Oboist hits the right note with BSO

Passion drives Baltimore orchestra's second African-American musician

January 10, 2010|By Tim Smith | tim.smith@baltsun.com

Shea Scruggs remembers the day he first realized the full potential of the oboe. Freshly arrived at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, he began his first lesson with Richard Woodhams, principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra, by playing an etude.

"Mr. Woodhams wasn't satisfied," Scruggs says. "He took my oboe and he just played it. And in that instant an entirely new world of sound just burst open. It convinced me that there was so much [in the oboe] that it would be worthwhile to keep studying, even if I never played a note after my last day at Curtis."

Since graduating, Scruggs, 28, has performed with several of the country's top orchestras. Last April, he joined the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as assistant principal oboe, and quickly made his presence felt with elegant solo passages.

He often plays first oboe for half of a program, with principal oboist Katherine Needleman playing the other; she's now on maternity leave, so Scruggs will be in the first chair even more often for a while.

This weekend, he moves out in front of the ensemble as soloist in Vivaldi's Oboe Concerto in D minor.

"I look forward to hearing him perform this baroque masterpiece," says Michael Lisicky, the BSO's second oboe and author of the recent book, "Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops." "I love sitting next to Shea. He is smart, kind and a beautiful player."

Scruggs returns the compliment.

"My section is awesome," he says. "They're extremely cool people and phenomenally capable. Everybody in the orchestra is so accommodating and receptive and kind to me. I really appreciate it."

Working with music director Marin Alsop has been another plus. "She's a great conductor," the oboist says. "She communicates what she wants very clearly, and she's very approachable in rehearsals."

In addition to his artistic ability, Scruggs provides something else to the BSO - increased diversity. His hiring doubles the orchestra's African-American representation. For several years, there has been only one other African-American musician in the BSO (cellist Esther Mellon).

"I think of myself as a musician first," Scruggs says, "and I hope what I do as a musician is all people think about. I would hope any opportunities that fall to me are because I deserved them. I think it is possible to get a fair shake in classical music."

The issue of improving racial diversity in orchestral personnel is an old and touchy one. Many orchestras, including the BSO, hold "blind" auditions - behind a screen - in the early portions of the process, but the screens usually come down before the finals.

"I do feel blind auditions are desirable, because, at the end of the day, if I succeed or fail, I have no doubt it's because how I played," Scruggs says. "Orchestras need to have a little bit of faith that a fair audition process will uphold artistic standards."

The oboist points to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York as an example.

"To my knowledge," he says, "that's the only one that holds truly blind auditions, where the winners are accepted before the applicants are ever seen. They have a black principal clarinetist, a black principal trumpet, and a black second trombone. And it's one of the best orchestras in the world."

The BSO's English horn player, Jane Marvine, says that Scruggs "was incredibly impressive when he auditioned for us, and since he's been here we've found him to be extraordinarily talented, with a lot of potential to grow. That he happens to be African-American adds a great new dimension. I think he'll be a great role model."

A role model also played a part in the way Scruggs, born and raised in Miami, first picked up the oboe in seventh grade.

"My elementary school music teacher was an African-American man who played oboe," he says. "Maybe on some level that made me think, 'That's a cool instrument, maybe I could play that.' For some reason, I was just drawn to it."

He also found himself gravitating toward classical music.

"I liked it somewhat before I played oboe," Scruggs says. "My parents were not musicians, but I remember they had an LP of Bach. I got into it. My first CD was Handel's 'Water Music' and 'Royal Fireworks,' and there's oboe everywhere in those works. Handel is my favorite composer to this day. He's just as spiritual as Bach, but I get the impression Handel had more fun."

Scruggs wouldn't have minded a little more fun while he was at Curtis, a prestigious, tuition-free school that chooses students by audition.

"I wasn't the happiest student," he says. "I once visited a friend at another conservatory and it was like Spring Break on MTV compared to Curtis. Everyone is highly committed and highly focused. It's not a party school by any means. Being a 17- or 18-year-old kid in an apartment by yourself in Philadelphia can be kind of isolating."

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