Friday, May 2, 2014

The new Ridenour Lyrique "Libertas": Life, Libertas, And The Pursuit of Perfect Intervals

So, in my line of work (playing in the pits of Broadway national and international tours) there are a LOT of things a fellow has to think about when deciding what gear to take on the road. Usually, these decisions end up in some sort of compromise that generally means I have to work a little bit harder, because I don't generally bring top-of-the-line stuff with me, because, well it's just stupid. (I learned this lesson the hard way on my first tour several years ago, when I brought my 14K gold flute out on the road with me and ended up having nearly two thousand dollars worth of dent removal and adjustment work done after the tour was over. Oops.) 

This is particularly true of wooden current gig requires me to have three clarinets, an Eb, a Bb, and a bass. In a previous entry, I've discussed the choice I made regarding my bass clarinet, which was the Ridenour Lyrique. Not much of a compromise there, actually, as it is every bit as in tune and beautiful-sounding as a wooden bass three times the price. 

However, I've had a slightly different journey regarding my Bb clarinet. My original road horn was a Vito V40, which for a plastic clarinet, is a pretty darn good little horn with great intonation. I'd added a Backun barrel and bell, and honestly, it was a pretty serviceable setup for a professional playing situation, at least in the environmental circumstances I found myself in. (I certainly would not play it in an orchestra, or probably even in a pit on Broadway in New York, but adding in the variable of constant travel changes everything.) Over time, though, I realized that it just wasn't cutting it anymore. The mechanism was giving me all kinds of grief, and the sound, even with the Backun stuff, was a little too bright to be comfortable; the intonation seemed to be getting squirrely, which it never seemed to be before. The only thing I could deduce was that the constant travel and temp/humidity instability was wreaking havoc with the cocobolo parts of my setup, causing dramatic fluctuations in intonation and response, and the damn thing was made in like, 1979, so it was probably time to put it out to pasture. 

I became determined not to have a wood clarinet in the pit. Partially out of a genuine worry about cracking and unstable intonation from day to day, climate to climate; but also partially out of a stubborn resolve to see if I could find a non-wood instrument that did both the score of the show and my own playing standards justice. It became sort of a quest, really. 

The obvious choice to me for the next horn was the Backun Alpha. I'd tried a couple, thought they played fantastically well for the price point (which is excellent), and it's synthetic, so woo, no fluctuations in bore geometry! I bought one from a music store in Memphis, and started using it in the show. Instantly, I felt more secure in certain passages that had been giving me uncertainty-based heart attacks with the Vito, because I knew the mechanism wasn't going to fail me; and instantly the intonation seemed to settle with the rest of the orchestra and everyone gave a big stamp of approval on the new clarinet. (It also is a pretty darn cool looking little thing, which never hurts.) 

Honestly, I would probably have been happy to use it until the end of the tour, but one day, I was exchanging emails with Ted Ridenour, and he mentioned that they had just come out with a new flagship model of hard rubber Bb clarinet. I,  of course, immediately said I'd love to try one, because I love my bass so much and have such respect for Tom Ridenour's design skills. So he said he'd send me one, no obligation,  he knew I'd just purchased a new clarinet, he just wanted me to try it out for a few days and give them some feedback on it. 

Boy, am I ever glad he did! I'm still playing it every day, two months later... 

This thing is simply unbelievable. If you have ever played a Leblanc Opus or Concerto (as I have, for many years), then you have an idea of how incredibly well-tuned this clarinet is, and how easy large intervals are, and how round and lovely the sound is. However, the Libertas is NOT an Opus or Concerto...I daresay it's a bit better. First off, it is made of the same natural hard rubber as the other Ridenour clarinets, so it WILL. NOT. CRACK. EVER. I cannot stress how important this is in the peace-of-mind department, especially for a person who makes most of their living in a dark, dusty, occasionally damp, hole in the floor that is generally situated directly under a direct blast of industrial air conditioning.

Secondly, the sound. Jesus, the sound. It is SO round and lovely and clarinetty and fluid, as you'd expect from an instrument designed by the guy who gave the world the Leblanc Opus. For those who have expressed concern about the projection of hard rubber...fear not, I routinely fill 5,000 seat auditoriums with this instrument's sound. Intervallic response on this instrument is also really spectacular. This particular show is full of legato sevenths, tenths, and twelfths (both ascending and descending), and I nail every one of them, every time, and I don't have to do anything with my face to coax them out. There is no tiny hesitation between notes while the next one is trying to speak, it just...comes out. 

Thirdly, the intonation. I just don't know how much better it can get on a clarinet. No, it isn't totally perfect, BECAUSE IT'S A F*CKING CLARINET. No clarinet is ever going to be perfectly in tune on every note without any adjustment, because it is a tube with fewer than 30 holes drilled into it from which we are expected to produce, what, about 45 different pitches (depending on how high you can play)? So, OBVIOUSLY some mathematical compromises are going to be made in the placement of these holes...what makes one clarinet different from another is how close to the center those compromises are. My Libertas was some rando case that was grabbed off a shelf of clarinets (which had all just been setup by Tom personally, that is), put in a box, and shipped to me. I did not try 5 of them. I did not try 10 of them. I did not go to a dealer or the factory or the US importer and try 25 to 100 of them to find this one. It's just whatever one was grabbed off a shelf and sent to me. 

There has yet to be a variation of more than, at MOST, 10 cents in either direction on any note. I play a D below the staff...just about perfectly centered. I hit the register key, and immediately out pops an A above the staff...just about perfectly centered. 

Tom has put up at least 2 videos that I know of on Youtube demonstrating the remarkably even and consistent tuning characteristics of this clarinet, and I think that speaks for itself. This thing, for a clarinet, is REALLY in tune. 

Next, the keywork. It is just as solid and sturdy as any other clarinet I've ever played. I don't LOVE the Delrin (nylon? I dunno. They're white) pins in the left hand long E/B and F#/C# keys, but hey, I don't like them on the R13, either, and those puppies are three and a half thousand bucks. The Libertas isn't. It isn't even $1500. Know what else you get on a $3,500 Buffet? Nothing else I've written about so far. 

In summation, Tom Ridenour has created a top-of-the-line clarinet that plays really well in tune, smoothly and evenly throughout every register of the instrument with a totally uniform sonority from bottom to top, great keywork, and will never, ever, ever, crack. Ever. 

For $1500. 

I can think of precisely zero reasons not to at least give one a shot...I did, and I'm extremely glad. Maybe you will be, too. 

OH, and for those who are like "Ew, nickel keys suck, I hate them.", I've heard that they're going to be offering them in gold plating soon, so YAY! 

OH OH, I also forgot to mention there's a Libertas in A on the way. DOUBLE YAY! Orchestral players who play lots of pops/outdoor concerts, HOLLA! :) 

OH OH OH, I must also tell you...they are not paying me to say ANY of this stuff. (Just as the other 2,402,780 makers of instruments I've mentioned on my blog haven't paid me anything to say all THAT nice stuff about them, either.) I just like it, so I'm telling you about it. Capisce? 

Peace out from the West Side Story 2013-2014 tour pit, kids! Till next time...  :-) 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Ridenour Lyrique 925 Hard Rubber Low-C Bass Clarinet: Yes, It's A Real Instrument.

I've wanted to write this review for quite some time, but have been procrastinating like crazy because, well, that's what I do. However, as I sit here at a lovely coffeeshop in Anchorage, Alaska watching the sun go down over the mountains three hours before our final Anchorage performance of the 2013/14 North American Broadway revival tour of "West Side Story" (off to Canada for a month on Sunday!), I'm suddenly full of inspiration,'s some rambling! :)

This particular tour is the main reason I decided to buy the Ridenour Lyrique bass. Tonight we finish a two-week run of the show in Alaska, and this weekend, we begin four and a half weeks of performances all over Canada, from Vancouver to Edmonton. While this past couple of weeks have been amazingly mild in Anchorage, temperatures in Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon and Calgary are predicted to stay parked in the VERY minus-double-digits degrees Fahrenheit, and those are conditions I did NOT relish the thought of bringing a $10,000 wood Selmer or Buffet bass through. The hard rubber construction of the Lyrique assures a certain peace of mind in unstable climates that one just does not have with a wooden instrument. Travel between cities can be rather rough on musical equipment, particularly since I often travel my horns with the rest of the pit equipment on the trucks instead of carrying everything with me on the tour bus (which was what I did a couple years ago when I played the flute/picc/clarinet book on the national tour of My Fair Lady, but is highly impractical with a bass clarinet, a tenor sax, and four other smaller instruments). Having played Tom's hard rubber soprano clarinets before, I knew that the bass was going to sound good and having played the Leblanc clarinets he designed for the past nearly 20 years, I knew it was going to be well-designed acoustically and play in tune. What I didn't know was whether or not a sub-$3000 low-C bass clarinet would physically be able to stand up to the rigors of professional touring life (or, honestly, whether or not the mechanism would be up to the demands of a Leonard Bernstein bass clarinet part!).

Well, it is CERTAINLY up to the task. From the second I opened the box and put it together for the first time, this instrument felt like it's been mine for years. I made a short video recording of my very first encounter with the instrument, which you can view here: A Quick First Look At The Ridenour Lyrique Bass Clarinet. Right out of the box, it was a joy to play. The sound of this instrument is absolutely fabulous, with a rich creamy center that doesn't spread as you go higher, even into the altissimo; and the intonation is ROCK solid on this thing, with one noticeable exception: The lowest C# (concert B), is exceedingly flat, 20+ cents on average. However, I have needed to use this note precisely zero times, so it isn't personally an issue for me right now. I will, of course, work on fixing it (perhaps a little building up of the tonehole on the inner surface will do the use this instrument in the long term, I am of course going to have to address this at some point, but it isn't a major, major sticking point. This note tends to be sort of horrendous on most low C basses...). Overall, I was really, really surprised at how little work I had to do to play this instrument well. (I should mention that I am playing on a Ridenour hand-faced bass clarinet mouthpiece, which was included with the clarinet, a mouthpiece I had zero prior experience with, so what you are seeing in this video is truly a brand new encounter with unfamiliar equipment.)

As with any new instrument or mouthpiece, it does of course take a bit of time to get used to the voicing tendencies (hence that small harmonic blip in the altissimo in the video clip), but on the whole, it was remarkable how familiar and comfortable this instrument felt. It does absolutely everything I want it to, and it does it quite easily, which is a wonderful thing, because the very next day I flew to Chattanooga to begin rehearsals and tech for the West Side Story tour, so I literally had zero time to acclimate to this clarinet before using it in a professional setting.

The first real test came during the first rehearsal with the orchestra. I do not play the bass clarinet until the middle of the Balcony Scene, where the bass clarinet enters in unison with the cello on a written low Bb after sitting cold for about 25 minutes, then continues in a beautiful lyrical solo phrase of the "Somewhere" theme, which finishes in unison again with the cello, this time in the lower throat tones, which are notoriously problematic on bass clarinets, both in intonation and tone quality. I needn't have worried, because not only are the F#, F and E nearly perfectly spot-on in tune, they are also much fuller and less nasal in quality than one would expect. They are very nearly...well, cello-like in color. (A quality that our musical director is no doubt highly appreciative of!)

My only criticism of this instrument lies with the basset keywork (low D, C#, C). The thumb key
arrangement is awkward at best to begin with, and the travel of the key touches is quite excessive. When the thumb low D is depressed, I can slide my entire thumb forward underneath the low C# thumb key with room to spare. This makes any sort of rapid chromatic motion in the thumb virtually impossible, and there are no rollers to aid in this. The low C key is actually quite functional and easily accessible, just not from thumb low D. The low C# has a bit less travel, and with a bit of practice (and a long thumb helps), can be made to smoothly transition to low C. The left hand low D lever, however, is basically unusable. The amount of force required to depress this key is so extreme that I cannot fathom using it in any practical situation, the ONLY exception being whenever it chromatically follows a low Eb, which closes most of the pads depressed by the low D lever and alleviates most of the tension caused by requiring the pinky to close the two low F pads, the low E, and the low Eb. I have no doubt that this will be improved in future iterations of the instrument, as the key work has continued to improve since the instrument was debuted several years ago. (Perhaps a future version will include a right-hand pinky low D key!)

The rest of the mechanism is surprisingly very solid, and in the three months that I have been playing this instrument every day, 8 shows a week, the total amount of adjustment required has been a quarter turn of a screw on a bridge key and a small piece of gaff tape around a register key connection. Rather impressive, I think! I do find the RH3 (low G/clarion D) key to be quite stiff, but given the length of the connecting rod to the register mechanism that it operates in addition to the low G tonehole, that's to be expected. It isn't overwhelming, and when the bridge keys are aligned just right, the tension isn't bad at all (or perhaps my finger has gotten stronger over the past couple months!) I would perhaps like to have some more supporting pillars or cradles for the basset mechanism rods, are they are quite long and very prone to flexing, particularly when assembling and disassembling the instrument, but there has been no major issue with them so long as I remember to keep all the corks nice and greased up! ;-)

As David Spiegelthal pointed out in his excellent and concise review of the instrument on the Clarinet Bulletin Board (David Spiegelthal Reviews The Lyrique Bass Clarinet), the bell does need to be turned quite a bit to the left to make the low C key connection work, but this is also not too much of an issue, and I hardly notice anymore.

Close inspection revealed very nicely finished toneholes, a very smooth bore free of burrs or imperfections, and quite meticulously fitted keywork. The Selmer-style upper joint trill keys are particularly attractive to me, and I quite enjoy the left hand low E/B and F#/C# keys, which require only slightly more effort than a Bb soprano clarinet.

The wood-shell case is also very snugly fitted and quite sturdy, with two very heavy-duty latches and a subway handle (end handle), which was a lovely surprise, as I expected a zippered foam horror that offered little to no protection.

I have long been a very big fan of Tom Ridenour's, and I'm very happy to say that my experience with his Lyrique bass clarinet has only added to my admiration. Very few people know the clarinet better or love it more than he does, and it certainly shows in his current offerings. I am very proud (and fortunate!) to be able to say that I make the entirety of my living playing the clarinet around the world for thousands of people a week, and I do it with a Ridenour instrument.

In summation, I would like to emphatically urge all woodwind doublers, or even symphonic bass clarinet players who absolutely cannot afford to buy a Buffet 1193 or a Selmer Privilege to audition a Lyrique bass. I really think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of this instrument!

Check out me shredding some Shostakovich on this thing!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jeff Weissman and Chris McKenna Are Total F***ing Ninjas

Top: Nickel-plated
 Bottom: Gold-plated
If you've read anything else I've ever written so far, you know that I'm pretty nuts about woodwinds, and there aren't a whole lot of makers out there whose instruments I have not tried...The Weissman-McKenna flute, however, has long been one of the rarefied occupants of that list. Their piccolos I've played quite a few of, and they certainly deserve their reputation, because they are fabulous (and beautiful). The flutes, however, have remained a mystery to me until this past Thursday, when on a day of leisure in NYC during a break from my current international touring gig, I decided to pop by the new Chelsea location of Weissman Flutes and see what I could get my hands on. Boy, am I glad I did! Not only did I walk in to see an old colleague and friend, Michael Laderman, who I haven't seen in ages, sitting there, but the awesome Luke Penella (master flute repairman and sax builder!) was there and brought out a very beefy selection of Weissman-McKenna flutes for me to try.

I'm still recovering from the experience. #hyperbolemaybe

I had absolutely NO idea that these flutes would possibly be as awesome as they are. Now, if you know anything at all about the flute business, you know who Jeff Weissman is. Not only is he a master flute tech, great player, sought after teacher, piccolo guru, and proprietor of the largest-inventoried flute shop in America, he also builds one HELL of a flute. In partnership with Chris McKenna (without question one of the most masterful and innovative headjoint makers of our time), they are turning out some EXTREMELY interesting flutes that play like you wouldn't believe. Among the Weissman-McKenna models I tried that afternoon were a solid silver with soldered tone holes that was entirely nickel plated (yes, I said nickel); a silver head/heavywall nickel silver body, also heavily nickel plated; a silver head/nickel silver body heavily gold plated with some of the richest, pinkest rose gold I've ever seen; and a silver head/silver body, unplated. All flutes had stunningly engraved keys and body rings (but not lipplates), D# roller, and C# trill. (I am extremely fond of the C# trill, and it makes me very happy that they put it on almost all of their flutes. The D# roller is quite nice, too.)

That engraving! That D# roller! 

I wish the C# trill was a standard feature on ALL flutes
Now, I suppose the first thing I should address is the whole nickel situation. The vast majority of flute players, myself included, have been conditioned to view nickel as purely the domain of the cheapest, bottom-of-the-totem-pole, factory-made student flutes. I must confess I raised an eyebrow at first when he handed me a nickel plated $6,000 flute. Obviously used to this reaction, he just smiled and said “Play it. You'll like it”...and wow, was he right. The nickel plating lends a brilliant darkness to the sound, and when you're holding a high-end flute covered in nickel, it's almost easy to pretend it's platinum plated, they look so similar. (I personally believe a large part of the stigma surrounding nickel, in addition to its inexpensiveness and use on basic instruments, is the fact that a small percentage of the population is allergic to it. I myself tend to make nickel go cloudy very quickly, which is why I prefer silver or gold on all of my instruments, but I could probably live with it for that sound!) Consistent from model to model is a huge, voluminous, very present sound that possesses almost infinite color possibilities. With the exception of my Sankyo, I don't think I have ever played a flute that responded so well in the fourth octave. Both my friend Michael (an extraordinarily accomplished flutist) and I played all of these flutes, and not a single one of them missed a high D, E, F, (or in Michael's case), F#. Ever. I even (I swear to Cher this is a true story) played a D7 sustained with a dimuendo to p and vibrato! It was almost...PRETTY. I can't even really do that on MY headjoint, and I've had the damn thing for the better part of a decade! I would need to spend some more time with a selection of the same model in various finishes to determine whether or not the nickel has anything to do with this, but my current impression is that the extreme upper range of the instrument is somehow enhanced on the nickel plated models. I had a tiny bit more difficulty up there on the gold plated and bare silver models, though it was still EXCELLENT. (Never. Missed. An. E7. Seriously.)

The gold-plated "Integrity" model, with engraved rings

In an interesting (possibly refreshing?) departure from the current trend of most flutemakers to have an almost dizzying array of different headjoint cuts, the McKenna headjoint paired with the Weissman-McKenna flute is of one type (quite similar to how Muramatsu does things), and it is the result of a great deal of experimentation to find an ideal cut for the demands of today's orchestral and solo player, but without losing the color and personality of the older-style headjoints found on the prized “Golden Age” Powell and Haynes flutes, and even the vintage French flutes. The Weissman-McKenna flute headjoint is a beautifully rounded square cut with nice pillowy overcutting on the sides, but not too extreme. Riser seems to be of medium height, allowing for a wide range of airstream angles and strike points, but without sacrificing either dynamic range, response, or tone color variation. It's really one of the most perfect heads I've played in a while...I'd put it up there with the Hammig 9K or 15% gold heads, I liked it that much. (In fact, and don't tell ANYBODY I said this...I think I might even like it a tiny bit better than my trusty ol' Sankyo RT-3. I know. Wow.)

The last major thing I want to touch on is the scale...the intonation of these things is just freaking FANTASTIC. I literally could not play the dreaded E6 out of tune at any dynamic. It just wouldn't budge (at least not outside of an acceptable range of say, 2 cents). From bottom to top, it slotted beautifully, with no messy weird C# or D issues in any octave, and nothing sagged or spiked in the top. (Even high Ab!)

During the course of the afternoon, I also played a lovely vintage Powell, a brand new handmade Powell, two Miyazawas (a Boston Classic and a 402), a Sankyo 401 (#TeamSankyo!), a Burkart-Phelan, and an amazeballs vintage Haynes, and I firmly believe the Weissman-McKenna flutes stood their ground admirably next to any of these great flutes. (In fact in several cases, the W-M was clearly superior in many aspects).
Weissmans and Powells and Sankyo, oh my!
The shop is incredibly accessible, as are the fellows themselves, so I really would urge you all to get your mitts on one of these and give it a spin! I think you'll dig them. :) (I also have it on very good authority that one of the biggest names in the NY flute scene traded in his prized Powell for a Weissman-McKenna, and is using it 8 times a week to great ovation :) )

Perhaps best of ALL is that the W-M flute is available in a wide range of price points to fit any budget, and the quality is just as good at the lower end of the dollar scale as it is at the top!

Don't just take my word for it, though, go play 'em! :-) 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Divine International Reform-ation...or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Buffet: Part II

While the last entry was devoted entirely to the Buffet Divine, this one will cover the remaining two instruments referenced in the title, the Peter Eaton “International” and the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm model 187. (It turns out I had a lot more to say about the Divine than I thought I did!)

One of the most wonderful things about what I do for a living is that because I travel so extensively, I am frequently able to try out instruments that I never, ever would get my hands on otherwise. My recent trip to Japan provided me with several opportunities to try out instruments on my gearhead bucket list, and one of those instruments was the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm clarinet. The Wurlitzer clarinet is absolutely LEGENDARY in the clarinet world, and has been the de facto instrument of choice for German clarinetists for generations. I have been fortunate enough to try out two different sets of Wurlitzer Oehler system clarinets over the last decade or so, and the reputation is well deserved. The build quality is second to none, and the wood they use is beautifully aged and dense. These days, of course, there are many more clarinet makers than there used to be, even in the world of the Oehler system, but Wurlitzer is still top of the heap, and their Boehm system clarinets are no less impressive.

I don't want this to turn into too much of a drudge-laden history lesson in the development of the clarinet, so I'm going to operate under the assumption that if you're reading this, you are at the very least aware of the difference between Boehm and Oehler system clarinets, and that you know that the clarinet that you and I and every high school band kid in America plays is a Boehm one. The Reform-Boehm clarinet is an effort to merge the facile key system of the Boehm clarinet (with additions and improvements that were originally part of the design, but removed in the early 20th century in a bid to simplify the mass production of the clarinet) with the dark, focused, rich, powerful, colorful sound of the German Oehler system clarinet. It is of course a matter of personal taste, but I find that the inherent tonal quality of the German clarinet to be vastly superior to that of the French clarinet. Wurlitzer's website has a lovely article on the Reform system, complete with musical examples of the improved functionality of the mechanism, which you can read here:

When I was in Tokyo, I went to a shop called Dolce, which is something of a paradise for woodwind junkies. In the clarinet salon, they had a set of Wurlitzer RB clarinets, in Bb, A and Eb, just BEGGING to be tried. I immediately commandeered the Bb and sequestered myself in a trial studio, whipped out my trusty Vandoren B40D German mouthpiece (my Old Faithful!) and went to town. With the very first note I blew, I was in love. Like, crazy scary restraining-order Tony-and-Maria kind of love. The focus in the sound is laser-like, but it's a dark, heavy-cored kind of sound. If it were visible, I'd expect the sound to be a dark velvety royal purple color. (Kind of like a Crown Royal bag, but in light saber form...) It played almost freakishly evenly throughout the entire range of the instrument, with absolutely no change in tonal character from the bottom to the top. It took a few minutes of conscious work to play without the automatic embouchure compensation one gets used to on one's own clarinet, but once I relaxed into it and found the right combination of airflow and embouchure control, the thing just sang. The intonation is EXCELLENT on this instrument. So much so that it almost felt incorrect...I was CERTAIN that the upper clarion was flat, but turning on the strobe tuner proved that to be most untrue. I think we're just so used to feeling and hearing that register of the clarinet sharp and having to compensate for it that NOT having to do that just seems...wrong. The solidity and darkness of the upper clarion and lower altissimo was also quite a unique experience. It just doesn't get thin up there!

The keywork on this clarinet is really what makes you realize that you're playing something quite different. The rollers on the right hand pinky keys, the wraparound speaker key, the left hand Eb/Ab, the resonance keys on the lower joint, the elongated RH1 Eb/Bb touchpiece, the double F/C's a mechanical masterpiece, and it isn't even the fullest system Wurlitzer has to offer. This particular model was lacking the LH3 ring on the upper joint, the C#/G# trill extension and the low E/F correction mechanism found on the model 185. Even so, I'd take it in a heartbeat :) The rollers between C/F and Eb/Ab are priceless, and extending the Bb/Eb side key makes its use completely reflexive and natural.

I do have to say, however, that the placement of the (fixed) thumbrest was almost agonizing, and caused me to have to stop a few times and shake out my hand because it was cramping so badly. It was almost comically high up on the lower joint. If I were ever fortunate enough to own one of these instruments, the VERY first thing I would do would be to replace the thumbrest with an adjustable one.

I recorded a short video of my experience with the instrument, and I think it's clear almost from the very first note that this is a very special clarinet indeed, and anybody who is interested in thinking a bit outside the box and exploring a different sound should very much consider getting their hands on one of these babies and giving it a try!

The last clarinet in this trifecta of awesome is the Peter Eaton International model. Many of you may not be terribly aware of Peter's instruments, but they are widely played in England, and are in fact direct descendants of the famed Boosey and Hawkes 1010 clarinets that the entire English school of clarinet playing was founded on. Peter makes 2 models of clarinet, the “Elite” and the “International”. Those of you who are familiar with the English school of clarinetting know that they use very large-bored instruments which have an almost unnaturally smooth, dark, beautiful (if somewhat inflexible) sound. Emma Johnson, Gervase de Peyer, and Reginald Kell are some of the most well-known players in this tradition. (All of whom, by the way, play or played either a B&H 1010 or a Peter Eaton). The Eaton “Elite” model is the traditional large-bore English clarinet, with the lovely creamy sound, and is totally incompatible with the mouthpieces that we Americans are used to using on our Buffets and Selmers. For this reason, he created the “International” model, with the more common smaller French-style bore, but retaining the thick walls and design features of the Elite (which are in turn based on the Boosey and Hawkes clarinets) such as the ringless flat-edged bell, the wide, flat tenon rings, and the “fingernail file” crosshatched textured LH F/C key.

This instrument (I tried out an A clarinet on this visit, btw, not a Bb. The only Bb they had was an Elite) is probably one of the top 5 A clarinets I have ever picked up, and was a revelation of tone color and legato playing. From bottom to top, it was rich and smooth, as though the sound were made of heavy whipping cream, and as near as I could tell in the confines of the trial room, capable of an enormous amount of projection despite the darkness of the sound. (I know, I know...THAT word again!) I was a bit worried that this incredible sound would come at the expense of response, but that turned out to be unfounded. Staccato playing was nearly effortless, which is surprising for an instrument of such weight, both tonal and physical. (This is a HEAVY clarinet. Like, Selmer Recital-heavy.)

The keywork is extremely solid and was very, very, very heavily silver plated. I cannot imagine anybody EVER managing to eat through the plating on this baby! The textured F/C lever was a nice touch, and I find the flat style rings to be quite beautiful. The wood was also very dense and beautifully tight-grained.

Intonation was very, very good throughout the range, with only a slight bit of flatness in the altissimo which was very easily dealt with. Low E and F were rather noticeably flat at large dynamics,'s a clarinet, so there you go. Intervallic response was top-tier, and upper register spoke very cleanly with a lovely lyric quality, rather like a fine dramatic soprano. (More Damrau than Dessay, if you know what I mean.)

I actually can't really think of any negative criticisms about this particular clarinet, save that the weight might be prohibitive to small players, or clarinetists with hand/wrist/forearm problems. Then again, that's what neckstraps are for, eh? :-)

As always, dear readers, I've made a little video demo for you. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed playing it, and I do hope that you get a chance to play one yourself someday! 

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Divine International Reform-ation...or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Buffet: Part I

This will be the first entry in a series of posts chronicling my adventures in instrument-land during my six-week long trip to Japan, where we wrapped up the 2012-2013 international tour of the Broadway show “Dreamgirls”. Tokyo has some of the most intensely well-stocked music stores on the planet, and I made as many trips to as many of them as I could get away with without seeming completely insane. While I tried more flutes than anything (by quite a large margin), I also got in quite a few clarinets, oboes, English horns, and even a bassoon or two. This particular series of posts will focus on the clarinets, and in particular, three of the finest clarinets I've ever had the privilege of putting my fingers on...the new Buffet Divine, the Peter Eaton “International”, and the Wurlitzer Reform-Boehm model 187. (See what I did there?)

I will probably do a follow-up post addressing the other clarinets I got to hang out with while I was there. :)

To write this in the spirit of honesty, I must first start by saying that I have never, ever really liked Buffet clarinets very much (the one exception being the Festival. I have always greatly liked the Festival), and not once have I ever played one professionally or otherwise, actually...except for the E11 that I had for a year in high school, and I have never understood why people have always gone so crazy for them, particularly the R13. Yes, I suppose in the right hands, they do have a lovely sound (if often a bit bright for my tastes), but the unevenness in resistance and sound quality between hands and between the various registers of the instrument, the inherent difficulties in intonation (widest. 12Ths. Ever!) and, lately, the questionable build choices (seriously? Nylon key pins that are GUARANTEED to snap on an instrument that costs the equivalent of the average American monthly salary?) have all just made it seem like more work than it's worth to play a Buffet. 

I personally have always preferred Leblanc clarinets, specifically the ones designed by clari-genius Tom Ridenour in the 90s. My first “real” clarinet was a Leblanc Sonata, and it was followed first by a pair of Infinit├ęs, then a pair of Opuses (Opera?), then a Concerto Eb joined the family, and then another Opus in rosewood (one of only 27 that were ever made before the model was called the “Symphonie VII”, and then all the rosewood burned in a fire in the factory in France, which was probably one of the most awful things ever to happen to the clarinet universe). I instantly fell in love with the evenness of that era of Leblanc, and the fantastic intonation, and most of all, the dark, creamy sound. My entire concept of how I want to sound on the clarinet was built from the ground up on these instruments, and though it has evolved slightly over the years, that is still the sound I hear in my head, and the feeling I look for when I play a clarinet.

More recently (about five years ago, I'd say?) I switched it up a bit. A clarinet wizard from Vancouver named Morrie Backun (whose barrels and bells I'd been playing on for YEARS...I bought my first barrel back in 2001, and have always used them) partnered with Leblanc to create a line of clarinets that combined That Sound with Backun innovation, so of course I tried them...and immediately switched to the Leblanc Legacy. I defy anybody to claim that this is not one of the absolute finest production model clarinets to have ever existed in the history of clarinetistry, and I continue to play them. 

 However, that does not mean that there are not some other extraordinary clarinets being made out there, and that's precisely what this blog post is about! There are dozens of instruments out there that I would gladly play on a daily basis for the rest of my life, which is kind of awesome and also kind of hugely irritating, because I'm a Libra, and I can't make decisions! :)

I've meandered off topic a bit, but with good intentions. Now that you know I am absolutely NOT a Buffet fanboi or a secret card-carrying member of the “Buffet Mafia”, let's talk about their newest offering, the “Divine”.

Aptly named, sirs and madams, aptly named.

The Divine fits into the Buffet lineup directly next to the Tosca; what the Tosca is to the R13 bore family, the Divine is to the RC. Now, I actually like the Tosca, don't get me wrong...the intonation is pretty darn good, it's got a HUGE sound, it feels great in the hands, and some of the very finest clarinetists I know play them. HOWEVER, the Tosca, being the Granddaddy of All R13s, still has some of that laser-beam-ish quality to my ear, and it can come across as a bit raucous at times. The Divine, on the other hand, has all of that power and agility and great intonation, but it feels as though the edges have been polished off the sound a bit. It possesses a roundness that carries up through the various registers of the clarinet, and that roundness seems to stick around even at dynamic extremes. I also seem to recall noticing that the Divine has metal (or perhaps carbon fiber?) pins on the long E/B and F#/C# keys instead of the white nylon they use on the lower models. 

A story: The first time I ever encountered the Divine was at the Buffet Showroom in New York, where I spent a lovely afternoon with showroom manager Laurie Orr (an absolute PEACH of a woman! Love her!) trying out pretty much everything on display. She mentioned that many people had said that they thought the Divine was not capable of being played as powerfully as it might need to be in orchestral situations, and certainly not in comparison with the Tosca. So, I picked up a Tosca, and I played a three octave F major scale up, down, and in arpeggios, as loudly as I absolutely possibly could without sounding like an angry 4th grader, then I played a short cadenza from “Capriccio Espagnol” (the one starting on the low A, pianissimo, and progressively sweeping through an Am7 arpeggio up to high C and back down, with accompanying dynamic changes, which is one of my absolute FAVORITE excerpts for trying clarinets, because it tells me a lot about the instrument I'm testing). 

Then...I did the same thing on the Divine. 

The look on her face was priceless. You see, Laurie is the absolute BEST kind of person to demonstrate this kind of thing in front of, because Laurie is not a clarinetist. She IS, however, a musician, and therefore offers an excellent and impartial ear without any sort of clarinet-player preset ideas or judgments.

Her observation was that the Divine was in fact JUST as loud as the Tosca (my shoes vibrated, for real), but the sound maintains such a roundness and smoothness that it doesn't SEEM as loud. However, in a real, physical, measuring-decibels way, the Divine can be pushed just as much as the Tosca. It is a tiny smidge less free-blowing, however, so that bit of extra resistance from the player's point of view might lead to a belief that the sound isn't as open and large as you want it to be. This is incorrect. The end result to the listener is a very heroic symphonic forte with no loss of beauty in the sound, whereas the Tosca can get downright brutal if you let it. Of course, everyone will have different experiences with both of these instruments, depending upon your own personal playing style, mouthpiece/reed setup, etc etc, but I've now played at least six Divines (in both Bb and A), and far more Toscas, and these impressions have held true for me throughout the lines.

The evenness throughout the range of the instrument is also quite wonderful. It plays very fluidly between registers with very little manipulation of the embouchure needed, even for very large intervals. The upper clarion register is also beautifully sweet and lyrical, with almost a human soprano quality.

On the less positive side of things, I really dislike Buffet's approach to the low F correction mechanism found on both the Divine and the Tosca, which places a mini version of the right hand pinky keys underneath the low F key (where the low D key is on their 1193 bass clarinet and the basset horn), where it's quite awkward to reach, and you have to remember to reach for it in the first place and then put the finger back where it belongs. I vastly prefer Selmer's automatic low-F correction mechanism which is connected to the register key and operates via a bridge between the upper and lower joints, a mechanism which Backun is also currently employing on the MoBa clarinets. I also quite like the German approach, which Yamaha has adopted with the CSG-III, of a thumb-actuated mechanism for the correction. Your pinky doesn't have to learn anything new, and it's relatively simply to throw the thumb on when you're playing a loud low F. I did also notice that while the extreme altissimo does respond very nicely on the Divine, it can be a little thin and screamy, but then again...a written D7 has a hard time being anything but. :) I also feel like players who are die-hard R13 players and have that sound concept ingrained in their playing will not find the Divine's particular voice at all to their taste, because it IS very different, there's no getting around that.

To clarinetists who are curious about the Divine, I would implore you not to pay heed to the various comments on the web that decry it as “thin” and “bright” and “lacking in projection”, because none of those things are inherently true, and just go out there and try a Divine for yourself. Give it a shot, you just might like it!

(I should add that it is also a very visually stunning instrument, as Buffet has done away with traditional metal tenon rings and replaced them with carbon fiber bands, resulting in a very sleek-lined instrument that flows visually from top to bottom. As with all Buffet clarinets, gold plated keys are an option, and I cannot even IMAGINE how gorgeous *THAT* would be!)

In've won me over, Buffet.  I would play the Divine any day, and love every second of it! :) 

Here's a short video of me playing around with the Divine for a few minutes in Japan. (It's difficult to get a recording that really does it justice, especially in a music store trial room)...

For those who wonder these kinds of things, I'm testing the Divine using a Rico Reserve X10 mouthpiece, a Vandoren 56 Rue LePic 3.5 reed, and an 18K-gold plated Brancher ligature. 

And here is a video that features everyone's favorite clarinetting Scandinavian supermodel, Martin Frost, (mostly) playing and discussing the Divine (video courtesy of the official Buffet Crampon Youtube channel): 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Colors Of The Rainb…oboe

The Colors Of The Rainb…oboe (Yeah. Wow, that’s bad.)

If you’re an American oboist, chances are you play a Loree, have at some point played a Loree, or have at least been told “You know, you should really buy a Loree.”  For a very long time, this was good advice…the universe of the oboe maker was a very small one (quantum, really), and much like getting your coffee at Starbucks, if you bought a Loree you had a very good idea of what you were getting, and you were probably going to like it. (After all, they’ve been making oboes since 1881!) I won’t go into great detail about the history of Francois Loree and his oboes, because there are five million other places you can look online and read about it; and frankly, they probably do a better job of it than I would. My point is simply that for most of the 20th century, if you played the oboe, and you played the oboe with any remote degree of seriousness, your option in fine oboes was Loree.

Toward the middle of the 20th century (the early middle…it was the 30s), one Mr. Alfred Laubin woke up one day, took a figurative look around at the oboes available to him (for he was a fine oboist, was our Mr. Laubin) and he said “Uh-uh. No ma’am” and set to building the oboe that HE wanted to play. It took a few tries, but he finally got it right, and by the end of the 50s, his son Paul had joined the business and it was all oboes, all the time. Now, you could play a Loree OR a Laubin! (And many, many people chose the latter).  Across the pond, there were two other French makers turning out beautiful instruments that were quite popular on the Continent, Rigoutat and Marigaux, but they had for the most part been ignored by the American school of oboe playing; largely in part because most American oboists were musically descended from the great Marcel Tabuteau, who just happened to play a Loree oboe.

Nowadays, however, the situation is remarkably changed…there has never been such an abundance of top-flight oboe makers, and while I find it terribly exciting, it also saddens me a bit that I regularly encounter oboists who not only have never tried any of them, haven’t even HEARD of most of them. I shall do what I can to fix this (but I’m only one person)!

I’ll begin with Those OTHER French Oboe Guys: Marigaux and Rigoutat. Now, I’d wager that nearly all professional oboists in America have not only heard of them, but have probably at some point tried them. (And, if the oboists I personally know are any indication, a lot of you are PLAYING them now.) The popularity of these two makers has increased exponentially in recent years, though they are still considerably more popular globally than they are in America.  Many of the world’s finest oboists play one of these two, including one of my favorite oboe players in the entire galaxy, Diana Doherty (principal of the Sydney Symphony, who is giving it to the kids daily with her fierce Marigaux M2). The legendary soloist Heinz Holliger plays Rigoutat, and has done quite a bit to popularize the brand.  My experience with both of the brands is somewhat comprehensive, as I have played several examples of each of their current models (with the exception of the new Rigoutat “J”, of which I have only played one.)

They are both fantastic oboes, but if I were to pick one, it would be Marigaux. Their oboes are simply stunning…whether you pick the 901, the 2001, or the M2, you are getting a rich, fat, creamy tone; extreme reed-friendliness, and in the case of the 2001 and M2, some serious ergonomics. The pinky keys on both hands have been completely redesigned on these instruments, and they are comfortable indeed. The 901 is their basic workhorse professional model, and you will find a 901 somewhere in nearly every major symphonic oboe section on the planet (outside of the United States, that is). They are a marvelous choice for 2nd oboists because of their excellent response down low and the ease with which you can match tone colors with the principal. The 901 is an extraordinarily forgiving instrument, and one that will work for just about anybody. The 2001 has a very soloistic sort of bravura color to the sound, though maintaining that trademark Marigaux warmth. (Incidentally, the 2001 also has the most stable C5 and C6 I have ever experienced in my LIFE). The 2000 series is also available in a crystal clear material called “Altuglass”, with gold plated keys, and is one of the most visually arresting instruments ever made.  The M2 sonically is very similar to the 2001, but has a remarkably innovative construction wherein the top joint of the oboe is extremely short, terminating just above the C#/D trill keys, and you are provided with top joints in wood and phenol resin for crack resistance. The middle joint, then, is therefore much longer, and the bell remains the same. Very interesting looking instrument and it has caught on in the oboe world like a house afire!  If someone were to hand me $10,000 right now and say “YOU MUST BUY AN OBOE WITH THIS”, the odds are rather good that it’d be a Marigaux. (Here's Diana creating magic on her Marigaux: )

I enjoy the Rigoutat instruments for the lovely sweet (though perhaps a tiggysquidge bright for my tastes) sound they all seem to have in common, though I find the Expression model to have a bit more oomph than the Evolution or the Symphony (however one of the finest and richest sounding oboes I’ve ever played happened to be an Evolution in violetwood, so it just goes to show you, exceptions are the rule!). The “J” model is a horse of a different color entirely, though. Beautiful, round warm sound, great response up top, and a buttery low register; basically, Rigoutat made a Marigaux. It’s exceptional.  I would imagine that this instrument in violetwood (also known as kingwood, they’re both names for dalbergia caerensis*) would be something approaching Biblical in its awesomeness. (The one I played was boring ol’ grenadilla, or dalbergia melanoxylon*  if you’re nasty).  The French oboists love ‘em! 

I would be remiss if I did not include a word about the RIEC (RIgoutat ECole) intermediate model oboe and English horn. These are exceptional instruments, and I would put the RIEC English horn perhaps actually slightly ahead of the Fossati Tiery and Howarth S40 in terms of sound quality and playability, it's that good. They may be marketed as "intermediate" instruments (The "Delphine" is the student model), but they are definitely professional quality.

(Incidentally, I believe that Rigoutat English horns are the most commonly played English horns in Continental Europe. They’re wonderful, wonderful instruments.)

                                * did you know that grenadilla (m’pingo/African blackwood/that stuff that just about all clarinets, oboes and piccolos are made of) is actually a rosewood? Technically, ALL members of the Dalbergia genus are rosewoods…some are just way prettier and softer than others. So, really, we *all* play rosewood oboes!  YAY!  The whole “rosewood” topic is actually sort of a hobby horse of mine, and I could write TONS about it, but I’ll save it for another day. Suffice it to say that I am a very big fan of “exotic” woods, and use them whenever possible.

For some godforsaken insane reason, almost no other oboe player I know in this country has even HEARD of Fossati, let alone entertained the idea of playing one.  I find this particularly maddening because…well, because *I* play a Fossati. Fossati has, by and large, been my oboe of choice for YEARS (except for that short period of time where I didn’t play a Fossati, and we’ll talk about that later).  These instruments are glorious, and they get better and better every year. They have a model out now, the MB, which is so good it will make you SLAP SOMEBODY.  I currently play a Soliste model with mother-of-pearl inlays in the keys, and a matching Soliste English horn (minus the pearl), and they are the sweet baby Jesuses of the oboe world. Their E30 “Tiery” model is also an extraordinary piece of oboe meat. It’s very affordable, and has the full conservatory keywork, including the 3rd octave key. It is totally a pro instrument in every way, and it’s amazing to me that it’s marketed as an intermediate model, but hallelu, because it’s also priced accordingly. The E30 is a doubler’s dream…very flexible and reed-friendly, sounds great, and won’t break the bank. I’ve played a Tiery on several cast albums, in countless pit orchestras, and even a few symphony gigs. (This is the Tchaik 4 solo on my Tiery: ) I’d put it up against anybody’s Loree (or Laubin) any day. The Soliste, however, takes all that awesomeness and magnifies it by about a trillion. Rich, buttery, sweet, warm, penetrating, whatever you are trying to get out of it, it’ll give you. The scale is also fantastic. These things are REALLY in tune! They make their instruments in several woods, including cocobolo, violetwood/kingwood, and a beautiful wood called gaiac, which we know better as lignum vitae. In the past, they have made instruments from pink ivory and snakewood, as well. You can also get your keys gold plated, rhodium-enhanced-silver-plated with gold posts and bands, and/or inlaid with mother of pearl. They even have a model, the Soliste V Anniversary, which features keywork plated in black ruthenium with gold posts/bands. Truly a stunning instrument, and performance to match the appearance. Those of you who have never tried a Fossati oboe would be doing yourselves a grave disservice if you did not get your hands on one and give them a go. I think you’ll be surprised at just how easy it can be to play the oboe!
(On second thought, that $10,000 from would probably go to Fossati, who am I kidding? But maybe not…read on!) 

This spectacular German maker has made quite a splash on the scene recently with the “Albrecht Mayer Platinum” model oboe, distributed in the United States by Tong Cui of Innoledy ( ).  Though they’ve been around absolutely forever, Moennig has become very visible in the marketplace lately for their amazingly well-crafted oboes and bassoons. The AM model has been a huge hit at oboe festivals worldwide, as well it should be. I had the opportunity to take one on trial from Innoledy (along with a Diamant model English horn), and it was mind-blowingly good. It is the darkest, most liquid-sounding oboe I’ve ever played, with wonderfully innovative keywork (the right hand pinky keys, for example, all have rollers on them). The build quality is astonishing, with as much precision as a Swiss watch, and the grenadilla wood used was absolutely stunning. Albrecht himself designed this oboe over several years of collaboration with Ludwig Frank, and is the oboe he now plays exclusively, after many years on a highly-customized Buffet Greenline.

The “Diamant” and “Richard Wagner” model English horns should quickly find their way into the hands of most of the world’s top English horn players, as well. (They already have in New York, where Metropolitan Opera solo English hornist Pedro Diaz plays them). The RW model comes with two bells, one traditionally shaped and one which looks like a very large clarinet bell, and this bell transforms the English horn into something like a cross between a Heckelphone and an alphorn in terms of carrying power, without sacrificing the beautiful melancholic quality that defines the sound of the English horn. Tristan will never be the same! (One should note that the bells of the Moennig English horns are all constructed from cocobolo, which gives a gorgeous resonance to the sound and also reduces the overall weight of the instrument a bit.) My thoughts on the Diamant English horn, expressed in a rambling incoherent manner with poor cell phone recording quality:

Made in the same workshop in Markneukirchen as the Moennig instruments, Adler oboes (and bassoons, which happens to be the bassoon I play) are very solidly built instruments that possess excellent scale and lovely dark sounds. The Adler 6000 oboe is a full-Conservatory model that would fit any advanced student/amateur/doubling oboists needs quite well, and probably would not need to be upgraded from. It is also available in cocobolo wood, for those who like that sort of thing. (And boy, do I like that sort of thing!)

Ludwig Frank ( )
Ludwig Frank is one of the shining stars in the constellation of oboe makers on Earth today. His instruments are meticulously designed and crafted, and they are beloved by principal players and soloists around the world, particularly in Europe. He is the driving force behind the Moennig Albrecht Mayer “Platinum” model oboe, and the oboes bearing his own name are delectable works of art. Another one of my favorite oboists, Yeon-Hee Kwak, plays a Frank, and you can hear it in her soul-shattering performance of Ennio Morricone’s “Gabriel’s Oboe” on Youtube ( I would give anything to own an LF “Brilliant” model oboe in violetwood with gold keys.

An institution in England, Howarth oboes have finally achieved the global recognition they deserve in the past ten years or so, especially with the advent of the XL model, which is very quickly becoming the oboe of choice for many esteemed oboe soloists and principal players the world over. From the S20 student model to the XL in cocobolo with gold keys, Howarth oboes deliver excellent craftsmanship, a very solid and stable sound concept, reed friendliness, and an exceptionally comfortable mechanism. I am a very big fan of these instruments, and played a Howarth English horn for several years. Were I a wealthy man, a cocobolo Howarth XL would absolutely be in my arsenal. I have never, ever played one I did not like. Much the same can be said for the entire line…in fact, along with the Fossati Tiery E30, the oboe I most frequently recommend to friends, fellow doublers and advanced students is the Howarth S40, which gives you all the bells and whistles you need (save the split D#/E ring, and really, who’s gonna miss that? The D key is vented anyway) at a price that isn’t completely shocking.  There are many places in the US you can find Howarth oboes, some of my favorites of which are Innoledy in NYC (, RDG Woodwinds in LA (, Midwest Musical Imports ( and Oboe Chicago ( . If you’re in the market for a new oboe, you absolutely must try a Howarth or 3. If you don’t, then you are seriously missing out! (Also, seriously, their oboes d’amore and English horns are among the best on the PLANET.)

Bulgheroni ( )
From a small family-owned workshop on the shores of Lake Como in Italy comes the Bulgheroni oboe (and oboe d’amore, English horn and piccolo, of all things). I mentioned earlier in the Fossati section that there was a period of time where I did not play a Fossati…during this time, I played a Bulgheroni and a Patricola. The Bulgheroni oboe is one of the best-kept secrets in the oboe world, and their newest offering, the “Musa” should be a total game-changer in the high-end oboe market. The oboe that I played was the “Artist” model, which is a full-conservatory standard professional instrument, equivalent to a standard Loree C+3, Fox 400, Howarth S5, etc. What I enjoyed the most about my Bulgheroni, and indeed every one I’ve played since, is the evenness of tone from bottom to top. It is a very, very smooth instrument, and the response in the bottom register is nearly unparalleled. The keywork is also very, very heavily plated for durability, and they offer a variety of platings to choose from. Bulgheroni also offers an unprecedented SIX wood options (grenadilla, violetwood/kingwood, cocobolo, Brazilian rosewood, Honduran rosewood, and cocuswood) , and not just on their top model, either.  The “Opera” model is one of the finest oboes you can buy, and it will cost you considerably less than an equivalent instrument from one of the other big makers.

Known for the stunningly red Brazilian rosewood they use, Patricola oboes are also handcrafted by a family in Italy, and make some of the loveliest oboes/oboes d’amore/English horns/clarinets I’ve ever seen or played. I played a rosewood Patricola oboe with gold keys for quite some time, and not only was it physically stunning, it had one of the most complex, magical sounds of any oboe I’ve ever played, though I did have to work a bit harder in the upper register to stabilize intonation, and it wasn’t quite as reed-friendly as some other oboes I’ve played.  The scale is quite good (and improving every year…Patricola does huge amounts of work to constantly improve their instruments, and they get noticeably better all the time. Dying to try the newest “Rigoletto” model!), and it was a very comfortable instrument to play for long periods of time. This is a brand you absolutely MUST try if you wish to buy a handcrafted professional oboe but you are on a somewhat restrictive budget. They also come up used on eBay quite often (or are sold by large retailers via their eBay stores), and they are always quite affordable.  Definitely a great way to make a visual splash if you’re the sort of person who likes to be different and stand out from the crowd!

What would a discussion of oboes be without mentioning Fox? Entirely built here in the good old U.S of A., these instruments are some of the most reliable oboes out there, and the foundation on which many a student has built their oboe-playing career (myself included). The Renard series (330/333) are probably THE most popular student/intermediate oboes in America, and for good reason. They sound good, they play in tune, and they’re very heartily built. The professional Fox oboes are equally solid, though with the exception of the model 800, it could be said that they lack a bit of depth in the sound and tend to be a bit homogenous, but it isn’t anything that a skilled player with good reed skills can’t overcome. The most outstanding feature of the Fox instruments, in my opinion, is the dazzlingly consistent build quality and uber-stable intonation.  If you’re looking for an oboe that will get you through any gig, and not require huge amounts of work to play in tune, this is it. They blend beautifully in a section, and the all-plastic professional model 300 is a doubler’s DREAM, as well as being an invaluable backup for any symphonic professional who has to endure summertime outdoor pops concerts. The 800 plays very much like a fine Loree, and the Fox English horns are absolutely beautiful instruments. You already know about them, but you should try one anyway if you haven’t in a while. Definitely put them on your shortlist if you’re looking for a new instrument!

And then, of course, there is Buffet, maker of the (in?)famous Greenline 3613 oboe. The Greenline material was developed by Buffet to combat cracking and weather-related instability, and in that regard, it works beautifully. I must admit, though, I have never been a big fan of the Greenline oboes. I think oboe guru Peter Hurd ( ) nailed it when he described them on his site as a “reed trumpet”. I have always found them a bit on the brash side, they are unholy amounts of heavy, and the middle tenons have an alarming tendency to shear clean off at the slightest hint of wrong-ward pressure.  They can, however, be coaxed into bliss, as Albrecht Mayer proved. (Of course, it took only a cursory glance to realize that Albrecht’s Buffet was customized to within an inch of its life…the ivory-colored adornments on the head and bell of his oboe made that clear! I believe it was Ludwig Frank who worked on his Buffet, and eventually they just started from scratch and created the Moennig AM model, but don’t quote me on that.) The all-wood Buffet 3613, however, I have found to be a perfectly lovely instrument. Some quirky scale issues (but the expected sort, like dodgy high Cs and top-of-staff Gs that caused heart attacks), but they could be fixed.

However, Buffet has gone back to the oboe drawing board, and given birth to the Orfeo. I have not tried one of these yet (if you can believe it!), so I would LOVE to hear from those of you who have tried them, or bought them, and let me know what you think about them! I am looking forward to getting my hands on one…I would really love to love a Buffet oboe. (Though lord knows I do not love their clarinets, but that is a different conversation entirely!)

The new Buffet English horn, though? A thing of beauty. It looks gorgeous (they’ve done away with the bell tenon ring), and it sounds stunning! Very smooth, rich, and the scale is great. My impression was that it was like a Howarth XL and a Fossati Soliste spawned. Definitely worth looking at it if you are cor-shopping!

Hiniker (no website)
I’d also like to briefly talk about Hiniker oboes.  The waiting list is like, a million years long, but with good reason. They’re absolutely spectacular instruments, handbuilt by one of the most genius oboe acousticians since Gillet and Triebert. Tom Hiniker is like, the Morrie Backun ( ) of the oboe world! These instruments are HIGHLY sought after by top-level players, and they are stunning. Tom builds oboes out of a wide variety of woods (including cocobolo, pink ivory, and snakewood), and has made an oboe entirely out of clear acrylic, much like the Marigaux Altuglas oboe. Jonathan Marzluf has some beautiful recordings on his website ( ) of him playing on his cocobolo Hiniker, and champion reedmaker Cooper Wright also has some extensive writing about the Hinikers on his website, as does Peter Hurd (who owns/owned a mind-blowingly gorgeous snakewood Hiniker oboe).

 Roland Dupin has created the absolute Lamborghini of oboes, the Dupin Imperial. This oboe has one of the most unique appearances of any oboe on the market with its Baroque-oboe-meets-Viennese-oboe headstock and bell, and the sound is absolutely magical. Christoph Hartmann plays one, and you can see and hear it on Youtube in his Youtube Symphony oboe masterclass ( . The Dupin Imperial is also on magnificent display in this performance by the oboe section of the Royal Danish Orchestra: Tragically, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to give one of these babies a spin. I HAVE, however, played a Dupin English horn, and it was a wonderful experience.  It felt like a good Rigoutat, and possessed an almost unearthly sweetness in the upper register, very unusual for an English horn. Dupin is almost unheard of in the states, but VERY popular in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. I believe Roland Dupin also had a hand in the design of the Buffet 3613 oboe, but again, quoteth me not.

Known to bassoonists as That Really Good German Bassoon That Isn’t A Heckel, Puchner has also made oboes/d’amores/EHs forever, but they’ve recently made a splash in the US marketplace with the 733C oboe and their English horn, which Peter Hurd has declared the English horn of all English horns…and who am *I* to argue with Peter Hurd?! I’m going to roll with Mr. Hurd’s opinion on this one, having not tried the EH yet, but I HAVE played the 733 oboe, and it gives me EVERYTHING I want in an oboe…which is to say, it is REALLY German. Dark, thick, beautiful, romantic sound with an excellent scale and very solid, comfortable keywork. I’d put the Puchner up there with the Moennig AM model and Ludwig Frank’s oboes, and would happily play one forever.

Last but CERTAINLY not least, can we talk about Yamaha, please? I mean, wow. Talk about an instrument that has EVOLVED! I remember playing a Custom 831 when I was in high school in the late 90s, and thinking “Well this is NICE, isn’t it?” and not giving them another thought for ten years. WELL, kids, lemme tell you, this is NOT the Yamaha of the 90s. The most recent model Custom Yamaha oboes are every bit as delicious as any other makers, and in the case of the 841 in kingwood/violetwood with the lined upper joint? OBOE-BROSIA, honey. They are one of the smoothest, sleekest, most in-tune, responsive, bottom-octave-friendly oboes on the market today. Every professional orchestral 2nd oboist should run, not walk, to get one of these on trial, because thou shalt be converted! They’re also, as the kids say today, mad cheap, son. (Relatively speaking, anyway)

Also worth noting is the new Duet+ 400 series intermediate model…the old 441 was a honky trumpety bright beast of an oboe, more of a keyed shawm, really; but the new one is right up there with the Tiery in terms of playability (and the lined upper bore eliminates crack paranoia). 

I wanted to discuss Josef oboes, but I’ve only played 2, and I’m not entirely sure my experiences jive with the other anecdotes I’ve heard from people who have played them. I also don’t have a large enough sample size to really form a strong personal opinion one way or the other. One of them was hands down the absolute best oboe I have ever played in my life, the other made me want a Xanax and my mommy. They are absolutely gorgeous, though (especially the Clement model), and Elizabeth Koch won principal in Atlanta on one, so  give ‘em a look!  

Until next time…happy oboe-nerding! (And check out Robin Des Hautbois’ blog, . He has a plethora of beautiful photos and some very well written and comprehensive posts about the world of the oboe. In fact, he does this way better than I do :P)