Nicholas Daniel’s career began when, at the age of 18, he won the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition. He is one of the UK’s most distinguished soloists and, through his achievements, was awarded the prestigious Queen’s Medal for Music.
An active chamber musician, Nicholas is a founding member of the Haffner Wind Ensemble and the Britten Oboe Quartet. He also regularly works with the pianists Charles Owen and Julius Drake, and with the Carducci and Vogler String Quartets. He shares his performance experience in the new Chester Oboe Anthology.
Nicholas sat down with us to talk all things music and his favourite pieces from the Anthology.
What is it about your instrument that initially captivated you?
Honestly, it was my maternal grandmother, Dora, who said I should play the Oboe. Music caught and saved me when I became a Cathedral Chorister in Salisbury. Saved me because, in the immortal words of the Beach Boys song; “God only knows what I’d be without you…”.
When you’re thrown into that great music in that great building, it’s going to have an effect on a musical child. For me, it was a privilege and a joy. I took up the Oboe to go there, as you had to play two instruments. Then, when my voice broke, I somehow realised that I could sing on the Oboe instead. I had shown some aptitude even before that though; I had passed my Grade 8 aged twelve, after playing for only eighteen months.
What is your earliest performing memory?
The school pantomime. Aged five. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. My part was supposed to be Bashful but Sneezy forgot his lines so I just stepped in while he quietly dried up at the back. Everyone thought I was being kind, but really I was wanting to show off!
Are there any points in your career so far that have helped shape your attitude to practising and performing?
My life is defined by exciting deadlines, and being prepared early enough is crucial. Every time that I have to play a piece of new music, I try to make sure that – if the music is ready – I have enough time for it. Or if it’s delivered late, as it sometimes is, I have put aside enough time around the premiere to work on it. New music is my great joy in playing. It’s so freeing and exciting, and hugely challenging.
Practising is often purely considered to be time spent honing repertoire and technique with your instrument to hand. What methods do you use to practise or memorise music that don’t necessarily require the use of your instrument?
Playing the Oboe is so physical that I really prefer to work ON the instrument. Oftentimes on planes, when the phone hopefully doesn’t work, I like to work on the architecture of a piece, or sort out a complex score. The connection between my ears, the body, the reed and the instrument, however, is so crucial for me. I would rather listen and read around a subject or a composer to better inform myself of their work before I play it with my Oboe in my mouth and hands. My great colleague Alex Klein however, who plays stunningly despite focal dystonia, swears by learning without the Oboe because his time on the Oboe is limited. I encourage my students to do it too, but it’s not my way.
Have you any advice for conservatoire musicians looking to break into the performing industry?
Yes. But this is not an exhaustive list, just a few things that strike me right now.
- There will be work. You may have to mix and match things for a while in a so-called portfolio career. But if you focus on putting one foot in front of the other musically in every minute and every hour of your practice then what you want, or something better, or different, will happen for you. Be ambitious to practise well. Being negative about the amount of work available will do you no good. Anyway, musicians are truly lucky compared to actors and dancers. We are better paid than actors and have more work, and have longer careers than dancers. I have made all sorts of plans throughout my career and identified certain goals; nothing has quite ended up as I planned or envisaged – it’s mostly better – so I’ve given up on trying to control it! I take my opportunities gratefully, but I don’t cry myself to sleep if something potentially exciting doesn’t work out.
- Always remember that ours is a sociable profession; people generally prefer to work with other musicians who don’t make things stressful. That’s true in every area of it. If you are Rostropovich you might get away with it, but anyway he was lovely.
- In my opinion there really isn’t such a thing as confidence. There is doing something so many times on stage that you eventually realise that you probably can do it. PRETENDING TO YOURSELF that you can do it really works. Most of us are just pretending most of the time.
- Studying and then becoming a musician is the best free therapy, and you will, if you are listening, continue to learn about yourself as you go through your career and life, guided by what the music teaches you about yourself. Things change and you have to adapt and reinvent. We are lucky that, if we get our head and heart in the right place the music speaks through us and works with us. Music WILL change you and you have to listen and adapt.
What is the most unusual or pioneering concert that you have taken part in?
I have just recreated the 1951 Premiere of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses for Solo Oboe on a pontoon on Thorpeness Meare in the Aldeburgh Festival, alongside six new pieces by younger composers I believe in, with the audience in little boats. I actually did the concert twice back to back; once in the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh with narration by Sophie Hunter and once out on the Meare. I had my own boatman who punted me out from the reeds while I played the first piece. The new works are all inspired by Ted Hughes masterpiece Tales from Ovid.
What projects are you currently working on?
Having thought about it, too many to mention! But I’ve just released a CD on Harmonia Mundi with my Britten Oboe Quartet; we are working on promoting that. Also, I’m a part of two other recent new discs; one of a superb concerto by Cheryl Frances-Hoad on a disc of her music, and one of Strauss Serenades with the Britten-Pears Orchestra. I will be recording again for Harmonia Mundi in the near future. I have many plans for new work including Oboe Quartets from Mark Simpson and David Bruce, a Concerto from Huw Watkins, and a major chamber piece from Sir James MacMillan, although that one is far off.
I’m also excited to be playing a new piece that Colin Matthews is writing for me this coming year, and a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as celebrating Thea Musgrave’s 90th birthday with concerts of her music. I have my annual Leicester International Music Festival coming up, which is always a joy, as well as our excellent Thursday lunchtime series starting. Add to that conducting projects, my playing concert schedule, two professorships, one in Germany one at the Guildhall School, and life is not quiet – or simple! I’m also planning on designing and performing a classical era Oboe for performances in a year’s time.
Do you have a favourite work from those featured in the Chester Oboe Anthology?
Two. Sorry! One is the Barber Canzonetta. I adore this piece and play it whenever I can. It’s so sad that we don’t have a whole Concerto from him, but this one movement, his last ever work, is so beautiful. And also I’m so happy that Thea Musgrave’s Dawn is there. The book is worth buying just for that one piece actually, and I am so happy that Thea has added to the oboe repertoire with so many great new pieces.
THE CHESTER OBOE ANTHOLOGY
15 popular works for Oboe with Piano accompaniment featuring selected works from the major exam board syllabuses, spanning Grades 5 to 8 and beyond.
Includes pull-out part, and performance notes by Nicholas Daniel.