Interview with Philippe Tondre
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How were your beginnings in music / with the oboe? Were there more musicians in the family ?
Everything started at the music school in my hometown Mulhouse, France. It was very convenient because the school was ten minutes away from our house, so I really enjoyed going there for all the activities.
To be honest, oboe wasn’t my first choice. The system in France is very well constructed. All of us had to first go through one year of “solfège” (I was about five years old at that time) : we were taught fundamental things such as rhythm, how to read notes, clap your hands while singing, dancing to the right tempo, it was fun. At the end of the first year, instrumental professors came to the classes to present all the instruments available in the music school. We could discover all different kinds of sounds, touch and see the instruments – for kids the physical aspect is very important, maybe the most important at first, I don’t know… I chose the flute, I can’t say now why I wanted to play it, however, I must say I always liked the smoothness of the sound and the virtuosity the professor was achieving with it.
I was 6 years old with no front teeth and couldn’t really get a decent sound out of the flute. So, my mum and I went to the secretary to ask to change instrument, find something that maybe would suit me better. She told us there was a place available in the oboe class. I had absolutely no idea about the oboe, during the presentations, I must have been playing with my classmates or not paying attention… We entered the class, Yves Cautrès (oboe professor in Mulhouse at that time, he is now professor in Clermont-Ferrand and studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Lyon) welcomed me with a big smile, full of energy and said I should try. This was my first contact with the instrument. It was successful because I immediately produced a sound out of the reed and then by extension the oboe. The tickelish lips were at first quite odd, but it was fun.
Isabelle, my sister, plays the flute, but I am the only musician in the family. My dad, my mum and my sister love music very much, my father was a dentist, he kind of made music everyday with his instruments too !
When did you decide that you wanted to dedicate the oboe professionally ?
This is a difficult question to answer. I loved playing, practising, I enjoyed oboe playing, it was a hobby. One day I met Jean-Louis Capezzali (Professor at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Lyon) who told me I had the potential to do big things with this instrument, I was fourteen years old. However, he added at the end of his talk, that if I wanted to choose this path, I would have to sacrifice a lot to get to the highest level. I think at that point, I thought to myself, all right, let’s give it a chance, why not ? As I always give everything I have when I do something, I started really practising, training and took music and the oboe more seriously.
Which teacher has influenced you the most ?
This is also a difficult question to answer, because all of them influenced me tremendously. Yves Cautrès gave me everything, all the fondamentals, the way of practicing, my sound, I still practice now like I used to when I was a child and a teenager, of course things have changed but the main caracteristics of practicing are still there.
In the early stages I met many professors : Sebastien Giot, Guy Laroche, Hervé Lenoble, Hélène Devilleneuve, Nora Cismondi, Jérôme Guichard, Jean-Louis Capezzali, Emmanuel Abbühl, Dominik Wollenweber, Jacques Tys, Maurice Bourgue. They all inspired me with their personalities and their aesthetics, I remember each one of them, every sound, I have all their tips written down in my books and I used to take with me on these courses.
After Mulhouse, I went to Paris, I joined David Walter’s class in the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. It was a hard time for me, I had to finish my A Levels at school and simultaneously start my studies at the conservatoire. David pushed me to my limits, he was a fantastic guide in the music for me. I learned how to produce a diversity of colours in the sound, to phrase in style, to analyze scores. David is incredibly creative, in lessons you had to be as creative as him, he was like a force guiding you, you would come out of lessons transcended. It was a very precious time.
At the conservatoire, Frédéric Tardy was also very important. I still remember my lesson before the audition for the solo oboe position in Stuttgart, he always said : “take risks, never hesitate and also never regret”, I liked this psychology very much.
Although I was not in his class, I was very lucky to be able to attend Jacques Tys’s lessons. My best friends Max Werner and Matthieu Petitjean were studying with him at the time. I was fascinated by the purity he was teaching the oboe with, everything made sense. I took one lesson with him before the Geneva International Competition, I remember it very well, there is something profound about his way of connecting with the oboe and the music.
What type of oboe do you play and why did you choose it ?
I currently play an old Marigaux M2, his name is Alfred ! (Because my best friend at school, Lara, used to name her violin Alfred, so I named mine Alfred too) He has been by my side for more than 15 years now. I chose it because it suited me perfectly from the very beginning. You know, this kind of sensation where you can do anything you want, obtain whatever colour you want. Alfred has always been with me and the older he gets, the better he is. He fits perfectly in all the orchestras I play in (SWR, Philadelphia, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Gewandhaus, Budapest, Mito and Saito Kinen). Incredible instrument !
If you had to highlight an oboe repertoire, what would it be and why ?
I love so many composers. Recently I have played a lot of Mahler Symphonies, incredible music, the oboe has beautiful solos, it’s so much fun to play. Schumann is the composer that moves me the most because he is one of the few who within a couple of seconds can transport you from a state of happiness and love to desperation and hell. His music is extremely powerful. My favourite repertoire however is definitely French Baroque, Francois Couperin composed masterpieces for us, I cannot spend a day without listening to his music. I would add that if I could meet a composer, it would be him, for sure.
How were your beginnings in the orchestra ?
I started young in the orchestra. First I played in youth orchestras to get some experience and work on repertoire, then I moved to Stuttgart. At the time, the orchestra was called the Radio- Sinfonie Orchester Stuttgart des SWR. I was very young, maybe too young ; to start playing
in a big major orchestra at the age of 18 is not easy. It was my first audition, it worked, so I started from there. I have amazing colleagues who helped me progress, gain experience, learn about life also, they were always supportive and encouraged me in the more difficult moments. They certainly contributed to the making of who I am today. Studying in Paris and doing the job in Stuttgart was a very intense time.
What did it mean for you to play in the «Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester» ?
I owe a great deal to the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. It’s a big family, there is lot’s of energy there, I still have excellent contact to the team. I gained confidence and experience while playing with the GMJO. It was the first time I worked with a top conductor and played with very talented young musicians. I remember packing my suitcase to go to Interlaken for the first rehearsal. I was very excited, anxious of course and scared because you don’t know what to expect. Everybody was so motivated and the results were stunning. For me it was a great honour to be part of this ensemble and I can only recommend young oboe players to apply, it’s an incredible experience.
What is it like to work at SWR Symphony Orchestra ?
The SWR Symphony Orchestra is a new orchestra, formed by members of the two former SWR Radio orchestras : the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and the SWR Baden-Baden Freiburg Symphony Orchestra. With our new conductor Teodor Currentzis, we work very hard and very intensively to reach the highest level.
Currentzis has brought us all together and makes us work on concentrating our energies to go in one direction. Rehearsals are at times exhausting but the rewards are there as we have already played very successful concerts since the beginning of our Currentzis-Era with highlights in Vienna, Hamburg, Dortmund, Stuttgart, Freiburg, Cologne.
You are also working with “ Mito Chamber Orchestra” (Japan) and more recently with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. What differences do you find when working in a chamber orchestra respect to a symphony orchestra ?
A Chamber Orchestra is smaller, the repertoire is more limited for this kind of ensemble. For my own well-being, it is essential I play in such orchestras. You have to listen constantly, react, communicate and interact. The Mito Chamber Orchestra is an amazing ensemble and cherry on the cake was when I was asked to join the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in March 2019. In both orchestras, every rehearsal is full of life, energy and passion.
The speed of rehearsing is faster, maybe because the conductor or ourselves (should we play without conductor) is/are dealing with less people.
The distances between groups are smaller, so it’s easier to connect with the desks which are normally further apart.
The sound volume is also an issue. In a big symphony orchestra, oboists have constantly to give more. It is difficult, to quantify, I would say we give 20 to 30% more. In the Chamber
Orchestra of Europe and in Mito on the other hand, I have to be capable of playing extremely softly. It’s a real challenge.
In a top Chamber Orchestra total attention to detail and precision is paramount. Nevertheless, the level of concentration required in both forms of orchestra is extremely high.
How is work with the Maestro Ozawa ?
Seiji is one of the greatest ever. I would like to thank him for the inspiration he gives us everyday. For those who have played with him, they will probably support and understand what I am writing now. He is music. He breathes it. You have the feeling his entire body, soul, heart, mind were diped in a giant jar of music as a child, just like Obelix in the magic potion. He played a very important part in my development. He gave me his trust, as a young oboist, to join his ensembles.
What I learned most with Seiji is tempo and timing. He has one of the best time concepts I have ever encountered. Musicians respect him and he also respects them. One of his greatest qualities is he trusts his musicians. This combination has no limits, it is the ultimate goal of conducting I suppose, when musicians and conductor are one.
What is the repertoire in the orchestra with which you feel most identified / the one you like the most ?
I mentioned Mahler before but I think the Mozart Concertos (Piano concertos, violin concertos or the concertante for violin and viola for example) are incredible for the oboe. Just beautiful. Most of the time the lines are with your second oboe partner and Mozart knew exactly the power of the oboe “soul” for those moments. They pop up sometimes in the introductions (for example : Piano Concerto KV466 N°20 in d minor). The lines are simple but full of emotion and beauty.
What director or soloist has made the most impression on your work in the orchestra ?
This is impossible to answer ! I have tremendous respect and admiration for Yannick Nézet- Séguin. Like Seiji Ozawa, he is an incredible human being, trusts his musicians, everything he does is organic, natural, there for the music, to serve the music. He is humble yet demanding at the same time, friendly but precise, a genius. I also admire Kirill Petrenko and his manner of conducting. I saw Berlin Philharmonic in Tchaikovski 5, it was one of the best concerts I have ever heard.
One of my favourite soloist is Frank-Peter Zimmermann. When he plays it’s just about music it looks so simple and humble, yet reaches a form of perfection.
I have learned from them that oboe playing is about making music. I try to sing when I play, I want my oboe to sing, just like a voice, I listen to a lot of singers – Jessye Norman, Joyce DiDonato, Jonas Kaufmann, Philippe Jaroussky – they play a very direct role in my inspiration. In fact, I really think our oboe sound resembles the colour produced by the voice of a counter-tenor – very warm, sensual, melancholic, pure.
Since 2015 you are a professor at Hochschule für Musik Saar. How is this experience for you? How is developing the oboe classroom ?
I very much enjoy teaching. I put a lot of energy and effort into my class. We work intensively and I have an amazing pedagogical Team – Matthieu Petitjean, Solo Oboist, Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra, Stéphane Egeling, Solo-Oboe, Sinfonieorchester Aachen, Grigor Asmaryan, pianist and Eri Takeguchi, cembalist. Currently there are twelve students in the class.
A successful class, is one with a strong, healthy atmosphere, meaning : respect for the others, helping the others, supporting the others, learning from the others.
Lessons are divided in two categories :
- Group Lessons
- Individual Lessons
In the Group lessons, my students work on :
- Technique / Scales
- Group Sight Reading
- Reed making sessions
In the Individual lessons, there are :
- The normal individual lessons
- Individual Sight Reading
Besides all these lessons, I organize weekly auditions :
- Classical Auditions with repertoire pieces
- Orchestra Excerpts Auditions
- Audition Simulations
- Joint Auditions with other classes of the Conservatory
We also organize 4 annual concerts in our concert hall, 2 per semester.
I am very demanding because my own experience has taught me that talent is not enough and if you want to make a career out of oboe playing you have to work very very hard.
You won the most important oboe competitions like : Prag Spring (2008), Sony Japan Tokyo (2009), the IDRS Gillet-Fox Competition in Birmingham (2009), Geneva (2010), the ARD Competition in Munich (2011) and were rewarded from the City of Bonn with the Beethoven Ring. What advice would you give to the oboe students who are preparing for the competitions?
To answer this question I should maybe ask two in return to those who are going to read this : Why do we do competitions ? What do we want to achieve ?
A competition is a competition, so obviously the best one should win the first prize, the second best one the second prize etc… Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.
A music competiton is not like Wimbledon or the US Open. With Art, you are always “judged” by jury members who come from all around the world, with so many tastes and different musical aesthetics. Sometimes decisions and results are beyond all of that, other dimensions may play a role…
The healthier way to regard competitions is to understand that although Prizes are nice and look good on paper, they don’t mean everything. Competitions can destroy you more than bring you something positive in your life if you take them too seriously. What counts is the work and effort put into the preparation which will make you a better musician.
I prepare my students so that they respect the text and present the best possible concert in each round of the competition. The way they analyze the music and their interpretation are important. This will define them as musicians and will make them reach higher levels in their playing, creating emotion and making the music come alive.
When preparing a competition physical fitness is of prime importance. It’s impossible to deliver a four-round full program of oboe music over a 10 day period at the highest level without being in top shape. I spent one hour a day either jogging, swimming, cycling or doing fitness and this helped me tremendously.
Discipline is a second important factor. A strict, daily program to develop technique and to make reeds is essential. It is so important to work progressively and methodically on the program, gradually adding all elements to your work until the pieces almost become “automatic” if I can use that term.
Thirdly, it goes without saying, you require plenty of sleep, good food and no alcohol !
Last but not least, you need luck and inspiration ! When you play you cannot calculate anymore, it’s too late. You have to give it all you have got. Every single round counts, there is not letting-up, no relaxing during the first or second round, it’s go, go, go from the very beginning.
How do you see the music scene in France today ?
Difficult to answer this question as I left the country when I was 18 years old. I heard there are some budget issues in culture, but this is the same everywhere. Paris now has a beautiful Philharmonie, this is good news for the cultural scene in France !
Your new position in Philadelphia has recently been news. How do you approach this new period? What do you expect?
It’s a very exciting time. I can’t wait to begin ! I am sure it will be difficult at times because it is one of the greatest orchestras in the world so I am preparing for the challenges ahead. I shall give my very best to the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is a real privilege to play with such talented musicians. Of course, I am looking forward to discovering Philadelphia and all the cultural opportunities it has to offer.
What do you think about the peoples comments about an European school oboist taking the position in Philadelphia?
First of all, I think the most important aspect is the music. The oboe is probably one of the most versatile instruments – we oboe players all sound so different. What counts is the message we want to communicate with our instruments. The oboe is only a tool helping to reach this goal.
Secondly, I believe it’s very tricky to talk about schools nowadays. As I said above, we all play so differently, every oboist has his type of reeds, every morphology is so different. This is what is fascinating ! I really enjoy playing an instrument that can truly be “personalized” and even maybe “personified”.
If you listen to a recording of Heinz Holliger, no doubt, you recognize him immediately. The same goes for François Leleux, Douglas Boyd or Albrecht Mayer. Furthermore, there are noticeable differences between the oboists playing in America ! Eugene Izotov doesn’t sound at all like Elaine Douvas nor Richard Woodhams nor John Ferrillo. When you listen to them, the message, the voice, the music are at least as important as the sound.
To come back to your question, I know that my appointment has raised certain misgivings and doubts. My message to those who are skeptical is the following : give me a chance ! Come and listen. I would be happy to discuss any issues, I am very open. In my opinion, Music has no borders, we have so much in common and so much to share. I am sure if you listen to me right now, you won’t recognize any “school”. It’s Philippe Tondre, that’s all.
What are your future projects (upcoming concerts, classes …) ?
The next season will be intense. My main focus will be on playing in the wonderful Philadephia Orchestra.
I hope to continue with my solo concerts, masterclasses and of course playing in my Chamber Orchestras which are so important to me and bring me great joy.
Of course at the moment everything is on hold and during these difficult times my very special thoughts go to all doctors, nurses, medical students, victims and people directly affected by COVID-19 who are fighting this war with their lives. I hope that we musicians will be reunited with our public as soon as possible.