Given that I’ve earned a living as a composer for several decades, it’s still difficult to explain how this came about. I remember my musical education being very patchy, including almost no specific composition tuition. I recall piles of harmony exercises and fugues at college, and my too-sketchy abilities on piano and organ.
So how did music become my lifetime job? I now realise it was thanks to the oboe, which I began learning at age 11. I began borrowing ‘the school oboe’, followed later by lessons with a great musician and oboist, Robin Miller. Then came performing in bands and orchestras, and, despite the unavoidably baroque atmosphere of the oboe, playing improv and even jazz. For such a polite instrument, it demanded workmanlike skills such as carpentry (making the reeds) mechanics (caring for the tiny keywork) and even the occasional bit of soldering.
Judith Weir. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega
So when Adelaide Symphony Orchestra principal Celia Craig asked had I ever thought of writing an oboe concerto, I didn’t treat it as I usually do commission requests, doubtfully asking myself, “How long will it take to write? Will anyone else play it ever again?” Instead I had the strongest feeling: “I must do this, and it’s high time I did.” Later, I discovered a link to one of the most well-loved of all oboe concertos, by Bohuslav Martinu˚. Its Czech dedicatee, Jiří Tancibudek, taught at the Elder Conservatorium, in the position now held by Celia. It seemed like a magical blessing for our project, which aimed to stream new oboe music from our far-distant locations across the world.
Fortunately, ASO’s Simon Lord, a long-time supporter from my years in Glasgow, was able to make this a reality, involving two more orchestras, WASO and TSO, in the commission, and inviting conductor Douglas Boyd, himself a former oboe soloist of world renown, to direct the premiere.
But even with a host of oboe-minded supporters cheering you on, your oboe concerto does not write itself. Now with a composer’s beady eye/ear, I found the composition challenging, trying to conjure up substantial paragraphs from a slender, reedy line. But as time went on, I found I was ‘re-learning’ something I’d presumed I knew a lot about. Traditionally the oboe is lyrical, but I began to see that it’s also percussive, with sharp-edged attacks available on prominent pitches. I ended up with a new view of my old instrument. Well worth the long journeys in space – London to Adelaide, Perth and Hobart – and time: 53 years since I picked up that school oboe!
Celia Craig performs the world premiere of Judith Weir’s Oboe Concerto with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Boyd, October 12 – 13