Monday, January 23

Comparing many oboes!

University of Ottawa Oboe Event

0121121017-02People don’t usually think of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) as a hub of oboe activity (compared to Toronto, Montréal or New-York!), but U.of O. professor and principle oboe at the National Arts Centre Orchestra Charles “Chip” Hamann organized a really fantastic event. With the additional sponsorship of Lorée and Gary Armstrong Woodwinds and the presence of very noteworthy guest professionals, this turned out to be quite a memorable weekend.

This is intended as an annual event, it took place last year and before, and will hopefully take place again next year: I really recommend people to attend! There were 3 principle focus points: U.of O. students, local amateurs and fostering a spirit of “oboe community”. Normally, these events focus almost exclusively on the first point, and it’s a real credit to Chip and co-organizer Angela Casagrande for having the broad vision to incorporate the rest.

Many oboes to try!

0121121016-02There is SO MUCH that can be said about the event – especially a striking concert by all professionals who participated – that it would be too easy to ramble on for hours. For this post, I’ll limit myself to a precious opportunity afforded by the event: trying and comparing over a dozen oboes! Gary Armstrong Woodwinds of Toronto came over to offer repair services and exhibit some of their stock for sale. These consisted of mostly Lorée (used and new – including 1 Royal), a good number of Howarths (new – including 1 XL), a used Strasser, a used Buffet Green Line, a used Covey and 2 new English Horns, a Fox and a Lorée and even 2 oboes for youngsters!

Reeds, weather and Climate Control

I had purposely brought some good and mediocre reeds because I wanted to see how these instruments handle the varying quality. On the 1st day, that went fine and I made some observations that I wanted to confirm on the 2nd day…… problem, on the 2nd day all reeds had 2 phases:

  1. In the morning, they were all rock hard, didn’t crow, didn’t wheeze, just hard!
  2. After some warming up, they seemed to behave reasonably the same: near concert grade! This made it difficult to really make a clear difference between one oboe and another.

Furthermore, the hall where the exhibition took place seemed to play a huge role in how these instruments were behaving: on the 1st day, I had tried and was really impressed by the tuning of almost all instruments…. then I tried mine as a standard…. mine was playing much more in tune and with better character than usual! So here’s a case where a favourable hall for performance makes it difficult to find the faults in the instruments!

Observations: Lorée afresh and other wonders

newOboes_cutThe following are my own opinions, highly coloured by my lack of experience and lost mastery of the instrument. Other people can have very different opinions which are fully valid. I’ll limit my observations to the positive attributes, because I don’t think I had enough time with the instruments to really qualify any flaws. The new instruments (Lorée and Howarth) were all easy to play in the altissimo register). None of them left me with any “super sensational” feeling making me want to rush out and change my instrument.

  1. Lorée:
    1. All Lorées on exhibit seemed to … this is not a flaw at all … “frame” the sound. It is favourable to a consistent tone quality among different players. But it also makes me wonder why people feel they have more “freestyle expression” with it.
    2. There was an A-series and a C series: their legendary reputation is well deserved! Light weight yet full body sound. Not the most beautiful thing to see, but who cares! Really easy to play. Absolutely worth the trouble to rejuvenate the mechanics, these instruments deserve to be heard in public!
    3. The standard bore oboes were new or younger than the year 2000. Their tuning and stability were far improved compared to mine (1985).
    4. There were used and new AK bores: these exhibit much less restraint on blowing while maintaining the Lorée character.
    5. Royal: heavy, but that’s OK because it really “sits” its sound solidly. Extremely free blowing but dependable tuning throughout. It is superior to the standard models, but if money is an issue, the AK is really nice.
  2. Howarth:
    1. All of them were very free blowing: no feeling of congestion anywhere or at any time.
    2. The little finger keys are especially comfortably positioned: I did not realize this had such an impact. You must try and compare to fully grasp the implications.
    3. The XL has all the good qualities of the Lorée Royal – choosing a favourite between the two is not easy at all.
  3. Covey:
    1. A pleasant enigma. The repair work was fine for reselling, so everything played well, but more work on rejuvenating it would prevent misconceptions.
    2. At first, I did not like a sense of resistance from it. But the more I played, the more that sense gave way to a kind of restful feeling.
    3. It has a beautiful quality I don’t know how to explain: it very gracefully transitions between notes with more fluidity than any other instrument I have tried to this day.
    4. Very light, yet fine sound and comfortable to play.
  4. Strasser:
    1. This was a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting a flawed “junior” model, but I really have no criticisms against it whatsoever…. and I tried many tricks to make it sound bad: it never did.
    2. The one word that characterises it is “comfort”. Comfortable to blow, comfortable to hold, comfortable mechanisms.
    3. My hands are big, this instrument might be designed for smaller hands. Nonetheless, I think I could play it very happily.
    4. I think it is the ideal model for both beginner and serious students because you can sound fully professional with it.
  5. Buffet Crampon Green Line:
    1. I fully understand why people like this instrument.
    2. I remember, on the 1st day, remarking that this instrument is very forgiving on reeds: my mediocre reeds played very easily and in tune.
    3. Lorée players might not like it: difficult to explain, the 2 instruments “blow differently” – switching (alternating) between the 2 is not an easy task.
    4. This one is the very definition of “free blowing”.
    5. The tuning is fully dependable and it can sound almost any way you want.
  6. Children’s oboes
    1. There was a Cabard “petites mains” and a Howarth Junior oboe.
    2. Both had exquisite sound and flawless tuning.
    3. These are proof positive that oboes are NOT impossible instruments!!!

Surprize: instability on different notes!

Those of us who became solid players around the 1980’s and 1990’s were accustomed to special fingerings on most brands of oboe for the F# and G (sometimes the E-natural) with the 1st octave key. Some notes with the 2nd octave key might be flat or sharp or even unpredictable, but they would not “wobble” in the middle of a crescendo.

Strangely, some of the instruments I tried, I was very surprized that this “wobble” happened on either the 2nd octave key A or the “normal” F with the 1st octave key. Because my reeds all played more consistently on the 2nd day, I was not able to reproduce it, and I forgot which instruments. I just remember it was not the Strasser, the Royal or the XL.


Cooper Wright said...

I think all of your observations are very accurate. The wobble and instability/stability of the notes of 2nd octave A, and 2nd octave E, F#, G, are all reed related, and specifically need to be tuned based upon short scrape/long scrape. The high A with short scrape reeds will naturally play lower, so european models are purposed turned higher on the A. The E-G's are often foggy and unstable when a short scrape reed is played on a long scrape bore, so again the necessary undercutting is performed in order to gain the stability and clarity needed. Personally, I've played on old and new Lorees for a long time as well as my howarth now, and they both have sizeable advantages and disadvantages which you have accurately assessed. In the long run, I've settled on a Howarth because it seems to do the things that my professor wishes me to strive for easier than the Loree, but this is no doubt because he plays on Howarth and is familiar with its profile.

One thing you should pay attention to next time is pitch placement as well. Loree Royals and AK's tend to be pitched slightly lower (Royal lower than AK even), while the Howarths tend to ride on the upper side of the pitch.)

Some other observations:
Lorees are harder to slur down on, (say middle E to low A) particularly at a quieter dynamic.
Older Lorees are more flexible, newer Lorees are more stable as you noticed with your own Loree.
Coveys have some of the clearest, purest tone, and are EXTREMELY difficult to make reeds for in my book. In fact, they're the hardest to make reeds for.
Green lines are a tricky bunch, but I always feel they are too stable in tone color and response.

Anyways, just some of my observations, take them or leave them.

RobinDesHautbois said...

Thanks Cooper!
I will study your own observations in the hopes of trying many oboes again soon. Since the finisher at Laubin (Teitelbaum Double Reeds) revoiced my Lorée, this slurring is not a problem. But for sure this was a piece of cake in the A and C series (old) Lorées.

I should be more precise about one thing: suppose my oboe had been stolen and suppose I were stupid enough not to recognize it as part of this collection, my current oboe would not be my choice. Chances are, I would favor the XL, the Royal or even the Strasser (possibly the Buffet, but need to play more on it).

Of course, the history my HN-21 (standard) Lorée and I share means I don't want to part with it -- especially since D. Teitelbaum improved the bell -- but the newer oboes and other brands do have clear advantages. Not the standard Lorée or intermediate Howarths, they are equivalent to mine or less.

ericdano said...

The A and C series Loree old are they. Circa 19 what?

RobinDesHautbois said...

Excellent question! I wish I had written down the full serial number, because according to, it's either the 1880's or anywhere between 1910 and 1960.

This instrument was not from the 1880's because it had a full Conservatoire covered plate key system. But the wood work was really light and the crown looked more like a Fox than a Loree... so I'm guessing it was on the earlier half of that range.

Actually, the wood work might make one think it was a copy-cat instrument (not really made by Loree, just stamped to sell it at the same price). But it played really very well - on par or better than brand new instruments (minus some needed mechanical work), so I suppose it had to be the real thing. There are a few experts in the USA and Europe who would be able to identify that.

Howard Ng said...

The Buffet oboes are very very dark. They are too stable, as Cooper says and don't want to change for tone color. The moment you lighten your reeds in a slightly more compromising way, everything goes haywire, the tone abrasive and the intonation crazy especially in the 2nd octave and E-G. They can be very tiring to play!

Loree Royals (and AK for that matter) on the other hand, although they exhibit a similar trait as all oboes, because they also have a kind of flexibility built into them, you can always make the sound smaller so that they "work". The instability caused by lightening the heart/side of a short scrape reed results in the instability of these notes but somehow, the flexibility allows you to always learn where the notes should sit. Easier for the oboist but in my experience, never more pleasant for the audience. I cannot explain why, but even when the tone of the Buffet seem to be a little on the light side, the audience notices it less but on a Loree, it spells disaster. A good Marigaux apparently solves this problem. Haha.... But that is audience aesthetic of course...

I still do not like Howarths and have not much to say about these instruments. Extremely well built, no doubt about it. Super keywork. I suspect that the reeds have to be like feather to work on these instruments. But that is an advantage obviously, an advantage that i clearly have to learn to do better! Martin Schuring can probably make any decent oboe sound world class anyways!

RobinDesHautbois said...

Thanks Howard and thanks Cooper!!!!!
This kind of input is Gold!