For Rong-Huey Liu, Fresno Philharmonic concert puts a spotlight on her oboe
I adore the sound of the oboe. I think the music it makes is lush and luxuriant, as if the notes can somehow scoop right down into your soul.
When I speak with Rong-Huey Liu, principal oboist of the Fresno Philharmonic, I have this image of her being mobbed by fans: showered with applause; given keys to various cities; hoisted on the shoulders of appreciative listeners.
But then Liu tells me something shocking: Some people have actually told her they don’t like the sound of the oboe.
How can that possibly be?
Liu laughs. She doesn’t get it, either.
But here’s a possible explanation:
“The sound of the oboe is a colorful rainbow, a spectacular sound spectrum,” she says. “An oboist can manipulate that spectrum by bringing out certain aspects of it. Perhaps, for some people, a certain part of the sound spectrum that oboists emphasize irritates them.”
Either that, or there’s something wrong with their ears.
The Fresno Philharmonic often showcases guest artists from out of town. But for this weekend’s Masterworks concert, titled “Serenade for Strings,” the spotlight is on two of the orchestra’s own stars: Liu and concertmaster Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio.
The program features Liu and Sant’Ambrogio in J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin, Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” and the live-performance premiere of composer John Wineglass’ “Alone/Together,” a new work co-commissioned by the Fresno Philharmonic, San Jose Chamber Orchestra, Monterey Symphony and Pacific Symphony.
I caught up with Liu via phone and email to talk about her long tenure playing with the orchestra. Following that, I offer a few more concert notes.
Q: Piano was your first instrument. How did you end up with the oboe? What did you think of it when you first played it?
A: In Taiwan, anyone who is interested in learning classical music must audition into music training classes in public school. In the first grade, everyone’s primary instrument is piano. In fourth grade, we pick our secondary instrument. The oboe was chosen for me by my music teacher. He said I had long fingers and enough padding on my lips. I did not know what the oboe was. It was sort of like, “Ok, that is how the oboe works!”
Q: Your mom wasn’t so sure about you playing the oboe at first. Why?
A: When the time came to declare my major and minor instruments between the piano and oboe in the 6th grade, I wanted to major in oboe because I felt I had more control of the instrument. However, my mom preferred that I major in piano because “it looks much graceful on stage!” I stayed as a piano major and oboe minor until I was invited to America at 17 years old to study the oboe.
Q: How many miles a year do you put on your car? The reason I ask is because along with Fresno, you hold principal positions in the Long Beach Symphony, Los Angeles Ballet Orchestra, Reno Chamber Orchestra and Riverside Philharmonic. Where is your home base, and how much time do you spend on the road?
A: My home base is Riverside. I put in about 35,000 miles a year. For some of my work, I fly. Luckily, most orchestra weeks start on Wednesday or Thursday. I still have time for my students and my family each week!
Q: You have played the oboe for the Fresno Philharmonic since 2006, and you became the principal oboist in 2016. Can you believe you’ve been part of this city’s cultural scene for more than 15 years? What have you learned about Fresno during that time?
A: Fresno is a hidden gem! From the Fresno Philharmonic and the Youth Orchestra of Fresno, (where I was the oboe instructor at FOOSA) to many other arts organizations and to you — you are all a major staple of the culture scene in this little/big town. I truly appreciate all who are involved!
Q: In this weekend’s concert, you’ll be playing J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin with Stephanie Sant’Ambrogio. The original score called for two harpsichords. How did we end up with a violin and an oboe?
A: In 1874, when Wilhelm Rust published the version for two harpsichords, he postulated on the basis of the writing and figuration that Bach had originally conceived this piece for two violins. In 1886, Woldemar Voigt pointed out that the solo parts presented different compositional concepts, and the work must have been a concerto for violin, and perhaps an oboe. The seeds of this as a concerto for oboe and violin were planted then. Many attempts have been made to restore the concerto.
Q: The key is different from the original, too. Why?
A: The D minor version was created for pragmatic considerations. Many violinists prefer the D minor for the solo part, rather than the original C minor version.
Q: What was the pandemic like for you? Did you keep busy even though you couldn’t perform?
A: The pandemic gave me a chance to rest, recuperate and grow. I kept myself busy by making recordings, working on my weaknesses, making reeds, and encouraging students that there was light at the end of the tunnel. My first public performance during the pandemic was with the International Chamber Orchestra of Puerto Rico in February/March 2021. It was emotional to be able to bring music to people!
Q: What secrets can you share about the oboe?
A: Perhaps many people do not know this, but oboists make their own reeds. The oboe reed is quite delicate and fragile. It changes drastically by humidity, altitude, atmosphere, temperature — even from dressing room to concert stage. An oboist spends a considerable amount of time making reeds, always crafting away for a perfect reed.
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Q: Finally, a silly question for you: Have you ever had a dream in which you’re about to play a big solo in front of an audience and you forgot your reed?
A: It is a fear I always have but never have dreamed about it! However, it happened in real life! When I was in college one time, I was working on my reeds at home before the concert. I arrived at the concert hall super early, specifically to check on my reeds, except I could not find any! Luckily, I lived 15 minutes walking distance from school. I had enough time to run home, grab the reeds, and come back for the concert, except I never got the chance to test the reeds in the concert hall. These days, I triple check where my reeds are even when I start driving to work!