Kimmel spotlight to shine on English horn

Posted: April 22, 2005

A world premiere is rare, and one for an English horn soloist even rarer. But after 10 seasons as a superb practitioner of the instrument for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia will come center stage for the English Horn Concerto by British-born composer Nicholas Maw.

It's all in the family, as the orchestra's assistant conductor, Rossen Milanov, also will lead one of my favorite works, the rhapsodic "Walk to the Paradise Garden" from Delius' opera "A Village Romeo and Juliet," and Rimsky-Korsakov's colorful "Sheherazade."

First, let's get this out of the way: The English horn isn't a horn, and it's not English. It's an alto oboe with a large bell on its end and an angled metal tube to hold the reeds. Its name comes from a corruption of the French term "cor anglais," which might itself have derived from "angle" or even "angels."

In the hands of a master like Masoudnia, it produces a haunting, plaintive sound, used famously in Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," Sibelius' "Swan of Tuonela" and Dvorak's "New World" Symphony.

A Philadelphia native, Masoudnia joined the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra under Joseph Primavera and played woodwind quintets at Settlement with Shirley Curtiss. She then had the good fortune to study with two orchestra masters - her renowned predecessor, Louis Rosenblatt, and oboist John de Lancie, then retired and president of Curtis Institute.

Between performances, rehearsals and family time with daughter Sholeh, 6, and son Milan, 3, Masoudnia sat down for a chat over a cup of tea.

Q: How did this commission come about?

A: It took nearly eight years of talking about the few existing English horn concertos, and I thought, wouldn't it be great if we commissioned a piece? I had a choice, and I chose Nicholas Maw because he had established his very melodic style and good writing for wind instruments - perfect for me. He wrote a violin concerto for Joshua Bell and "Sophie's Choice" for the Met. This was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to add to the repertory.

Q: Did you have much input with Maw?

A: I asked him for a piece that was 20 minutes maximum, with many melodies, orchestration not too rich and a lot of technical challenges. It ends slowly, which is unusual for a concerto, but it's just what I wanted and I've had it since January. Rossen used to be an oboist, he's very sensitive and really understands the instrument.

Q: How did you get into playing?

A: Mine wasn't a musical family, but when I was 8, at Springside [School in Chestnut Hill], I remember being inspired by an oboe played by a Curtis student. It's a credit to having music early in schools. The high point of my week was playing in the Youth Orchestra.

Q: How did you get to study with Louis, who had the job you have now?

A: Shirley Curtiss, who taught us to always play as if it's chamber music, convinced Louis to take me at 12 though he usually only took college students. He set the standard, not only as a great player, but an adviser in life as well as music. He is the kind of person and player I want to be, and he urged me to pick up the English horn.

Q: So he helped you prepare to get into Curtis at 18 and study with de Lancie?

A: Yes. De Lancie had very high standards, he'd bop into a practice room and instruct.

Q: Is English horn that specialized compared to oboe?

A: Yes, there are maybe 20 players in the country who specialize full time. If they're playing the oboe a lot, they can't achieve a high level of English horn playing because the reed and the embouchure is different, and it's so critical what you do with the air.

Q: What about the reeds for a double-reed instrument?

A: The cane comes from France. An enormous amount of our off time is spent making reeds with special machines to gouge and scrape them. A reed can be great one day, different when the weather changes. OK at home, different on the job. It's a high source of stress in our lives, using thousands of hours, but you just have to get used to it.

Q: After 10 years, how big of a deal is this solo for you?

A: Huge! My colleagues have the most discerning ears, they're the ones who really know. My dream was always to join this orchestra, and I'm so lucky. Everyone talks about the string sound, but the American tradition of oboe playing was established here by the Frenchman Marcel Tabuteau, who was brought here [to play in the Philadelphia Orchestra] from the Met by Stokowski. Tabuteau found a new way of making reeds, and everyone throughout the country has descended from that style of teaching and this tradition.

Q: How hard is it to phase between playing and family?

A: I'm fortunate that my husband, Shahram [who is in the Oriental rug business], is a very involved father who can work his schedule around mine. Sometimes it's good to have completely different worlds, since you can only control so much on the job! *

Philadelphia Orchestra, Rossen Milanov conducting, Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia, English horn soloist, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and April 30 and May 3, plus 2 p.m. April 29, Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce streets, $9-$76.25, 215-893-1999, www.philorch.org.

Send e-mail to

dinardt@phillynews.com.

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