Oboe Quartet

by Jennifer Bryce

The tuning of open fifths intensifies as I climb the stairs. I juggle my oboe case and music stand and push open the door to Kurt’s studio. And there they are; Felix intimately absorbed with his cello, Marta rubbing her viola bow with resin and Kurt placing a tuning fork on his violin, listening, like a doctor with a stethoscope. They look up, nod a welcome, and return to their tasks.

I assemble my oboe and soak the reed I’ve been scraping all morning. It’s homely in here, a warm gas fire and that deep-seated reassurance of working with colleagues. The floor-to-ceiling windows show a grey afternoon, a fickle sun, the remnants of autumn.


‘I trust you don’t mind Mary-Louise listening to our rehearsal?’ Kurt looks over to the one comfy armchair where his star pupil, grey hoodie, pink leggings, is hunched over the score. I recognise her from the recent Youth Concerto Competition where she gave a technically brilliant performance of Haydn’s G Major violin concerto.

We take our places and open the music, Mozart’s Oboe Quartet.

‘Let’s take it from the top.’ Kurt tucks his violin under his chin and gives the upbeat to begin.

This piece inspired me to take up the oboe when I was thirteen. My grandparents gave me a recording of it played by a local trio on one of those old vinyl 33 rpms. I used to listen to it over and over, putting the stylus back on the first groove as soon as the final high F died away. I started lessons, but all I could produce was an uncontrollable honking and sometimes, when the reed was too hard, no sound at all. While I practised tedious exercises and tone production I used to imagine myself playing this piece, the mellow notes smooth and controlled.

Today is the first time I’ve played this piece with the correct instruments. When I did ultimately get to study it at the conservatorium there was only piano accompaniment. Now, the violin and viola imitate my phrases and the cello gives a resonant foundation – as it should be.

At the end of the first movement we have a brief discussion. Should we slow down in the last bar? How should those final quavers be played? Not too staccato. Onto the magic of the slow movement. My reed allows me to play the first bars very softly then to make a gentle crescendo. I use the harmonic fingerings that my teacher showed me back when I studied the piece at the conservatorium. They help to keep the very high notes stable, so that they don’t fly off in a harsh, strident way. How did oboists manage in Mozart’s day when an oboe was a recorder-like instrument with a couple of levers fitted? Mozart composed this piece for a virtuoso, Felix Ramm. We can never know what Ramm’s performance sounded like.

‘Let’s take a break before we tackle the final movement.’ Kurt wipes his violin with a velvet cloth.

As if she were waiting in the wings, his wife appears with a tray of plunger coffee and poppy-seed cake. We stand, pleased to stretch our legs. Mary-Louise stays in her chair, sucking flavoured milk.

‘So what do we know about the happy couple?’ Marta licks poppy-seeds from her fingers. ‘We don’t usually get such a specific request for weddings.’

‘She’s a local girl.’ Kurt has made the arrangements.

‘Is she a musician? An oboist?’ Marta looks across to me.

I gesture that I don’t know.

‘I think the groom is a muso – a member of the symphony orchestra, but not an oboist.’ Kurt brushes crumbs from his beard. ‘It’s a big society wedding. They’ll fill the cathedral. Oh – and it’s to be colourful. We’ll wear our crimson shirts. Did you hear that Felix?’

Felix has been standing at the other end of the room with a radio to his ear, checking the football scores. He nods to Kurt.

‘We’d better get back to the final movement,’ Kurt picks up his violin.

Felix holds up his arm. ‘Hang on a sec, Riewoldt’s going for a goal.’

Everyone waits until Felix’s face relaxes, he smiles and turns off his radio. We return to our seats.

Kurt sets a very lively pace. I would like it a little slower because there’s a tricky semiquaver passage coming up where it’s easy to lose control. That passage always reminds me of studying the piece at the conservatorium, the time I played it to Julian Montgomery. How naïve I was in those days! It must have been in Second Year, with Julian Montgomery for Chamber Music. He was an attractive young flautist. In my nineteen-year-old way, I had let slip some remark about slow movements being tedious. Julian disagreed and suggested that I needed some ‘guided listening’ after class. The other girls were envious. I stayed back each week and listened to a selection of slow movements in Julian’s poky office. One day he suggested that his own sound system was much better, so we went to his nearby apartment. Gradually wine and incense were introduced. And one day, during Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante for Violin and Viola, we made love as the venetian blinds clunked in a gentle breeze. In the midst of a rapturous embrace I told Julian that I was planning to play the quartet for my mid-term recital.

‘It’s far too difficult,’ he laughed. ‘You’re not ready for it yet.’

I’d been working on the tricky semiquaver passage in the third movement. I’d played it backwards, forwards, in triplets, in dotted rhythms. I could do anything, I thought.

Half dressed, I swaggered over to the music stand, put my best reed in my oboe and played the third movement.

I finished.

Julian was silent.


‘As I said, you’re not ready for it. Your playing is so pedestrian! You treat it like a technical exercise.’

No. I’d played it faultlessly. I pushed my uncleaned oboe into its box. Snatched up most of my clothes, and stormed out.

It was, of course, the end of the affair. And the end of me attending Chamber Music. I didn’t play my oboe at all for nearly a month; gave excuses for my oboe lessons and sulked around watching day-time TV with the word ‘pedestrian’ lurching around in my brain.

Some friends studying Architecture talked me into going with them to a party – a crowd of different people. We sat around smoking and listening to Charlie Parker. His playing seemed so effortless, so warm. The next day I bought a book of jazz scales and tentatively got out my oboe and tried them. As I played, in the back of my mind I could hear my teacher saying, ‘You’ve got to move beyond technique – it’s a means, not an end.’

I returned to the conservatorium at the beginning of the winter term and sheepishly fronted up for an oboe lesson. My teacher seemed to understand. I had to submit to repetitive exercises and tone production to ‘get back into shape’. No more Chamber Music classes.

Now, we’re playing at such a fast tempo, the piece comes undone at the tricky semiquaver passage, as I’d feared. Kurt asks Felix to emphasise the beat more. It hangs together – just. We try playing it very slowly and gradually increase the tempo. It needs more work, but everyone is tired and it’s getting dark outside.

‘It’ll be right on the night,’ says Felix – a favourite phrase of his, which really means that he thinks it’s time to pack up.

There will be another rehearsal.

‘Perhaps we could focus on the third movement next time?’ I don’t share Felix’s confidence.

Mary-Louise’s mother comes to collect her and she and Kurt have a quiet conversation near the door.

Within minutes we’re outside in our cars, peering through fogged-up windscreens as we negotiate the slippery bends of Kurt’s drive-way.

Col and I always have bacon and eggs on Sunday mornings. We’re mopping up the last of our eggs and starting on second cups of coffee when the phone rings. Col answers and passes it to me. It’s Kurt.

‘How do you think it went yesterday?’

‘Not bad for a first rehearsal. There’s a fair bit of work to do on the third movement.’

‘I’d like Mary-Louise to play the violin part.’

‘What? Surely not. Why?’ So that’s why she was there.

‘It would be a good experience for her.’

‘No doubt it would. But this is a professional engagement. We can’t afford to compromise anything.’

‘We won’t be compromising anything. She’s a very talented student.’

‘She’s extremely talented for her age. But it’s unreasonable to plunge her into a professional engagement.’

‘Unreasonable? Unreasonable in what way?’

‘It’s asking a lot of Mary-Louise – and even more of the group. We’re used to playing together. We’re not used to playing with her.’

‘She will enhance the group.’


‘Her youth and vitality.’

‘Yes Kurt – but what about experience?’

‘Experience – bah!’

‘We can’t afford to stuff it up . . .’ Oops, I shouldn’t have said that.

‘Stuff – it – up? What makes you think that she will stuff it up?’

‘I know she plays very well. But for a performance like this you need experience.’

‘We’re going around in circles. Experience. That’s the reason for her playing. I’ve given her the music to practise. I know she will do a good job. It’s a great opportunity. See you next week.’ He hangs up abruptly.

‘What was all that about?’ asks Col.

I explain. ‘Opportunity. He said it’s a great opportunity. Do you know what? I reckon he sees it as an opportunity to show-case his prize student. It’s a big wedding. The groom is apparently in the symphony orchestra – the guests will include some people worth impressing.’

‘It’s not right,’ Col thumps down his coffee mug. ‘He’s changing the deal.’

‘There’s not a lot I can do – he leads the group.’

‘You give in too easily.’

Col doesn’t understand. I pretend to read the Sunday paper and try to imagine what benefits there might be in playing with Mary-Louise. I was never a child prodigy or the winner of competitions. It’s one thing to be a soloist, but to play as a member of a group requires different skills. Mary-Louise undoubtedly has youthful virtuosity but can she play in an ensemble?

My earliest musical experiences were in ensembles. After battling with the honking sound, the hard reeds, the fly-away pitch, I was invited to play in a school orchestra. My own school didn’t have an orchestra, but a neighbouring school did, and no one at that school played oboe. No audition, I was there because I played the right instrument. It was a concert of Haydn’s Surprise symphony and for the first time I felt the thrill of contributing to the whole. Some other experiences weren’t so good, like the pit orchestra for Oklahoma, when I couldn’t get my reed to work and for most of the time couldn’t make any sound, just occasionally a raucous note blurted out.

Even now, ten years after my graduation from the conservatorium, Col has to put up with my nerves when I’m asked to give a solo performance. I fret over reeds, clean out the mechanism to prevent condensation, devote hours to running over tricky passages – backwards, forwards, in triplets, slow, fast. When a concert is imminent these things take precedence over everything else. Yet chamber music has come to be my favourite form of music-making.

The day of our one last rehearsal is bleak. As I drive up the slippery road, Kurt’s place looms menacingly through mist.

Mary-Louise, in luminous tartan leggings, is already warming up, swiping at the opening chords of the Bach E Major concerto. I say hello and play an A for her to tune to. Everyone else goes through the tuning ritual.

We take our places, and Kurt, needing to retain some authority, acts as conductor. He stands behind Mary-Louise’s chair and brings everyone into the first movement at a rather slow tempo; ‘Three, four . . .’.

We feel our way. Not surprisingly it is mechanical and stolid. Make music with me Mary-Louise. She plays the phrases accurately. There is usually a slight pause at the repeat bar, which allows me to take a good breath. But Mary-Louise doesn’t sense this at all and hurtles into the first theme. I manage to snatch a breath without missing a beat. It’s a bit hair-raising.

At the end of the first movement Kurt taps Mary-Louise’s chair with his bow. ‘Bravo! What do you think of my prize student?’

What can we say? She has read the music well. Not many fourteen year-olds could do that. Kurt suggests that the violin and viola work on some phrases together. Felix listens to the footy and I stare through the windows to the fog.

We play through the first movement again and then onto the second. I have to shape my part to Mary-Louise’s accurate but rigid interpretation, as though the piece were a concerto for Mary-Louise.

It’s starting to get dark and we haven’t yet tackled the tricky part in the third movement. Mary-Louise’s mother arrives and blows her a kiss.

‘One, two . . .’ Kurt conducts everyone in. It limps along and then Mary-Louise takes off, playing double time. Everything falls to pieces. We try it again with Kurt tapping out a strong beat on the back of Mary-Louise’s chair. We keep together, but rather than flowing as it should, the semiquaver passage is jerky.

‘We made it!’ says Kurt proudly. He turns to Mary-Louise’s mother. ‘She has played splendidly.’

As the rest of us pack up, we exchange knowing looks.

On the drive home I try to figure out how to achieve the best performance. The first step is to talk to Kurt, but I don’t hold much hope for changing his mind.

Col pours me a gin and tonic and I dial Kurt’s number.

‘You’re unadventurous,’ he argues. ‘Mary-Louise provides a fresh approach.’

I wonder whether my own attempts back in the days of Chamber Music at the conservatorium would have been described as ‘a fresh approach’. I try again to make my point that Mary-Louise is brilliant for her age, but you can’t foist an inexperienced player into an established group and expect to create magic.

Kurt is obdurate.

I must move to Plan B, which is to work with Mary-Louise. I arrange a rehearsal after school.

Mary-Louise arrives at my house, humbled a bit in her school uniform. Her mother insists on staying. We set up in the living room – the only warm room in the house. Her mother perches awkwardly on the edge of the sofa.

‘Let’s start by listening to my favourite recording of the piece,’ I suggest.

‘She knows the piece perfectly well. We don’t have a lot of time. She has home-work, you know.’ The mother sits bristling.

‘All right. Let’s concentrate on the third movement, then.’

Mary-Louise seems to be listening and trying to follow me, but the mother keeps snapping her handbag open and shut.

I sense that Mary-Louise is listening more carefully and blending better. She can play extraordinarily well. Another hour and we would be making music together.

The mother stands up. ‘Come on, darling, we really must be going.’ She turns to me. ‘This is wasting her time.’

Mary-Louise obediently packs up her things, crumpling the score into her bag with gym shoes and lunch scraps. I lend Mary-Louise my spare crimson shirt so that she will, at least visually, blend with the group on Saturday.

I hardly sleep at all on the Friday night. Col retreats to the spare room to give me a bit of space to toss and turn, to get up and pace around, to drink soothing cups of tea. I go for an early morning walk, rugged up with a scarf and beanie. When I arrive home he is cooking my favourite mushroom omelet. I try to eat it. I get out the reed I’ve been working on all week. The phone rings. It’s Kurt.

‘Bad news, I’m afraid.’

‘Oh, no. What’s happened?’

‘It’s Mary-Louise. Her mother won’t let her play in the group. She seems to have taken a dislike to you. Says you don’t appreciate her daughter’s musical ability. I’ve placated her by suggesting that Mary-Louise play a solo while they sign the register. You’ll just have to put up with me for the Quartet. I’d like to run through that tricky part in the third movement. Can you be there at one thirty?’

‘Of course.’

We assemble at one thirty in the cathedral. At first the playing is a bit restrained. Then everyone relaxes. The bell-like high notes drift up to the spire. My phrases are echoed by the violin and viola. My reed is just right. Guests start to clatter into the seats. It’s time to adjourn to the vestry.

It’s the usual wait. I’ve got my oboe tucked under my arm to keep it warm, and my reed soaking. I take a few deep breaths to control the inevitable nerves. I’m ready.

Someone knocks at the door.

‘Do you mind if the groom waits with you? The bride is running a little late.’

‘That’s fine,’ says Kurt.

The door squeaks open. The groom is wearing a morning suit – very formal – immaculate black patent leather shoes, well-tailored grey trousers, a faint stripe through the jacket that sits well on the shoulders, a blonde goatee beard, familiar – yes – it can’t be!

He gives me a subtle wink.

It’s Julian Montgomery.