There are many ways to describe the uniquely satisfying sensation of making music. Eugene Izotov, principal oboe of the San Francisco Symphony, has a particularly pithy one.
“What we musicians do is an amazing combination of total discipline and total freedom,” he says. “Music is a perfect marriage of those complete contrasts.”
Izotov has been appreciating that unique fusion for a very long time. In the fall, he embarks on his 30th year playing with major American orchestras.
He spent a decade with the Chicago Symphony before relocating to San Francisco in 2015, has appeared as a soloist with various prominent ensembles on more than 70 occasions, and is heard on the soundtrack of the Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, playing John Williams’s music under the composer’s baton.
Izotov is spending much of the summer at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy, where he is teaching and performing. In a conversation from campus, he talked about his approach to music, the advice he gives to young performers, and the pain he feels reading the news from his home country of Russia.
John Mack, oboist with The Cleveland Orchestra from 1965–2001, once told an interviewer, “If you’re going to play the oboe, you have to have elementary bravery, or you’re in big trouble.” What did he mean by that?
The principal oboe of an orchestra plays a lot of prominent solos within a wide range of expression. The combination of an extremely prominent role in the orchestra and not knowing what you’re going to sound like when you open the reed case makes it kind of scary.
Most people know it’s a reed instrument. What most people don’t know is that we have to make them ourselves. The oboe makes no sound; the reed makes the sound. The reed is made from cane from one particular region of France. It’s incredibly sensitive. Hundredths of a millimeter [can make a difference in your sound]. So it’s a scary business. But there’s immense satisfaction when you make the reed and it works. You have [in effect] made your own voice. It’s a beautiful thing.
I was once flying from Los Angeles to Japan. I got to LAX and put my oboe on the belt. Usually the TSA agent will say, “Is that a flute?” I say, “Yes,” which ends the conversation. But on this day, the guy said, “You have an oboe! How many reeds do you have on you right now?” I said, “About 40,” and he said “Correct answer! If you had said two or three, I would have had to arrest you. I played oboe in high school, and I knew you’d be lying.”
You are on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and of the Colburn School, and you have taught at many other places, including The Juilliard School. What is it that attracts you to teaching?
It’s very important to me. I would not be the musician I am if it weren’t for my teachers. No matter how demanding my teachers were, they always made me feel I could do it. They gave me the tools to get there and the confidence to overcome obstacles. My father was my first teacher. I was then taught by Ralph Gomberg, oboist with the Boston Symphony. He was so significant in my life that I named my firstborn son Ralph after him.
In many ways, performing is about me. It’s my vision, my interpretation, my tone. Teaching is about what I can do for someone else. Working with talented students is a privilege. I find it both exhilarating and humbling to watch them become who they want to be.
What year is this for you at the Music Academy? What attracted you here, and what keeps you coming back?
It is my ninth season here. My time is limited, and at this point in my life, I want to do things I consider really meaningful. I was invited to come here when my predecessor, David Weiss [former principal oboe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic], had a heart attack and passed away. This came up at the last moment; it was not part of my plan [because] I was already affiliated with two other festivals. But I came here and fell in love with the beauty of the place, the energy of the place, and the family feel. More than in many places, the faculty here — which is terrific — is able to connect with one another to solve problems, to create and dream together. There’s also a great rapport between the administration and the faculty, and I think the students respond to that.
What can you teach students, and what can’t you teach them? Obviously, you can help with technique, but what can you do if a young musician is having trouble playing in an emotionally expressive way?
Everyone’s different. Not infrequently, I’ll have someone who plays very well, but their playing somehow doesn’t come across. I’ll ask them a simple question: “Why are you a musician?” The first answer I usually get is “Because I love music.” I tell them that’s the wrong answer: You don’t have to be a musician to love music. Cab drivers love music. Why do you want to dedicate your life to this profession?
Then they respond with a second answer: “Because I love to emote, express, share, play for other people.” Now that’s very empowering, very liberating. When you play for an audience, they don’t care how dark your middle C is. They want to be moved. They want it to be meaningful. And they want that impression to last.
What do you tell them about pursuing music as a career?
This is a very tough profession. It requires an extraordinary investment of time and money and other resources, but there are no guarantees. I think most people figure that out pretty early and make a determination if this is something they simply enjoy doing or it’s something they can’t live without because it’s their identity, their voice, their life. That’s something they have to figure out for themselves.
When my students begin to encounter the difficulties of this profession, I suggest they go to my website, oboesolo.com. It lists all my victories. What it does not list is my failures. It’s sort of the social media version of my life. I did all those things, but it doesn’t list the emotional cost of getting there.
Let’s talk about your beginnings. You said you credit your father Alexander Izotov as your first teacher. So I take it you come from a line of oboists.
Actually, my father was principal violist with the Russian State Symphony Orchestra. My uncle was the pianist of that orchestra. They did not want me to be a musician because it’s so hard. But when I started showing the symptoms of becoming a musician, like perfect pitch, they let me go to the same school where they studied. They said I should pick a “relatively easy” instrument like the oboe. I have laughed about that for many years.
I began on the recorder, and like everyone in the school, I also studied the piano. I feel it’s one of the great failings of music education in this country that instrumentalists are not taught to play the piano or to sing. The two offer different ways to look at music: the melodic way and the harmonic way. I was no great pianist, but it allowed me to understand the harmonic architecture of a piece. Understanding such basic structures of music makes it so much easier to understand what to do with phrasing and expression.
So when did you start playing the oboe?
I was 10. I still play the piano as my secondary instrument. If I want to study something, I’ll play it on the piano.
How old were you when you immigrated to the U.S.?
I was 17. That was 35 years ago. About a week after I got here, I remember watching on my rabbit-ears TV reports about a coup in Moscow. There were tanks in Red Square. It was a good time to leave.
My mother was already invited by Princeton University to come here and continue her research. She’s a biochemist — the only member of my family who is not a musician. She got a green card, and since I was a minor, I received a green card as well. That’s how it worked back then. I was very fortunate.
I wanted to come here because I loved so many recordings by the great American orchestras — the wind playing especially. I wanted to learn how to do that. [In a larger sense] America represented complete freedom for me. Everything was possible — something that was decidedly not true for me in the Soviet Union, for many reasons, including the fact I am Jewish.
Are you an American citizen?
Your resume is a bit puzzling. You have been a member of, or sat in with, many major American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, before landing in San Francisco in 2015. Why did you keep moving around?
When you’re starting out on your career, you work toward a goal. With time and a certain amount of success, that changes. The concept of “this situation is better” changes. It’s what’s better for your life, for your family. I am extremely privileged to have had these opportunities. Every orchestra where I have played has its pros and cons. I grew and I learned [from each].
Do you feel more settled now?
I am extremely settled in San Francisco. It’s not just a place of intense beauty and open-mindedness. I feel it’s a place where people are more interested in creating something than recreating something.
I think it’s a vibrant, interesting time at the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas brought the orchestra to a new level. Esa-Pekka Salonen is like Michael, in the sense he is very creative and a brave artistic force. He is not afraid to try something that has never been done. At the same time, he’s not interested in new for the sake of new. He has incredible artistic integrity. The orchestra is interested in creating something relevant to society. I’m excited about the next chapter.
From your perspective, is the way Salonen works with the orchestra markedly different from MTT?
It’s very different. I’ve known Esa-Pekka for a very long time — 20 years or so. Michael is a very dynamic, very passionate conductor. Esa-Pekka reminds me of [Dmitri] Shostakovich’s music: He contains fire within ice. He doesn’t talk as much as Michael, of course. Michael is very chatty. Esa-Pekka is less chatty. But I appreciate his dry sense of humor.
Finally, let me ask you a political question. I assume you keep in touch with certain people back in Russia. Do you have any hope that we may be approaching a post-Putin era?
I always have hope. It’s a very difficult, tragic situation. Half of my family is from Russia, and the other half is from Ukraine. Last time I was in Russia was four years ago, when I was one of the judges at the last Tchaikovsky Competition. It was a beautiful reminder of how great the musical culture of that country is. It’s a tragedy that a society with such a vibrant culture is governed by such a despotic, tyrannical regime. The people deserve so much better.
Eugene Izotov will lead oboe master classes at 1:30 p.m. on July 14 and July 28 at the Music Academy in Santa Barbara. He will also be part of the ensemble playing J.S. Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite at 7:30 p.m. on July 13.