prove to myself that I have the talent to make it and how to realize it. As a kid, you would play in front of your parents and they would say it was wonderful, no matter what. But when you get to do the actual training next to other talented students, you’ll learn that the world is full of these talented people.

Throughout the years, the biggest challenge I’m facing has changed very drastically. Obviously I’ve enjoyed a successful career so far, so seemingly I have what it takes. Now my point of reference is the word ‘perfection’. As you grow older, you learn more about the music. You learn about the sound, the nature of orchestra playing, the demand of the composers, etc. So, perfection doesn’t exist, because your idea of perfection is constantly evolving. It is impossible, but you can try to get closer every time.

What is your reflection on the idea that the tradition in classical music is all about perfection?

I’ve noticed that there are some conductors and individual musicians who believe that they have found the key to the truth. They believe it gives them some kind of artistic superiority, if you will, and all they do is showcase it. I think it is a wrong way to refer to the word ‘tradition’. Tradition to me is when you know where you are coming from, you learn it, you allow it to become a part of you, then you build on it and you continue. When tradition becomes a process of creating and recreating the same thing over and over again, it becomes an artistic inflexibility. You will basically do the same thing every single time. That contradicts my identity as a musician.

Some of my most joyful experience as a musician is in searching for something I haven't found before. And I am so happy that I'm playing in the San Francisco Symphony, because  I think the city of San Francisco itself is based on searching and being open minded. It's scary sometimes because you don't know what you’ll find, but at least you're not afraid to look.

You know, finding the truth is irrelevant because it's not the purpose of music. People come to feel something, not to be told of something. People come to experience something – it is not a lecture or anything like it.

If it is not about finding the key to the truth as you put it, what is the most important thing in music to you?

There are two most important things in music: one is how you feel during a performance, and the other is what stays with you after a performance. It can’t ever be the same, people come to be part of a performance, be as performers or as audience, this relationship is recreated every single time and it can’t be the same all the time.

What stays with you after a performance?

It depends on the performance. For example, with 9/11, the orchestra was playing Shostakovich’s Symphony No 11. It was amazing how the music of Shostakovich about an series of actual events from a hundred years ago, could precisely express what we needed to hear in 2001. It gave us the opportunity to come together, to feel the anger and to support each other. The feeling was so powerful and it stays with me.

You wrote about the American Dream on your Facebook status in July. How important was it for you to make it in the US at that time? Was there an ‘or else’ scenario?

Yes, I had to make it. When I came to the US in 1990, Russian wind playing was not at the same level as strings or piano. Growing up, I was really impressed when I heard American wind playing. I wanted to learn to play like that. That was my main reason artistically to continue my education in the US.

And as for the or else scenario, I’m actually from the Soviet Union. At that time, there was a mandatory military draft: there was a war in Chechnya. If I hadn’t come here, I would have to go to war. A scary alternative. I would much rather make music than make war obviously.

As an oboe player, do you have instrument envy?

Are you kidding me? All the time! (laughs). I have clarinet envy, piano envy, voice envy. I sometimes just steal their pieces. I’m aware of my instrument’s abilities as well as its limitations.

My biggest instrument envy is the human voice. That is just the world’s greatest instrument. You see, one of the best advantages of playing in the best orchestras is that you get to sit next to the best musicians. I’ve learned so much from the greatest singers.

Could you be more concrete of what an oboe player can learn from singers?

When we are playing, we always have the same problem, not all of us, but we can't hear ourselves from the audience seats. Rehearsals are first done in a pretty private setting. The singers get to sit near me, sometimes next to me. Because with a lot of operatic writing (especially for oboe clarinet flute), sopranos start the line, the oboe continues, and then it goes back to the soprano. It is a dialogue which needs to be closely rehearsed. Then in the theater, we’ll be separated. It is then I will hear how the voice sounds when it travels, while I’m playing. Sometimes we musicians are so obsessive about what we are doing on stage that we forget that there is a distance between the stage and the seats of the audience.

So, I get to see how the voice is carried and interacts with music.  How it changes its resonance, its smoothness, its personality, and its power.  I’ve learned how to imitate that from singers. It has been serving me really well in oboe playing. Some of the best compliments I get is that my playing is vocal, that I can emulate the sound of a singer. It is the most valuable compliment for me.

Which repertoire do you feel most identified with?

Prior to moving to the US I had never heard anything from Mahler. Now you can’t go to any  major city without hearing Mahler’s music being performed somewhere. I moved to the US on July 7. Then I found out that July 7 was Mahler’s birthday. I heard Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 during one of the most horrible moments of my life. In order to continue my study and stay in the US, I had to pass the English exam which I had failed once. I had one chance left. The music gave me so much hope that I felt as long as I could be near it, I could get to anything. Then I passed the exam  and I could stay. The music of Mahler has always played a big part in my life. I'm not saying that I don't like anything else, but since then the fire has always been burning inside of me.

What are your upcoming projects?

The symphony is one big continuous project for me. And generally speaking, if I'm not playing, then I’m teaching. In the summer time, next to teaching at San Francisco Conservatory, I’m also with the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo Japan. I’ve been going there for 16 years. It was the last creation of Leonard Bernstein, such a pity he could only stand up there for one summer before he passed away. Since then it has become a really important international music center. I also teach in the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. I will also play concertos and featured solos. The music director of the Pacific Music Festival and a good friend of mine, conductor Valery Gergiev, has asked me to do 6 or 7 performances throughout Japan with the PMF Orchestra.

What about solo recordings?

I’ve had a pretty busy past few years. I really need one summer where I can devote my time to solo recording. I would really love to do it. One thing I notice from my OboeSolo channel on Youtube is that every time I publish something, I will get up to 3000 hits in two, three days. I can’t imagine selling 5000 CDs in such a short time. So when I make a new commercial recording, it remains to be seen in which format, because the technology changes so rapidly these days.

Eugene Izotov in conversation with Primephonic's Rina Sitorus