By Ellen Wilkinson

Oboist Jonathan Kelly was born in 1969 and grew up in in Northamptonshire. As a teenager, he was a member of the National Youth Orchestra and European Union Youth Orchestra, after which he read history at Cambridge. He then went on to study for a year at the Royal Academy of Music and the Conservatoire de Paris with Maurice Bourgue. He was appointed Principal Oboe of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1993, conducted by Simon Rattle; in 2003, also under Rattle, he became principal of the Berlin Philharmonic. Kelly is a visiting professor at the Royal Academy of Music.

EW: You studied at the Academy as a postgraduate; do you have any favourite memories here?

JK: My postgrad was only one year, because I chose in my second year to study in Paris, it was pretty intense and went by in a flash. I made a lot of friends. Just before I started, a little orchestra went up from the Academy to the Ashover Festival in Derbyshire and it was a brilliant introduction for getting to know other people. We went to a small village and played a week of concerts; I loved that because having come from Cambridge this was a whole different collection of people and a different way of working. One of my best memories while studying, this sounds a bit nerdy, was preparing for the scales exam, which the others had spent four years of their undergraduate practicing for. I was terrified of that exam, it seemed like undressing in public! Together with another postgrad oboist from university, Claire Hoskins, we decided from week one that we would meet in the tiny practice rooms downstairs and play our scales to each other. One person would say ‘D flat major in fourths’, or sometimes we would play together as a round. It was really great to give structure to my weeks, as the DipRAM course was quite unstructured in those days.

We had wonderful teachers come to visit. Neil Black, the former oboist in the English Chamber Orchestra, and Thomas Indermühle came over from Germany. Their comments have stayed with me. I was very good at making notes and I like looking back at those. I can also remember something bad! It was my first attempt at playing pool in the bar and the first thing I did was spill my pint all over the baize pool table…

EW: Before RAM you read history at Cambridge; do you think that experience helped you as a musician?

JK: I don’t know if I necessarily gained more from doing that than going to music college for undergraduate but I learned how to think for myself, do my own research and not expect other people to give me the answers. I think that meant that when I came to the Academy and then went to Paris, I was already self-motivated and learning how to be my own teacher. Some students would be confused by different teachers telling them contradictory methods, but I would just try them all and choose what I wanted to do. I would never tell a teacher ‘I don’t agree’, I would always try it. In history, you go to tutors and read articles with completely different opinions and you have to bring it all together in your own argument. The thing which I loved about Cambridge at the time was the amount of playing; I was performing different programmes every week in kind of scratch bands. I remember doing Strauss ‘Death and Transfiguration’ with four first violins! It taught me how to get a reed working, get on stage and play. But when I came to the Academy I felt at a disadvantage because I couldn’t move my fingers anywhere near as efficiently as the people around me. I was intimidated by the technical level, but it motivated me to do some work. It was a shock, but a healthy shock.

EW: What has been the highlight of your career?

JK: I’ve got to this funny stage where I’ve realised that I’ve had quite a long career! I always joke that my musical highlight happened at seventeen, when I played Gurre-Lieder with the NYO at the proms. Pierre Boulez conducted and Jessye Norman sang, and that has stayed with me my whole life. Whenever I have played it since I always think ‘oh it’s not as good as the NYO!’ Some really lifechanging moments were working with amazing singers close to. Playing an opera with the singers right behind the orchestra or playing a Bach Cantata and hearing how the voice works and resonates is very inspiring. The very last concert before lockdown, I performed Strauss concerto in the Philharmonie with Sir Simon Rattle. It was something I always felt I should do, as first oboe at the Berlin Phil, but I imagined it would be terrifying. It was however a wonderful experience because I had Simon there and he is such an old friend, and we understand each other so well. And I had my own orchestra behind me.

 Looking back, I had the privilege of playing with Harnoncourt, Haitink and Abbado. At the time you just think ok these are great conductors but when they are retired or no longer here, you realise how precious those moments are.

EW: Do you enjoy teaching?

JK: I love teaching! I am always surprised by how the lesson develops. I never know what to expect when I teach. To be completely honest, sometimes when I am tired the prospect of teaching doesn’t fill me with delight. But always, when I see the student, I really get into it; I like having the permission to really nag at people. That’s what the job of a teacher is: to plant the questions into the student’s head that need to be answered. Did you listen to that? Are you doing that efficiently? Most of all I like the long journey you have with a student, and then staying in contact with them and seeing how their lives develop, all in different ways.

Jonathan and Ellen after a masterclass at the Royal Academy of Music

EW: In the current uncertainty, what advice would you have for aspiring oboists?

JK: Stay optimistic! Music will survive, don’t believe what people say that it will all die out, we need music and it will always be there. I would say invest in any extra time you have to really sort everything out and make yourself as efficient a player as possible. Don’t listen to messages from the government and media that our jobs aren’t viable, that has been proven time and time again to be wrong. People have been saying that the classical music industry is dying for as long as I can remember, but actually now I think it’s growing.

EW: What has been your biggest challenge as a professional musician?

JK: One of them was moving to Berlin when I was very settled at my job in Birmingham, moving a whole family and starting at an orchestra that, from the outset, seemed very intimidating. The biggest challenge I faced was when I broke my shoulder and I couldn’t play in the orchestra for nearly six months. The difficulty was staying motivated and in condition by practicing just using my reed. There are mini challenges every week, depending on the repertoire you are playing.

EW: What are your interests outside of music?

JK: I am a very passionate gardener and have quite a famous garden on Facebook! When I come over here, I visit amazing gardens linked to people, that’s what interests me, it’s like art. I’m not really interested in mowing lawns I’m interested in creating a picture. We have a lovely labradoodle called Harry, so I go out exercising him a lot because we live in an area of beautiful woods and lakes. All three of our daughters are now studying in the UK, in Loughborough, Oxford and London, so I imagine a lot of my free time will be spent coming back here!

Harry the labradoodle

EW: Finally, if you could programme your dream orchestral concert, what would be the repertoire?

JK: That’s a really good question! I would definitely have Mendelssohn ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture’ at the beginning, because that is the first piece of music that I fell in love with. I would like to have that conducted by Claudio Abbado because he gets the requisite lightness. For a concerto, I would have David Oistrakh playing Sibelius Violin Concerto. After the interval (this is a long concert!), I would have a semi-staged production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, with Jessye Norman as the Prima Donna, and Rita Streich as Zerbinetta. I would sit in the orchestra for that, definitely.

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