A Rare Skill Set: Margaret Butler, English Horn

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: English horn, MSO Musicians, Oboe, Woodwind

Call Margaret Butler the accidental English hornist.

“Some oboists adore it,” she says of the bigger, deeper member of the oboe family, “and then there are those who purposely never buy an English horn so that no one will ever ask them to play it.” She fell in the latter camp until her Milwaukee Symphony audition 16 years ago, for an oboe position that would also require some English horn work. She bought an instrument, figuring that she would sell it after she didn’t win the audition — but she did win, she’s been in Milwaukee ever since, and the English horn came with her.

Audiences will get a chance to hear Butler this weekend when she plays the famous melody in the slow movement of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, one of the biggest English horn moments in the orchestral repertoire. “It’s such a beloved, familiar melody,” she said. “You hear it in elevators, in shopping malls – people are comfortable with it.”

But the dirty little secret for performers? “The English horn is tuned in F, and the melody centers around F. Almost all the solo repertoire is,” Butler says. “But F is the worst note on the instrument. It’s hard to come in and make it sound secure. It’s a challenge to play it with love of that note, and say ‘I’m going to caress it and make it sing.’ So it’s never a blasé experience.”

She remembers that her predecessor as the MSO’s English horn, Martin Woltman, used to say, “It hardly ever plays, but when it does, oh my God” — because it’s usually a very exposed solo. Another challenge, Butler said, is that “very few people go into the world saying, ‘I’m going to be an English hornist.’ There’s no school for it. Things like reeds and alternate fingerings – you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s like the Baroque oboe that way.”

In fact, Butler first fell in love with the sound of the oboe as a teenager through the Baroque music of Bach and Telemann. But as an adult, buying a Baroque oboe and learning to play it (it’s pitched slightly lower, with finger holes instead of keys) remains an unfulfilled goal. But she loves playing that repertoire with the MSO on her modern oboe, bringing “a little bit of historically informed taste” to pieces like Handel’s Messiah.

Butler lives in Brown Deer with her husband, jazz saxophonist Johnny Padilla. “We have plenty of conversations about each other’s music,” she says. “It’s almost like being married to someone in a different profession.” They met and married when they were freelancers in Florida, and Padilla followed her north when she won the MSO job. “Johnny’s a native Miamian,” she says, “and up here in Milwaukee, everyone was so friendly, he was like, ‘What’s the angle?’ But people here are just genuine.” Since then, Padilla’s mother – a native of Panama who never saw snow till she was 78 – has moved here, and so has Butler’s sister.

In her spare time, Butler paints; if music hadn’t worked out, she says she’d be a studio artist. She loves visiting local galleries, and was amazed when she moved here by the permanent collection at the Milwaukee Art Museum and at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend. She also loves to jump in the car and explore Wisconsin, driving through Kettle Moraine and the Driftless Area just to enjoy the scenery, as well as playing Midsummer’s Music in Door County.

“It’s a real challenge for someone in Margaret’s shoes to be so versatile on both instruments,” said principal oboe Katherine Young Steele. “It’s a rare skill set, but something she really has excelled in. And she’s such a giving musician. She’s always trying to make my job easier.”

In a fully orchestrated piece, Butler typically plays third oboe, but Steele said, “On the English horn, it’s nice to hear her individually, her own point of view.” When it’s time for the famous Dvorak solo, “I’ll just close my eyes and get transported to wherever she wants to take me.”