MSO’s Katherine Young Steele Performs Mozart’s Oboe Concerto

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Classics, MSO Musicians

Katherine Young Steele has been living with the Mozart Oboe Concerto for more than 20 years now. But when she was in high school, her teacher forbade her to work on it.

“She knew that I wasn’t mature enough to handle the delicacy of the piece,” said Steele, the MSO’s principal oboe, who will perform the concerto with the symphony on February 2-3. “And I follow that principle with my students now. It’s a beautiful piece of music, but it takes maturity and discipline. For a 16-year-old, no matter how good you are, you’re not developed yet.”

The Mozart is core repertoire for any oboist. “It hovers over me at all times,” Steele said. “It’s a piece you play at every audition.”

But life experience has brought her to a new place with the concerto, and with music-making in general. “The way you play when you’re 18 or 20 versus when you’re in your 40s is different,” she said. “Have you given birth? Have you fallen in love? What have you gone through?” Now that the Mozart concerto is “not a piece I have to win an audition with anymore,” she has a greater appreciation for it purely as music.

“We associate this piece with extreme elegance and beauty,” she said. “Mozart is essentially a singer.” For that reason, when one of Steele’s students is ready to learn the concerto, she asks them to listen not to recordings of the piece, but to Mozart opera arias. “There is such a range of expression in Mozart, and often it’s easier to grasp in his operatic work than in his instrumental works,” she said. “Also, listening to the human voice gives us a great guide on how to make a phrase beautiful — where to open up a crescendo, for example, or how to add vibrato.”

Steele is not a trained vocalist, but she frequently sings a passage while she is practicing. “I use my body the same way a singer would,” she said.

But the kind of restraint that is appropriate to Mozart and to the Classical period would not necessarily fit later repertoire. “I wouldn’t play Schumann the same way as Mozart,” she said. “Schumann can be bigger and more dramatic.”

Oboists spend much of their time making reeds — and thinking about reeds. Four weeks ahead of her concert, Steele said, “I want to get a case of reeds going now, to choose the one that will be easiest to sing on.” As always, she will have some emergency reeds with her at the front of the stage when she performs the concerto, but “it would be unnerving if I actually had to switch.”

It is a little ironic, she said, that “you have to do carpentry for weeks” in order to produce a beautiful sound, but that is what oboists sign up for.

Steele last soloed with the orchestra in 2015, when she performed Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto with then-Music Director Edo de Waart, a former professional oboist himself. But the upcoming concerts will be her first concerto performance in the Bradley Symphony Center, which has “a very oboe-friendly acoustic. I don’t have to worry about blasting.”

There is an asterisk, however: Steele actually performed the first notes ever heard for public consumption in the Bradley Symphony Center during the pandemic-disrupted opening in early 2021. When the symphony resumed performances, with chamber music performed in an empty hall and streamed to a virtual audience, she started the concert with a brief solo that began on an A — the note that the oboe gives for the orchestra to tune to. “It was a tremendous honor,” she said. “At the time it felt natural, because we had spent so much time by ourselves, so it wasn’t strange. But looking back on it, of course it was.”