Ben Price, age 19, is an oboist in their second year of studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where they hold the Anderson and Daria Pew Fellowship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Price performs as a member of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, and as a soloist and chamber musician in the Curtis Student Recital Series.
Raised in Portland, Price studied with Karen Wagner and Dagny Rask Regan. They played oboe with Orpheus/PDX, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA (VSO), and as principal oboist of the Portland Youth Philharmonic. A three-time member of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, Price toured Europe with the orchestra in summer 2022.
Winner of competitions with the VSO, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Oregon Sinfonietta, Price has appeared as concerto soloist with them and with the Portland Youth Philharmonic. They have also performed as guest principal oboe with Symphony in C, Pink Martini, and the MYSfits Chamber Orchestra.
Price performed a recital on October 20 at Field Concert Hall (you can watch them on the Curtis YouTube channel at the 1:14 mark). I was in Philadelphia that weekend and heard them as a member of the Curtis Symphony Orchestra on October 22 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center. That concert featured Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, on the podium in excerpts from operas by Richard Strauss plus his Alpine Symphony (my review of that concert is available in Classical Voce North America).
Price’s answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
Oregon ArtsWatch: What led you to playing the oboe?
Ben Price: I had a couple of false starts. I played violin for about five minutes when I was three, but I was more interested in the keychain around my violin teacher’s neck than the violin. I started playing piano when I was five, but the practicing aspect of that turned me off initially. Then I really started studying piano when I was eight. I studied piano with oboe for nine or ten years. We all take piano lessons here at Curtis once a week as well. So, I still study piano, but it became clear pretty early on that oboe would become my primary instrument, especially after I heard a recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Scheherazade. That really got to me.
It is serendipitous that I’m in this building where the Philadelphia style of playing music was born. It’s characterized by a very vibrant sound that rings even in the driest of rooms. And it is very flexible, and the reason for that is Field Concert Hall and the Academy of Music, just down the street, are two of the driest places imaginable. So, the Curtis style of playing the oboe comes from trying to figure out how to sound good in those two venues.
Verizon Hall is much more forgiving, and there’s much more cushion all around you that amplifies the sound. Still, it has different challenges. Every hall has challenges. There are very few acoustically perfect halls. You are always compensating for something.
I decided when I came to Curtis not to silo myself into only being able to play certain types of music. I want to be flexible and versatile.
OAW: Who are you studying oboe with?
BP: We have two teachers now in the oboe studio, Katherine Needleman and Philippe Tondre. Katherine is a Curtis grad and the principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony. Philippe is the principal of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He studied in Europe. Historically, there is a big difference between American and European styles of playing the oboe. You can hear the difference. The reeds are different in Europe. You scrape the reed differently. It’s great to hear two different styles, and you can make up your own mind and choose your own adventure.
Curtis is considered the birthplace of American oboe playing because of Marcel Tabuteau, who taught at Curtis and was the principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He did long scraperies and developed the American sound. He had revolutionary ideas at the time about phrasing and music making. He taught wind classes and chamber seminars and influenced a lot of people.
I don’t put much stock into one school or the other. I am interested in whether it sounds good or not.
The Imani Winds are on the faculty here. That’s really incredible. They are world class performers and mentors as well. They are inspiring examples of how to make your own career.
OAW: I understand that the woodwinds have a special reed-making room at Curtis.
BP: Yes, we have a room that’s equipped with all the gouging machines, cane, and thread. The school owns the machines, which are pretty expensive. It’s great to have a supply of cane that we can use. That is very helpful for us.
OAW: What is a typical week like for you at Curtis?
BP: In terms of schedule, in terms of what stays the same every week, we have classes, we have musical studies and liberal arts classes. Right now, I’m taking a class called Art of the Earth – about the earth, from the earth. It’s about earthworks like Stonehenge, or the Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake. An exploration of those kinds of artworks. Curtis wants us to be artist-citizens of the world and not someone who goes out and plays notes and has no thoughts.
Musical studies make sure that we know the music – form, analysis, counterpoint, solfège, keyboard studies, music history. I enjoy all that and can see how they are applicable. At various points of the week we have music lessons and studio class. That happens when our teachers are available. Orchestra rehearsals are randomly interspersed. Chamber music coachings and rehearsals pop up here and there. We are kept busy, but I’m finding the balance so that I’m not too overworked.
I try to get my recitals at Field Concert Hall scheduled for Friday nights, because they are livestreamed. You can watch them on our YouTube channel.
OAW: Is your schedule different when the Curtis Symphony Orchestra plays under Nézet-Séguin?
BP: Yannick’s schedule is very packed; so whenever he gives us a time to rehearse, we do it. In some cases, that means that classes are cancelled. It might mean rehearsal on a Sunday evening. He is so good that it’s worth it. On the Friday of my recital, we had an orchestra rehearsal with him from 2 to 7:15 with various breaks in between. Then I had a recital that evening. I was the last person on the recital so I had an hour to decompress from orchestra rehearsal and get ready.
For my recital, I played a Bach sonata, BWV 1020, which might have been a collaboration between CPE Bach and his dad JS. There are two G Minor sonatas that Bach wrote for oboe and satellite instruments, BWV 1020 and 1030. We call 1020 the Little G Minor and the 1030 the Big G Minor. The 1020 is a very cool piece and very unique with an exchange between the basso continuo and the solo voice.
OAW: What is it like to play for Yannick?
BP: I have to pinch myself sometimes. He is such a great conductor. He makes playing and music-making so incredibly easy. He is very fluid and very musical and everything is shaped by an artistic gesture, but he is very clear and there is no doubt about what he wants. He is very good about getting to the core of the piece very quickly and bringing it out of the orchestra with very few words. It’s very impressive.
OAW: Next year you’ll be a mentor for PYP’s double bassist Maggie Carter, who will start her studies at Curtis.
BP: I am really looking forward to that!