Michael Dwinell is an oboist with a penchant for orchestral and theater playing, from performances with the Bergen Symphony, New Amsterdam Opera, and Riverside Orchestra to Broadway reviews at the Madison Theatre and Hit the Deck with South Shore Symphony. He is also a champion of living composers and pushing the boundaries of traditional performance as the founding oboist of the wind quintet Nu, and was recently welcomed as a board member of The Chelsea Symphony.
On Saturday, May 14th, Michael will perform Jennifer Higdon’s spirited and mischievous Oboe Concerto in his TCS soloist debut. In anticipation of the performance, we reached out to Michael for a behind-the-scenes Q&A session.
The Chelsea Symphony: How did you come to choose your instrument?
Michael Dwinell: When I was a child, we lived in Aruba, and my mother played piano in our church. One day, another member of the church asked if she might accompany him in a song. So she started playing the piece, and then he started to play - you guessed it - the oboe! She was so struck by the sound that she forgot to keep playing, and she was in love with the instrument from then on. At her encouragement, I gave it a try in middle school and it was a perfect fit!
TCS: What have been the biggest challenges of your career so far?
MD: Making reeds. I’m serious - it’s hard, and it took me almost 20 years to become self-sufficient in the process. I have always been jealous of many oboist friends and colleagues I’ve had over the years to whom the skill came naturally. But like anything that you work hard for, it has become one of my favorite parts of being an oboist!
TCS: When was your first TCS concert? What brought you to the group?
MD: I think my first concert with TCS was the holiday concert of 2017. At the time, I was in the process of coming back to playing the oboe after several years off, and I had played in a few volunteer groups in the city. I was immediately struck by both the excellent playing in the group and how genuinely kind and supportive everyone was. It felt like home from the first rehearsal, and it always has since.
TCS: Do you have any favorite TCS memories?
MD: My very last moment playing before everything shut down in the pandemic was with TCS. It was early in 2020, and at the time I didn’t realize that it would be my last time making music with other people for over a year. TCS was also where I first got to play music with others again the following year. It was very special to me to come back together after so much tragedy and loneliness to make music together once again.
TCS: What do you carry with you in your instrument case?
MD: So. Many. Things. Other than percussionists, I’d be willing to bet that double reed players have to carry the most stuff with them. The list includes everything from reed tools to cigarette paper to hygrometers to reading glasses (as I get older). I think the strangest thing I have on hand right now is a bag of genuine pheasant feathers that I use for oiling the bore of my instruments.
TCS: What is your ideal day of practice?
MD: Six hours of reed making followed by 30 minutes of scales while watching a Marvel movie.
TCS: What do you do to set yourself up for success on the day of an important performance?
MD: I always try to remind myself that I am not striving for some theoretical perfect performance - I’m doing the best I can this day with this reed on this piece in this weather in these shoes. We all have great days and not so great days, but the first rule of playing music should be to have fun.
TCS: Why did you choose to perform this piece with TCS?
MD: I discovered this concerto a couple years ago and became completely obsessed with it. It’s stunningly gorgeous, and I was shocked to discover how few recordings there are and how infrequently it seems to be performed. I am so happy to get to share this piece with many who I am sure have never heard it.
TCS: What are some things you learned while preparing? Did anything about the piece surprise you?
MD: I think rhythm is incredibly important in the music of Jennifer Higdon. Each phrase is carefully crafted with nuance and shape - often with sharp juxtapositions of intricate rhythms. The more I study this music, the more I feel I discern the innate push and pull in the rhythmic devices. The moments of rest and the seemingly-spontaneous motion are what gives sections of the concerto a rhapsodic and floating quality. It means, though, that while the listener might hear the music as flowing and meter-less at times, it requires precise execution to play.
TCS: Do you have a favorite recording of this piece?
MD: The James Button recording with the Nashville Symphony may be the only one that exists, and it is stunning. I sincerely hope that there will be many many more!
Join us at 8pm on Saturday, May 14th at St. Paul's Church at 315 West 22nd Street for Michael’s performance of Higdon’s Oboe Concerto!