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A Tale of Three Oboists

Twelve musicians have served as principal oboist of The Cleveland Orchestra. They are:

Dominic Aldi (1918/19)
Albert Marsh (1918/19)
Philip Kirchner (1918/19 to 1946/47)
Bert Gassman (1947/48 to 1948/49)
Emanuel Tivin (1949/50)
Marc Lifschey (1950/51 to 1958/59)
Alfred Genovese (1959/60)
Marc Lifschey (1960/61 to 1964/65)
Robert Zupnik (acting co-principal 1964/65)
Adrian Gnam (acting co-principal 1964/65)
John Mack (1965/66 to 2000/01)
Jeffrey Rathbun (2001/02 to 2002/03)
Laura Griffiths (2003/04 to 2004/05)
Frank Rosenwein (2005/06 to present)

Looking at this list, three artists stand out for the length of their tenures: Philip Kirchner, Marc Lifschey, and John Mack. These three have helped shape the sound of The Cleveland Orchestra, and are legendary members of its history. They are also integral parts of the history of American oboe playing: all three studied with Marcel Tabuteau, generally acknowledged as the most influential oboe pedagogue in American history. Tabuteau was able to synthesize a French sound (slightly nasal with a fast vibrato) with more relaxed, American styles of playing to create something entirely new. His students, including Kirchner, Lifschey, and Mack, carried this tradition through the twentieth century, and passed it on to students of their own. In fact, the current Principal Oboist of The Cleveland Orchestra, Frank Rosenwein, studied with Mack, and continues the legacies of Tabuteau’s teaching to this day.

Philip Kirchner
Played with the Orchestra 1919-1949

Philip Kirchner was born in Vilna, Russia in 1892, and moved to New York in 1906, where he continued his oboe studies with Tabuteau and Bruno Labate. He played with the Barrière Ensemble, the Russian Symphony Orchestra, and eventually the New York Philharmonic from 1915-1919. During this time, he also occasionally made appearances with John Philip Sousa’s Band! He then joined The Cleveland Orchestra at the end of their first season, in May 1919. The Cleveland Press raved that “to hear him taper a phrase to the sheerest pianissimo, always with the most perfect tonal control, is an experience.”

Ernestine Alderson provided a colorful description of the man: “Kirchner’s long blond face has an oblique expression; there are people who say all oboists look like an oboe sounds. He walks three miles every day to practice deep breathing and gain breath control, another indispensable acquirement for the oboe player, who must have superb lung capacity, and the power to blow slowly through the very fine aperture in the reed. Kirchner has an athlete’s bearing, and says he eats and drink like other people only when he is not going to play the oboe.”

Take a listen to Kirchner’s playing in an excerpt from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica”:

Kirchner relaxes at home with his dog.

Marc Lifschey
Played with the Orchestra 1950-1959 and 1960-1965

Marc Lifschey was born in New York in 1926. A precocious talent, he performed with the NBC Symphony right out of high school, and, after a year of service in the Army, became the principal oboe of the Buffalo Philharmonic. He soon left this job, however, to study at the Curtis Institute of Music with Tabuteau. Upon graduation, he became principal of the National Symphony, and then left in 1950 to join The Cleveland Orchestra at the invitation of Music Director George Szell. He served until 1965, although his tenure was interrupted for a year when he decided to move back to New York, care for his ailing father, and play in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. After leaving Cleveland in 1965, he became principal oboe of the San Francisco Symphony, and later taught at Indiana University. He retired in 1971 and moved to Oregon, where he died in 2000.

In an article about his passing, former principal horn player of The Cleveland Orchestra Myron Bloom praised his colleague: “He did things on his instrument no one ever did before, and I don’t think anyone will do after…He would play and people’s mouths in the Orchestra would drop open. It was so special, he wasn’t an oboist anymore. It was just like you talk about a great singer or Jascha Heifetz or [Pablo] Casals. He was right there in that class.” See why in this recording from 1956:

John Mack
Played with the Orchestra 1965-2001

Perhaps the most legendary of this group, however, is John Mack. He served as Principal Oboist of the Orchestra for 36 seasons, the longest of any oboist. Mack was born in 1927 in Somerville, New Jersey, studied with Tabuteau and Bruno Labate in high school, and went on to receive degrees from the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute. He played in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Orchestra while the company was on tour in North America, the New Orleans Symphony for eleven seasons, and the National Symphony for two seasons before joining The Cleveland Orchestra at age 37.

Mack was as much a legendary teacher as he was a player. He was the longtime chair of the woodwind department at the Cleveland Institute of Music, was also on the faculty at the Juilliard School, Blossom Music School, and was a founder of the John Mack Oboe Camp. In addition, he had an active schedule of masterclasses and coaching sessions across the country.

John Mack teaches students at the John Mack Oboe Camp in 1977. Photo by Brian Westveer.

Felix Kraus, the Orchestra’s English horn player from 1963-2004, remembers that Mack would occasionally close his folder of music during performances of Brahms symphonies. He had learned the parts as a student by playing along with recordings, and had them memorized. Nothing ever went wrong, of course, because as Kraus noted, “it was Mack, after all.”

Here is a recording from John Mack’s very first concert with the Orchestra, in the incredibly difficult first movement of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin:

In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mack said of playing the oboe, “If you’re going to play the oboe, you have to have elementary bravery, or you’re in big trouble. Some of them are nutty, wild and unreasonable. I call myself a quintessential Cleveland Orchestra player — orthodox, but zippy, and nonwacko. I hate wacko.”

Take a listen to this (decidedly nonwacko) recording of the first of many concerto appearances that Mack gave with the orchestra, performing the Marcello Oboe Concerto on New Year’s Day, 1967:

On this weekend’s concerts, Frank Rosenwein, The Cleveland Orchestra’s current Principal Oboist, will be performing Vaughan Williams’ beautiful oboe concerto. Despite having such a strong lineage of oboe soloists, the Orchestra has never performed this wonderful work. Don’t miss it!

—Sophie Benn

Sophie Benn is an intern this season with The Cleveland Orchestra Archives. She is a PhD student in musicology at Case Western Reserve University.

Except as noted, all photographs and recordings courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.

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