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Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Superconductor Interview: Liang Wang

The Philharmonic's principal oboe makes CONTACT!
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Oboist Liang Wang and friend. 
"Many oboe players are a little crazy."

The speaker is Liang Wang, principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. will play the first performances of Poul Ruders' Oboe Concerto at  CONTACT!, the orchestra's twice-a-year exposition for new music and modern composers.

Oboe players are an obsessed lot, spending hours crafting double-reed mouthpieces that have to be carefully carved and then bound to produce the unique, plaintive tone.

"The tip of the oboe reed," Mr. Wang reveals, "is thinner than a hair. When you travel it's going to change. Sometimes you get to a city like Vienna or Berlin and you don't know where the reeds you brought have come from."

"But with the best players, it's mind over matter. It's not the reed, but the lips and the thought that goes into playing the part."

Mr. Wang and his reeds have just come back from playing the Richard Strauss Oboe Concerto in China. But now he's getting ready to go to the moon with the Ruders concerto, written in 1998 for Swedish oboe virtuoso Helén Jahren. Each movement (Lake of Dreams, Ocean of Storms, Sea of Tranquility and Lake of Death) corresponds to a crater found on the moon."In the individual movements, he wants to create a solitary walk at night," Mr. Wang explains.

"You are passing the lake in pale moonlight," he says. "You are fully awake and part of a dream--your own dream. There is a certain sadness--a tremendous amount of sadness in the harmony. But there's also a little bit of hope. As a performer, I can highlight the chords I am playing, to make them a little bit colder and warmer as needed."

"The second movement, Ocean of Storms it's almost a bit like Debussy," he says. "There's this motive "Da-dada-dah" that's like the second movement of La Mer but its written in its own musical language."

"(The oboe part) goes between registers. It has to line up with the orchestra and it's complex but in some ways simple. It's simple in that it's one line that goes out and through the melody. Poul told me that it's all about keeping that one dramatic line--eventually you are reaching the safety of the shore."

Born in 1980 in Qin Dao, China, Liang Wang studied oboe at the Beijing Central Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He joined the Philharmonic in 2006, after stints with the San Francisco Symphony and the Santa Fe Opera.

"My uncle was an oboe player. I heard him play the oboe solo in Swan Lake and I fell in love with the oboe," he says. "It's a very soulful instrument and extremely individual." He points out that it has a tone quality that you can hear right away, and can be a signature sound of any orchestra."

Although there are few concertos written for the oboe (notable ones were composed by Mozart and Richard Strauss) the instrument plays a key role in many orchestral works. "I get to play an oboe solo on almost many nights. In the concerto you are a soloist--but part of being a great soloist is to know ehtn to be heard when not to be heard. The same rule applies to orchestral works."

"It's very different for solo winds," he relates. "After twenty bars of rest, you need to play this beautiful oboe solo. When you are on, you are on. There's no room for any error."

"Playing a solo, you have more of a chance to express yourself through the whole piece. There's a different kind of pressure, but you also have to be part of a whole picture." He adds: "When you play, say the Brahms Violin Concerto, the pressure is condensed."

The first of two CONTACT! concerts is at the Met Museum on Friday at 7pm, to be followed by a Saturday 8pm performance at Symphony Space. Both performances will be conducted by music director Alan Gilbert.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.