Nathan Hughes is principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera and faculty member of The Juilliard School. He joins Sarasota Music Festival’s faculty artists this year for the first time and will be showcased on SMF’s first Friday Festival Concert in a performance of Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major. When we caught up with Nathan on the Festival’s second day, however, we found out his connections to Sarasota Music Festival go back 22 years when he was a Festival Fellow!
Sarasota Orchestra: What was your experience like back when you were a Fellow of the Sarasota Music Festival?
Nathan Hughes: My first experience as a student was a very positive one. In fact, I still remember most of the works I performed that summer. We actually pieced together some of the big wind ensembles: Strauss’ Serenade for 13 winds, Mozart's Serenade in E-flat, Dvořák’s Serenade for Wind Instruments. Performing at the Van Wezel—what do you call it here, the “Purple Cow?”—well, it was my first chance to actually play those big woodwind serenades, and those are some of the greatest, most enjoyable pieces for the oboe. It was something I wanted to do so badly when I was in school, and I finally had that opportunity at Sarasota Music Festival.
SO: What’s the story of your return this year as a faculty member?
NH: Well, of course, it's always been on my radar since I was a kid, and so I've been following the Festival since. Last summer, [SMF Music Director] Jeffrey Kahane and I performed at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. We got to know each other performing the Brandenburg Concertos together, and he thought I would be a great fit to come teach and work here.
SO: Let's talk about Mozart’s concerto for oboe that you'll perform on the June 7 Festival Concert. It’s often described as the most important oboe concerto in the repertoire. Why is that?
NH: Well, probably the main reason is because of our options. I wouldn't say that the oboe concerto repertoire is super “slim pickings,” but it’s certainly not the violin repertoire for concertos. We just don't have that many showpieces people can program easily and that audiences are really receptive to. We're very fortunate to have the Mozart concerto. Because we're lucky to have it, most oboists go at it and try to perform it all the time. It's a staple of our repertoire.
SO: How would you describe the character of the piece?
NH: Its opening movement is Allegro aperto. “Aperto” means “open,” and this actually makes for a very unique marking. It’s a very cheerful, brilliant sort of movement—very playful, a lot of trills, a lot of arpeggios.
The second movement is very sweet, singing, and smooth. And then the last Allegretto movement has a lot of charm, and there's a little bit of a rustic feel here and there. I actually think the final movement should be played a little slower than the first movement. Often concertos end in a fantastic and fast fashion, but this one—it’s as if it’s a little wiser or something, and ends with charm instead.
I like the ending. It comes from a happy period, I think, in Mozart's life, and I believe you can feel and hear the joyfulness, perhaps, in his life around that time. It's a very optimistic piece.
SO: It looks like you’ve participated in every major music festival in the United States and beyond. What makes Sarasota Music Festival unique?
NH: What I have always liked that about this festival is the element of having different faculty members each week. Having one teacher for the duration of a festival has its benefits, of course, but the flip side is you don’t get broader exposure to the way things are done differently by different people. Sarasota Music Festival broadens musicians’ horizons to get different influences, and I think that's good and healthy for all musicians, especially during the summer.
During the year, everyone has their primary teacher, and they focus in one way. Summer is for perspective, to check in with the rest of the world. I mean, I still remember some things that I learned in master classes when I was here as a student 22 years ago. Very specific things that teachers told me stuck with me and actually still help me today after a couple of decades.
SO: Speaking of master classes, do you have a particular approach or philosophy when you teach a masterclass?
[Pictured below: Nathan Hughes workshops Mozart's Piano Quintet in E-flat Major with Festival Fellows Derek Wang (piano), Brigit Fitzgerald (bassoon), Jillian Kouzel (oboe), Austin Ruff (horn), and Yan Liu (clarinet).]
NH: Obviously, dealing with nerves is a normal part of being a performer. And so, step number one is to try to make the student comfortable. You want to work on things that aren't silly, nervous mistakes; you're working on things that can help them for the long term. So I try to ensure that they're actually playing at their best so we can work with what's important.
Beyond that, in a master class there's not enough time to cover everything you'd like to workshop, so you focus in on a few areas that you think would benefit this person the most—and hopefully benefit the other people in the room as well. When you do an open masterclass, of course, everybody's trying to learn from the situation.
Sometimes I give ideas for things that can be fixed or worked on very quickly. And often, I'll plant seeds for a long-term project, something in a student’s playing that is going to take a while to achieve. I may not be able to completely connect the dots in one class, but I aim to share information that helps a student go down that path.
When I'm teaching, one thing I really try to instill is that we're all on the same continuum. I might be, you know, a little farther along in some regards than other players, but whether that musician is a very beginner, a young professional, or whatever—we’re all learning, we're all improving, and we're all on the same chart. Where you're at currently is kind of irrelevant. We're all just working on our own thing to get better.
Hear Nathan Hughes perform Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C Major on Friday, June 7, as part of Sarasota Music Festival’s first Festival Concert: Triple Crown. Tickets and Concert Details