Assistant Principal Oboe Kevin Pearl makes the case for taking risks


Tagged Under: MSO Musicians, Oboe

Kevin Pearl was discouraged and at a low point when he auditioned for the Milwaukee Symphony’s assistant principal oboe position in January of 2015. He figured he had nothing to lose.

So, feeling underprepared because of reed trouble and having narrowly failed to win three auditions in previous months, he let it all out. “If I was feeling better, I would have played it safer,” he said.

His judges were a committee of not only seasoned woodwind players, but also Music Director Edo de Waart, a former professional oboist himself. As Pearl pushed the limits on his choice of dynamics, the soft notes might have failed to speak altogether, or the loud notes might have sounded crude. “It’s always possible you’ll fumble and trip and really screw something up,” he said. “But that’s where I feel the real magic is. It’s scary. But it’s where I feel the most alive. The audience appreciates that.”

And the audition committee understood it, too. When assistant personnel manager Rip Pretat told him that he had won the position, “I was nearly in tears,” Pearl said. “I couldn’t believe it. I had to ask him if he was joking. I wish I could go back and feel that exact feeling again, but I do my best to remember it.”

“He was by far the most musical and had the most personality,” said principal oboe Katherine Young Steele. Music Director Edo de Waart, she said, “tends to choose players who have something to say musically and don’t just play it safe.”

A season and a half later, Pearl is getting used to life in the MSO. Previously he had played in the New World Symphony, a training orchestra for young musicians in Miami Beach that offers three-year fellowships with plenty of performance experience. The program provides housing and a stipend, but travel expenses for auditions mean that “some weeks, you have to eat rice and beans.”

As assistant principal, Pearl usually plays second oboe, but plays first on some smaller pieces in order to give a break to Steele – and he sat in the principal seat during her recent maternity leave this winter. “It’s a huge opportunity for him to have really juicy parts,” she said. “He’s a fantastic colleague, easy to work with, and a great attitude. We’re a very happy section.”

No conversation about the oboe can go very far without winding up on the topic of reeds. The two small pieces of cane that vibrate against each other are the starting point for the instrument’s sound, and every skilled oboist makes his or her own. “You can’t have a machine do it well,” Pearl said. “There’s a lot of headache and time and work involved.”

In earlier years, Pearl said, his playing suffered because he wasn’t skilled enough at making reeds – and sometimes oboe lessons will consist entirely of getting the teacher’s help with the craft. Part of the skill is fitting the reed to the composer or the situation – for instance, when Pearl is playing second oboe, he’ll use a reed that speaks better in the low range.

In his free time, he enjoys checking out Milwaukee’s restaurant scene (he lives downtown, within walking distance of Uihlein Hall), running, trivia nights or dancing at bars, and TV. “I’m a high-strung person,” he said, “and it’s fun to do things that chill me out.” The time for adrenaline comes at work: “Some people sky-dive. I take musical risks.”