By Ellen Wilkinson

Nicholas Daniel’s prolific career as an oboist, conductor, teacher and champion of new music was propelled forward when he won the 1980 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at the age of eighteen (he remains the only oboist to have won the title). Daniel studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Music with Janet Craxton and Celia Nicklin, before launching a prestigious career as a recording artist, chamber musician and concerto soloist with world leading orchestras. He is a pioneer of new oboe music and has premiered works written for him by composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Henri Dutilleux, James MacMillan and Thea Musgrave. Daniel is Professor at the Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany and at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and in 2012 he was awarded the ‘Queen’s Medal for Music’ for his “outstanding contribution to the musical life of the nation”. 

I had the privilege of attending a masterclass Nick gave at RAM in June and, as well as his astonishing skill on the oboe, I was struck by his warm wit, wealth of experience and passion for music’s place in politics. In the class, Nick mentioned his role in the British Double Reed Society and International Double Reed Society and I was keen to learn more about the IDRS’s plan to diversify new oboe repertoire for their 50 for 50 project, which celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the society. We chatted over zoom, when Nick was unfortunately isolating (“I’m completely fine – just a little bored!”) about the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on musical life, the exciting discoveries that are made when musicians make an effort to diversify their programmes and how our most important goal should be enabling every child to learn a musical instrument.  

Ellen: What is the purpose of the International Double Reed Society?

Nick: The IDRS exists to promote communication between double reed players, increase repertoire and open barriers between different schools of playing, which can be quite extreme. In my opinion, it should exist to increase repertoire more than it has done in the past and the project we will discuss is probably the biggest example of the society commissioning new music for oboe and bassoon. The society is American based, as there isn’t an American Double Reed society (there is a British/Spanish etc). Historically, the IDRS is the biggest ever double reed platform and it has over 4000 members, meaning the social media presence and resources are quite extreme. 

Since 1980, I have attended and performed at conferences that they hold every year in America and cities around the world, from Melbourne to Birmingham; the conferences are huge and have about ten performances a day. They are also a great place to see all the latest double reed toys: new machinery, knives and crazy knife sharpening equipment that you couldn’t take on a plane! 

Ellen: What is your role in the IDRS?

Nick: I have been involved in various different ways over the years, sometimes as a judge for their high level competitions – one of which I was a winner of many years ago when it was held in Graz, Austria. I have also helped choose repertoire for the competitions, as well as given presentations – a notable one was on Britten’s Temporal Variations in Banff, Canada. 

My role has changed in the last year following the Black Lives Matter movement and the footage of the George Floyd murder. The social media response to the clip broke the dam and made hugely beneficial changes to the IDRS and musical life in general; the BLM movement has shown what we as white people need to do and how we need to change and learn – a big process. The push for diversity in the IDRS may have started before 2020, as there was a huge outcry when there wasn’t a single composer of colour on the list of repertoire for the Gillet competition. The president of the IDRS, Eric Stomberg, took the feedback and formed much more inclusive committees, including for ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’, ‘Repertoire’ and ‘Competitions’ – which I was a member of – to work on the 50 for 50 project. 

Ellen: Could you explain further about the aim of the 50 for 50 project? 

Nick: It is the fiftieth anniversary of the IDRS and the aim of the project is to commission fifty new works for oboe and bassoon over the next five years, with a focus on expanding and diversifying the double reed repertoire. There are three categories for new works: oboe and piano, bassoon and piano and oboe, bassoon and piano trio. My involvement in the project was as part of the competition committee which spent a large number of meetings deciding on the best way to make the competition represent as much diversity as possible, be that gender, race or sexual orientation. Each meeting was really fascinating and educational for me, which is not always the case with meetings! 

The end result was that we are focused on including and promoting more black and brown women and closed the competition to white, straight, cis-gender men. After so much discussion this seemed a natural conclusion but it was slightly controversial in the reaction to it. Some people thought that the exclusion was a bit hard but I think it has been very elegantly handled by Eric Stomberg, the IDRS president. That was also the first time I had ever heard the phrase ‘black and brown women’ in a meeting; I was initially nervous to use that term as a white person, and now I don’t really know why I was. In the British Double Reed Society composition competition, which I am president of, we concluded that if there are two candidates of equal merit, the more ethnically or gender diverse candidate will win. Both of these decisions about exclusions for the competitions are compromises, and are seeing the same problem from different sides of the sculpture; having been involved in both discussions, I stand by the results. 

Ellen: What positive impact do you think this decision will have on the future of double reed music? 

Nick: The fact that IDRS will have fifty new diverse works for double reed instruments is so exciting in itself! It multiples by about 20% the number of accessible pieces for the instruments. I saw yesterday that one of the winners of this competition is a British composer called Hannah Kendall; she sent me her work for oboe and piano and I am very excited about it! It is already a piece that I will be programming in recitals. Only that one piece coming out of this project makes it worthwhile, but I really think the whole competition is fantastic and will be hugely enriching for the repertoire. 

In Leicester I am the artistic director of the International Music Festival and about two years ago I started insisting on at least one work by a non-male composer. That may to some seem an unnecessary term, and why mention men at all, but as someone with a trans daughter I’m much more aware of the elements of non binary in the rainbow, and that needs acknowledgement, so we use it instead of female. That caused a rich and beneficial blossoming of more diverse concert programmes, whether that be Clara Schumann, Thea Musgrave or Judith Weir. You make wonderful discoveries – Florence Price’s Art Songs are just amazing. We have extended this requirement to now include a composer of colour and are commissioning Eleanor Alberga in 2023 for a substantial new work which will include oboe. I think she represents the very best of British music and her work is extraordinary in the way that it is lit; it is very dark and then suddenly she uses tonality to cut through like lemon and it all shines. 

Ellen: Wow, that is all really interesting. Double reed instruments are expensive and players often come with a lot of privilege. What do you think can be done to encourage children from all backgrounds to learn the oboe and bassoon? 

Nick: I would say the best way to get children to learn musical instruments is to give tuition to them for free. I think it is interesting that we are talking the day after Scotland is bringing in free instrumental tuition for all children in state schools. It was a manifesto commitment from all the parties, which is extraordinary. I have personally campaigned for the government to adopt the ‘Every Child a Musician’ scheme which was happening in the London Borough of Newham. It has been unfortunately scrapped because the new council Mayor is not interested, but the legacy of ten years remains. After the pandemic, children need music now more than ever. The benefits academically are extraordinary: in Newham they went from the lowest 9% to the highest 12% of achieving schools in three years. People who had come from war torn countries were passing grades on the clarinet and receiving awards – the scheme really changed lives. We could bring it in throughout the country, but this government has other priorities. 

I am working with people like Harriet Harman and David Warburton to stoke the fire and get people talking about this again post Brexit and covid. I decided that my lockdown was going to be about other people and what kind of profession young musicians of all backgrounds would be entering. 

Ellen: I guess everything is interconnected and as we aim to diversify repertoire and players, audiences for classical music will broaden as a result. Is that an aim of yours and the IDRS?

Nick: Absolutely, yes. Representation is so important. I use the example of Leicester, which is one of the first cities in Europe with a white minority, and yet our audiences are extremely white. The audiences are amazing, but we would like them to diversify. We are making a conscious effort to make it so that people can see themselves reflected on stage, both in gender and race. I think diverse programming has more of an effect on the players and the profession than audiences, but eventually this will feed into audiences too. It will have a huge impact on the IDRS; there are large numbers of very fine ethnically diverse oboe and bassoon players who have felt disenfranchised by the society and would never come to a conference. The IDRS is a huge networking event so it is crucial that everyone feels included from now on.

As a result of the 50 for 50 competition there were a few members who withdrew their subscriptions to the IDRS but there were considerably more who joined. I feel that we have definitely gained more than we have lost. The situation is about audiences, but in a way that is further down the line – the immediate changes to the inner workings of the profession are a crucial first step. We are at the bottom of a wave in music at the moment, and those of us that can need to give a push to get over it. 

Ellen: Finally, in ten to fifteen years from now, what changes do you hope will have come into place in double reed life? 

Nick: There are many things that I hope for! I hope that we will all be playing on instruments made from wood that is FSC – Forestry Stewardship Council – approved; I am the patron of a trust in Tanzania called ‘Sound and Fair’, which I am incredibly proud of. The environment is the most concerning thing in all of our lives and we must pressure our leaders to commit to big changes; I hope that in a decade we will see a healing planet. 

I also hope that we will see a hugely diverse workforce in music and I think that is definitely possible; if we were to get every single state school child in the UK learning an instrument then we would get brilliant musicians from all backgrounds. It might take longer than fifteen years but I think it is doable. The most fundamental ground level thing is to get every child learning a musical instrument; that will feed into everything we have been talking about, from composers to performers and audiences, who will no longer think that a classical concert hall is off limits to them. I tend to be a rather optimistic person – maybe we will even be back in the EU by then!

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