The Mozart Oboe Concerto begins normally enough. The orchestra introduces two themes, one jaunty, one questioning. But then something odd happens.
“The oboist enters with this crazy scale up to a high C,” says Jelena Dirks, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Oboe. She laughs out loud at the absurdity of this surprise interruption. “It is a showpiece-kind-of-rule-breaking opening. The oboist actually never plays the main melody!”
Jelena takes the Emerson Concert Stage at Powell Hall this month with Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin to play what she calls “an iconic concerto.” The Mozart concerto is something of a rite of passage for oboists, says Jelena, and the work has been in her life since she learned the first movement in high school.
The concerto was written for Giuseppe Ferlendis, a Salzburg oboist admired by Mozart. “It really runs the gamut of everything that you can do as a musician,” says Jelena. She describes it as “finger-y,” pushing an oboist’s technical boundaries. “And it has that characteristic Mozart demand for absolute beauty and perfection.”
But Jelena’s absolute, knock-down, favorite part? The second movement, which she calls “an aria” for oboe and orchestra. “You are in this effortless, singing, ‘break-your-heart’ world, which is my favorite place to be.”
The human voice lies deep in Jelena’s soul. Her grandmother was a singer and her parents sang in the local church choir. Later, her mother played as concertmaster of the San Diego Opera Orchestra. “I was always around singing,” she says.
At St. Olaf College, Jelena studied both piano and oboe. She was headed for a career as a vocal coach, a pianist who prepares singers for performances. “I took diction classes, language classes, singing lessons. I sang in the choir. I played as much art song as I could.”
“I don’t have much of a voice,” she says. “If I did, I think I would have been a singer myself, but I really try to sing through the oboe. That is probably one of the most important things to me as an oboist: to sound like I’m singing.”
I talk to Jelena on a late summer afternoon. On our call she laughs a lot. Sometimes nervously, sometimes boisterously. Sometimes at an unexpected comment, sometimes in surprise. Joy always threatening to bubble to the surface.
Jelena’s position in the SLSO is right at the center, “in the heart of the orchestra, surrounded on all sides by this amazing sound.” But, she says, “I don’t get much audience interaction there. It is so great to go to the front of the stage and be up and close with the audience. That connection is so important.”
There, she will be just a few feet from Leonard Slatkin. Jelena recalls her first time working with Leonard, 15 years ago, as a substitute oboe with the Chicago Symphony.
He had been a hero of hers, as the conductor of many of her favorite recordings, which also feature past SLSO Principal Oboe Peter Bowman. Now, to be playing a concerto with Leonard? Jelena remembers thinking, “It’s such an honor.”
For oboists, the Mozart has another meaning: it is asked for in every orchestral audition. “In an audition, you might get to play the first page, so the opportunity to play all of it in the orchestral setting is wonderful!”
I tentatively ask Jelena about her many past orchestral auditions. Some players are wary of revealing their professional struggles, but she just laughs. “I’m an open book.”
Jelena didn’t find success until she realized something important: “I had to fight for it.” Fighting meant exposing her musical self, getting rejected, learning what she could, and doing it again. “It’s not just about how you’re playing, but about your determination.”
Audition days can last more than twelve hours: playing, nervously waiting, playing, nervously waiting. “A grueling experience,” she says.
Jelena remembers a moment in her SLSO audition day. It was after dinner; Jelena had played several times and was tired, nervous. “If this is meant to be,” she remembers thinking, “I’m going to fight as hard as I can. But for right now, I need to rest.”
The first movement of the Mozart concerto is marked Allegro aperto. Allegro is a standard marking, indicating a quick tempo and bright feeling. Aperto is more unusual. It translates as “open.”
I ask Jelena what that term means to her. “There’s a sharing of yourself in this piece. And maybe that’s what really being a musician is all about. A sharing of your musical thoughts and ideas.”
“To be open,” she says, “you have to project those musical thoughts out into the hall, with the orchestra, the conductor, and the audience all together. What a wonderful thing that is.”