The following was submitted by Galen Wilson
South Park’s own is one of two featured soloists in concert with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday and Saturday, February 25 and 26, at the Schuster Center, 8:00 p.m. The concert, titled “Virtuosos at Home,” includes solos by Eileen Whalen, the orchestra’s principal oboe, and John Kurokawa, principal clarinet.
Eileen will play Bach’s Concerto in A Major for Oboe d’amore. She describes it as a “happy, joyful piece with an introspective inner movement.” It is not accompanied by the full orchestra but only by strings. She chose this piece in part because she has never played it before.
A surprising detail of this concert is that the orchestra’s principal oboist will not, in fact, be playing the oboe, but rather the “oboe d’amore.” Eileen describes this instrument as the “forgotten middle child” of the oboe family, larger than the oboe but smaller than the English horn. Invented in the mid-17th century, it was a very popular instrument in the Baroque era but is no longer part of the standard contemporary orchestra. It differs from the oboe in having a bell-shaped rather than a simple flared horn, and is pitched a minor third below the oboe. In other words, the fingering Eileen uses on the oboe to obtain a “C” pitch produces an “A” on the oboe d’amore. Eileen also notes that most oboe players do not own an oboe d’amore, including her. She will be playing a rented instrument on February 25 and 26.
Eileen first heard an oboe in a recording of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” that her parents played for her when she was only two or three, and she loved the sound of it from the start. She did not start to play the oboe until junior high school. Unlike violins, there is no such thing as oboe “junior” sizes, so most oboists do not start when very young. Although she loved music, she did not decide to make a career of it until the summer before starting college, and gave up a slot in the honors program of one college to enroll in Rice University’s music department. She finished her bachelor’s degree at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, and has since earned her Master’s degree at the California Institute of the Arts.
Although it is upwards of 300 years old, the oboe continues to be refined and improved. Minor adjustments to the basic instrument have even come about since Eileen began to play. Ironically, these improvements may actually make it more difficult to play Baroque pieces on instruments of newer design. Continual design changes are possible because unlike many other instruments, particularly strings, oboes do not survive for decades or hundreds of years. Wear and tear, particularly on the “central bore” of the instrument, robs an oboe of projection and eventually of correct pitch as the bore shrinks, enlarges, and warps. A professional needs to replace her oboe every three to five years.
A good oboist is also a good craftsman. Eileen devotes an entire room in her home to making reeds for her instrument. Beginning with pieces of cane grown in France, Eileen uses a series of tools such as the pregouger, gouger, shaper, and—interestingly—guillotine to craft reeds for her instrument. Because it is organic matter, a reed is subject to changes brought about by humidity and even altitude. A reed lasts on the average only 10 to 15 hours of playing.
Eileen moved to Dayton’s Historic South Park neighborhood in 2005, primarily because it was a neighborhood where she could find a house she both liked and could afford. She loves the high ceilings and carved woodwork inside her home, and the rich variety of architecture throughout the neighborhood. But more importantly, she loves the community spirit of South Park and the fact that she has made so many friends here. She says, “I’ve moved around a lot. The older you are, the harder it is to make friends in a new place because people of your own age group are more settled and involved with their own families.” If she had known how many friends awaited her in South Park, she’d have moved here the minute she arrived in Dayton. She has been active in neighborhood activities, most recently in spearheading a morning of “guerilla landscaping” in which neighbors gathered to clean up an abandoned lot.
Eileen has been the principal oboe of the Dayton Philharmonic since 2001. Prior to that, she held that same position at the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic. As a member of the Dayton Philharmonic Woodwind Quintet, Eileen performs 52 concerts that reach over 3,000 school children each year. She says she is fortunate to be able to do what she loves as a full-time job, to have great colleagues to work with in the Dayton Philharmonic, and to play in such a “fantastic” hall as the Schuster Center.
Virtuosos at Home is part of the Miami Valley & Good Samaritan Hospitals Classical Series and can be seen at the Schuster Center on Friday and Saturday February 25-26. Ticket information can be found at http://www.daytonphilharmonic.com/content.jsp?articleId=1804