Artist Interview: Nathan Hughes, oboe

By Jessica Wolford on May 2, 2017

Nathan Hughes, oboe, performs with PCMS on Sunday, May 14 in concert with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, cellist Rafael Figueroa, and pianist Ken Noda. The four artists perform with the Metropolitan Opera, where Mr. Hughes is Principal Oboe. In addition to the Met, he serves on the faculty at Juilliard and is an avid chamber musician who performs at festivals every summer (including a return to Marlboro this year). In our interview below, Mr. Hughes speaks about the May 14 program and his relationships with Ms. Johnson Cano, Mr. Figueroa, and Mr. Noda; the role of chamber music in his life; life below the stage; summertime activities; and how he chose the oboe.

Jessica Wolford: How did the program for May 14th come together? Are these musicians you play with outside of the Met? And do you all have a close relationship with Jennifer Johnson Cano?

Nathan Hughes: We have all played together in different combinations, but this will be our first time performing together outside of the Met. All four of us have participated in the Marlboro Music Festival over various summers, and we have all been admiring Jenn’s artistry from the stage of the Met for years now. Ken has worked with Jenn ever since her years in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program, and I first met her at Marlboro. I remember first meeting Ken at Marlboro the summer before I was about the start at the Met. Ken was generous enough to sit down with me and play through some opera arias from the Marcel Moyse book—I had a lot to learn about opera at that time! Rafi sits just in front of me in the Met orchestra and can probably hear all of my mistakes better than anyone!

JW: As someone who plays the majority of the time in an Orchestra, what is the role of chamber music in your life? And how often do opportunities like May 14th arise?

NH: Some of the most moving and exciting performances I’ve been a part of, both as a performer and as a listener, have been in a chamber music setting. I feel that even in the orchestra, chamber music is constantly going on—musicians listening, reacting, and playing off one another. Working with insightful and inspiring musicians in such an intimate fashion can be an extremely meaningful way to explore the depth of music and grow as an artist. I would not be the musician I am today without the time I’ve spent studying and working on chamber music. The repertoire places different demands on us musically as well as instrumentally. I’m fortunate to have a handful of these projects take place each season and always look forward to them.

JW: Working in a pit orchestra, you probably have many great stories of life below the stage and also in general in the opera world. Any funny/touching anecdotes you can share with the PCMS audience?

NH: We have many stories of things falling into the pit—vacuum cleaners, vintage hat boxes, human ashes, and even a person from the stage falling in once. We also have avid fans, with very good intentions, who often try to lob huge bouquets of flowers over the musicians to their favorite singers on stage. Something about the flowers’ lack of aerodynamics and not enough thrust means that many evenings we hear “incoming” shouted from one of our colleagues to get us to look up from cleaning out our instruments and take cover. One night, as I looked up at the last second, I saw a dozen roses coming in hot, aiming directly at the clarinets on their stands directly behind me. Some very strong instincts kicked in, and I reached up and caught the roses with one hand and then, without looking, threw them backwards up to the stage where somehow they magically landed directly in the hands of the singer. A Yankee Stadium-like cheer followed, and I was suddenly thankful for those years I spent in Little League.

JW: When you have the summer off from the Met, what are your typical summer activities?

NH: Most of my summer is spent traveling around to different music festivals working with a variety of musicians. Some festivals are focused more on chamber music, some orchestra, and some teaching. All of them open up my mind in different ways and pull me in directions that I don’t usually get pulled as often during the regular season. Many of them happen to be in beautiful locations, which is a huge plus!

JW: Last but not least, can you tell the PCMS audience a little more about how you came to choose the oboe as your instrument? And does your current instrument have a story to go with it?

NH: As a young boy, my early training was in voice as well as piano. I knew when my voice started to change that I didn’t want to continue singing but instead wanted to find another musical instrument that could take over that path I had started. One thing that drew me to switch to the oboe at that time was that its range was almost identical to my voice.

My current instrument doesn’t have a story to go with it, but the very first good oboe I had came to me in an interesting way. I started out on a very cheap plastic oboe, and my family didn’t have the means to get something of real quality. One day, my oldest brother took me to a horse race track, Canterbury Park, outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota where I grew up. It didn’t take long for us to get on a good losing streak, and I was trying to get us to leave. My brother, however, wanted to try for one more bet on the Pick-Six (the pick-six was a single bet on the winning horses of six races in a row). One race went by, and we actually won! It was very exciting. Then we won the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th races!!! We won the jackpot for the night and rushed home to tell our parents. To my surprise, on my birthday soon after, I was given a great oboe, purchased with the prize money from that night.

Nathan Hughes appears in concert with Jennifer Johnson Cano, mezzo-soprano, Rafael Figueroa, cello, and Ken Noda, piano on Sunday, May 14 at 3pm at Benjamin Franklin Hall. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.