Arts & Culture
5:40 pm
Tue March 12, 2013

Oboist Ray Still: Still Keen on Music at 93

  Is there something in the water? Or is it the famous pizza which contributes to the longevity of service by so many of the principal musicians of the famous Chicago Symphony Orchestra? The record must surely belong to trumpeter Adolph Herseth, who held the first trumpet chair for 53 years, extending his tenure another 3 years as principal trumpet emeritus until his retirement in 2004. Then there was Arnold Jacobs, principal tuba with the CSO from 1944 until 1988. Today, we have the remarkable principal horn, Dale Clevenger, who will have marked 47 years in the orchestra when he retires later this year. 

Another extended stint in the Chicago Symphony was that of oboist Ray Still, in the orchestra for 40 years, most of those as principal. His career spanned 4 different music directors, including Fritz Reiner, who hired him in 1953, through Daniel Barenboim. As with many of the musicians who worked under the at times tyrannical Reiner, Still had great respect for the maestro. He admits to missing playing in the orchestra and that he still has dreams of playing under Reiner. 

Ray Still turns 93 years old today (he was born March 12, 1920) and plans to celebrate by attending a performance of Bach’s "b minor Mass," one of his favorites, played by the NY Philharmonic. Although he appreciates all the well-wishes from his legion of fans and former students, Mr. Still says he would much prefer a roast. 

I treasure memories of attending a master class given by Mr. Still years ago at the University of Texas at Austin. No, I’m not an oboist, but I was well acquainted with Mr. Still’s artistry and was interested in seeing what he had to say. I recall there were some Reiner anecdotes, along with various critiques and commentaries upon the students who were playing for him. However, what stuck most was the short lesson he gave about how to tune the orchestra. Of course, it is the oboist who traditionally gives the “A” at the beginning of a concert. The other players in the orchestra adjust their instruments to match the pitch of the oboe, the end result being an orchestra which plays in tune. However, Mr. Still was well aware that musicians could be very rebellious if they did not agree with the oboist’s concert “A.” Therefore, contended Still, the oboist must play with such beautiful tone that the orchestra can’t ignore him. It certainly worked for him! 

To attempt a “best of” list of recordings by Ray Still would be overwhelming, for there are so many outstanding examples of his work. Instead, here are just a few indications, highly subjective, of where to begin listening. My heart still melts upon hearing the wonderful "Symphony No. 4" by Mahler with the CSO and Fritz Reiner. In fact, it’s hard to go wrong with any of those recordings. Another favorite of mine is Still’s recording of Mozart’s “Oboe Quartet,” with members of the Fine Arts Quartet. Finally, there’s the outstanding Ravinia recording of Bach’s “Wedding Cantata” which features a wonderful interplay between Mr. Still and soprano Kathleen Battle. 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Still! May there be many more.