Above and Beyond.
11 Apr 2012
Inside the Classics

The orchestra’s hard at work this week on a program that will prominently feature two musicians new to Orchestra Hall: violinist Jennifer Frautschi and composer James Stephenson. Having now completed rehearsals for the world premiere of Stephenson’s new violin concerto (which was commissioned by the Minnesota Commissioning Club,) I’m fairly confident that our audiences over the next four days are going to be bowled over both by Jim’s utterly charming music, and Jennifer’s stunning musical and technical abilities.

That having been said, I want to talk about someone else who will be on stage during the performance, someone you might not always notice during your average Minnesota Orchestra concert. I want to talk about her because she’s doing something this week that musicians like her are almost never called upon to do, and for which she will cheerfully accept a bare minimum of recognition.

Greg & Julie Williams (and their new little friend) on vacation in Colorado

Julie Gramolini and I have been pals since my freshman year of college. (Yes, she’s technically Julie Williams these days, but I trust Greg will allow me the privilege of old friends to take my time with the changeover.) She was always a great oboist, but in a school weighed down with great oboists, it was Julie’s easy smile, sharp sense of humor, and unfailing kindness that made her stand out. So I couldn’t have been more thrilled to walk into work one morning several seasons back and see a notice from our personnel manager that Julie had won the audition for our open second oboe position.

Now, the word “second” in an orchestral woodwind context can be a bit of a misleading term. Being a denizen of a section in which we use words properly, I’m not even certain that I fully understand the various wind and brass hierarchies. But basically, it works like this in nearly every major orchestra in the US: each of the four woodwind sections has a Principal, who plays the lead part. There is then an “Assistant Principal,” but that musician generally doesn’t play the second part for his/her instrument, despite being the second ranking player. The assistant principal is largely tasked with playing the lead part when the principal isn’t playing at all. (Why can’t the Principal play all the time, you ask? The string principals seem to play almost everything. The answer is that lips are a lot more fragile than arms from a musculature standpoint, and unless we wanted our principal winds to require permanent replacement every five years or so, they simply can’t play every lead part every night.)

So with the lead part being played by one of the two “titled” players, you then need a player to play the “second” part for that instrument group. That’s where Julie comes in. No matter who’s playing lead oboe, Julie’s alongside playing the second oboe part. It’s a hugely taxing and sometimes thankless job, and perhaps because of that, it does seem to attract highly diligent musicians who, like Julie, make a point of being upbeat and pleasant to everyone around them. Your moody, hyper-competitive, self-destructive types wouldn’t last long in the second chair, nor would anyone who finds it difficult to put in hours of practice while knowing they won’t be in the spotlight much.

What the second oboe is pretty much never asked to do is play a lead part, but this week, with our assistant principal oboe dealing with a nasty lingering hand injury, Julie’s been asked to step into the breach and play half of this week’s concerts (and quite possibly many more weeks as well) from the principal chair. A lot of career second players would have said, No. Not in my job description. Being Julie, she took a deep breath and said: Sure. Whatever I can do to help the ball club.

I know it probably seems like I’m making a bigger deal of this than it is – after all, Julie’s a professional, she obviously had to study a lot of principal rep back in school, blah blah blah – but I promise I’m not. This isn’t like the understudy having to suddenly go on and replace the lead actor, which the understudy’s been dying to do anyway. It’s more like the best soprano in the choir being suddenly asked to stand in for Dawn Upshaw – just a completely different job. Even if few in the audience notice that there’s a different musician playing principal oboe this week, it’s a huge deal for Julie, and everyone in the orchestra knows it.

This being a friendly orchestra, that’s why Julie’s been getting a lot of extra smiles and subtle foot-shuffling (it’s how musicians applaud each other) in rehearsal this week. And it’s why Osmo, after barking out a few directions to the woodwinds this morning, stopped for a moment to single her out and say in front of the entire ensemble “what a great job you are doing.” Knowing Julie, she probably didn’t need the stroke, but it was well deserved.

So, anyway, there’s this awesome violin concerto to be premiered tonight, and if you’re coming to one of the concerts this week, you’ll doubtless be lavishing a lot of applause and goodwill on Jennifer and Jim, and rightfully so. But if you happen to glance over at the oboe section during the curtain calls, you might aim a few bravos in Julie’s direction, as well. I can guarantee she will have earned them.

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