A lesson in recording: NACO oboist Charles Hamann discovers much about music and himself

Many people will know Charles Hamann as the principal oboist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. He’s also a uOttawa professor and an avid gardener. Now he’s about to release a two CD set called Canadian Works for Oboe & Piano. He recorded the disc with his uOttawa colleague, pianist Frédéric Lacroix. In advance of the formal release on June 9, Hamann answered emailed questions from ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb. For those interested the disc can be obtained through the Canadian Music Centre.

Q. You have decided to record an album, why now?

A. I’ve wanted to record a solo CD for a long time. Then a couple of years ago, I was learning the Sonata Breve No. 4 by Kingston, Ontario composer John Burge with the wonderful pianist Frédéric Lacroix for a performance abroad where I wanted to showcase a Canadian work. We were coaching the piece with the composer, and I asked John if it had been recorded yet. It hadn’t. Fred and I exchanged smiles and raised eyebrows.

This was the germ of an idea that grew into a two-CD set of Canadian works for oboe and piano. I realized the sesquicentennial was approaching. I had also just learned that NACO would have a long summer break in 2016 because of the Southam Hall renovation. I would finally have some free time tackle a major project. These were two major catalysts to start visualizing a recording project with the Burge Sonata as part of the repertoire.

I had for years wanted to more deeply explore the (Canadian) repertoire for oboe and piano. I have been fortunate to play many fine works of Canadian composers and get to know them in my music career here, but these works were mainly orchestral and chamber pieces. As I dove into the archives at the Canadian Music Centre, I found a huge trove of really fine music that had never been recorded and some that had never even been performed. Many pieces needed better copies and better editions; we undertook both as part of the project. After recording 80 minutes of music in July 2016, we couldn’t decide what to leave out of a 60-70 minute CD. Our producer, Norbert Kraft, suggested finding another 20 minutes of repertoire for a second disc. We put our datebooks together, found some additional wonderful repertoire, and finished therecording in late September. The last piece we recorded, the Twitter Études for solo oboe, was composed in the summer of 2016 by John Burge, whose Sonata Breve got us started. It was recorded on its own in January 2017 and will be premiered at the launch next week.

It was also important to me to commission new work as part of a project to develop the repertoire for oboe. For years Fred and I have worked together with the oboe studio at UOttawa (he is our unofficial “studio pianist”) and I wanted to encourage Canadian oboe students to embrace the repertoire of their own country.  In addition to the Twitter Études by Burge, I commissioned Gary Kulesha to write a major sonata in 2015. His Lyric Sonata is a brilliant new work and uses some of the same micorotonal effects recently heard in his From the Diary of Virginia Woolf that NACO premiered in March. Frederic Lacroix offered to compose us a Sonatine (written in 2015) and it’s another really wonderful piece that will be performed on a Music for a Sunday Afternoon concert (at the National Gallery of Canada) in November.

Finally, 2017-18 is my own 25th year in NACO and I wanted to deepen my own connection to Canada after immigrating in 1993 from the U.S. As a proud Canadian, I felt that this was a way to contribute something unique and personal as an artist.

Q. When is it being released?

A. We are launching on June 9, and we have a launch party on June 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the University of Ottawa in Freiman Hall. We will perform the world premieres of Oskar Morawetz’s Three Fantasies for oboe and piano (composed in 1976 but never performed in its entirety), John Burge’s Twitter Études vol. 2 for oboe solo, and Victor Herbiet’s Élégie Automnale for oboe and piano in an arrangement of the piece he made for me.

Q. What is on the disc?

A. It’s a mix of sonatas, short stand-alone pieces and suites. There are three commissioned works and several works that we have edited. The earliest composition is from 1947 and the most recent is from 2016. The unifying thread is an element of lyricism that permeates all the works. There are many names of living composers that Ottawa audiences will know: Alexina Louie, Gary Kulesha, John Estacio, Frederic Lacroix — 13 diffferent composers in all and 15 different works. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of music.

Q. Why did you choose this repertoire?

A. All the works highlight the vocal, personal quality of the oboe. Some are very technical, some sentimental, others  more abstract or featuring contemporary extended techniques; it’s a wide variety. But all have an essential element of lyrical beauty. None of these pieces (except Incantation by Jacques Hétu) has been recorded before, which was important to us when choosing repertoire. It was amazing to dig into the CMC archives and find so much wonderful music that had never been recorded. This was a way to promote fine Canadian repertoire here and abroad in an important year. The recording features Frederic Lacroix and me. There is one work for solo oboe and the rest of the works are for oboe and piano.

Q. What have you learned about the process of recording from this project?

A. This a really interesting question. I’ve always found recording to be difficult and this project was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken in my career. Despite the challenge, it was a huge opportunity for personal and musical growth and I learned many things. The microphone hears things we don’t hear ourselves; we improve our craft and artistry by recording.

And one needs different things from an oboe reed in an intimate context (we recorded in the Isabel Bader Centre in Kingston) with a microphone three feet in front of you than in playing principal oboe in a concert in a huge hall — it must be far more refined. And you have to do things multiple times, so the reed has to last longer.

Things out of your control can cause problems even in the finest venue. For oboists, our reeds are a constant concern and temperature and humidity issues can cause major problems. Backstage the “weather” is often very different from onstage and adjustments have to be made. Once onstage, just as you’ve played a bit your reed starts to die, and the producer is finally set with his levels and ready to do the first take. Then things are going along fine and the air conditioning kicks in and you get water in the tone holes (a gurgling sound) and you find you are now flat to the piano (cold air makes the pitch go down, warm air makes it go up).

You learn that your best take might be the first one because you soon get very tired or lose focus. … You are forced to improve your own standard when the engineer needs some detail to be just a bit better for his own high standard (his reputation is also on the line). The best producers have psychological and interpersonal gifts to get the best out of their musicians and steer things back on course when they get off track.

Other things I learned: Grant writing is a hugely complex and time consuming process and many fine projects don’t get grants. (We are honoured to have received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council and have another pending grant from the City of Ottawa, but didn’t get every grant we applied for. This project is primarily self-financed.)

We also went over budget and such ventures can be hugely expensive, but it was worth the investment. I made mistakes, we had setbacks and challenges along the way, but I learned so much about this important facet of being a modern classical musician. I’m proud of the finished product and so glad we did it.

Q. Could tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I started piano lessons at age 5. My teacher was a dear friend of my mother’s who is 90 and still playing. I began the oboe at 10 in an elementary school music program in Lincoln, Nebraska. My mother insisted that I have private oboe lessons the summer before starting in the school program — a good idea. I later attended Interlochen Arts Academy for one year and the Interlochen National Music Camp in the summer, where I sat next to a young flutist from Vancouver named Joanna G’froerer. That was the summer of 1989. She later recommended me as a substitute for my predecessor as NACO principal oboe from a list of names shortly after she started her job as principal flute with NACO at 20 (I was 21). That was in October, 1992. A week here for me turned into more invitations to sub and eventually a one-year position. Little did we know as high school students that we would be playing beautiful music for the next 25 years together.

I enjoy gardening in my free time and am very detail-oriented in that endeavour. I live in a heritage property in New Edinburgh and cut the grass for our whole row of connected townhouses. I grew up in the country on 78 acres in Nebraska and it’s in my blood to be out in the yard. I love all the aspects of taking care of a garden and appreciate the time it takes to see the results happen. My neighbors see me fussing over perfect edges to the grass or trimming shrubs and roses; little do they probably know that the same attention to detail is needed to play the oboe and a small garden is perfect for me.

Q. Why the oboe?

My mother took me to orchestra concerts as a youngster. She was a pianist and composer and very involved with music in her community. When it was time to choose an instrument for Grade 5 band, I started listening more carefully. I heard an oboist play a Baroque concerto at a chamber orchestra concert and knew at that moment the oboe was for me.

Canadian Works for Oboe & Piano (on the Centrediscs label)
Who: Charles Hamann, oboe, Frédéric Lacroix, piano
Where: Freiman Hall, Faculty of Music, Pérez Building, University of Ottawa (610 Cumberland St.)
When: Thursday, June 8, 5-7 p.m.
Admission: Free. RSVP.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.