From The Back Desk - Stéphane Rancourt, The Hallé Orchestra

31 March 2014, 15:00

Our latest Back Desk interview features an inappropriate squeak, the joy of Debussy's La Mer and exercising self-control on tour with The Hallé Orchestra.

Name: Stéphane Rancourt

Instrument: Oboe

Ensemble: The Hallé

Why did you decide to become a musician?
I come from a family of amateur musicians. My parents were teaching music weekly, as a hobby, to small groups of children I was part of. I think I probably learned to read music before anything else and knew throughout my childhood that one day I would be a musician. There was no decision involved. Music was part of my life from the beginning.

What's the one performance from your career that sticks in your mind?
This is a difficult one to answer! It is like asking which dish you like to eat the best! There are simply too many. But in my time with the Hallé, performances that I will never forget are Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Die Walküre. Both were such an occasion, a real journey, with extraordinary singers and amazing playing from the Orchestra and conducting from Sir Mark Elder.

What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you on stage?
Once, I played in the pit for Puccini’s: La bohème, with the Opera in Quebec. I can't remember which exact moment, but it was in a place where everyone just wants to cry, or in fact, was crying. The music was really soft, played mostly by the strings and I decided to see if my reed was leaking. This involves blowing very hard into the reed with your finger closing the end of the reed to stop any sound coming out. That way, you can feel any air escaping between the two pieces of cane and use some plastic to stop it. The only problem was, I don't know why, but I did not quite close the end of the reed and the biggest squeak came out. I sank into my chair…

If you could work with one musician, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I would love to play any Richard Strauss symphonic work conducted by the man himself. I just adore playing his music. To me, it is an epic journey, like watching a blockbuster movie.

In concert, have you ever thought, "I can't actually play this bit very well, I'm going to mime and hope no-one notices"?
That's very funny… I am not sure I should answer this question just in case my employer is reading this! But if they are… of course not!

Could you give us an example of the downside of the profession, something that the average concert-goer might not know about?
As an oboist, most people don't know that we have to scrape our own reeds. This involves buying tube cane, gouging it to a certain thickness, shaping that piece of cane and tying it to a staple. Then, you have to scrape it. I would say to get one or two good reeds I have to scrape ten. And this reed will only last for two to three days. It is a constant struggle. Often after a concert, I have no more reeds and go home and scrape until midnight for the concert the next day, hoping to get one reed! All of that while some of my colleagues are at the pub enjoying a well-deserved drink after a big concert. They don't tell you that when you are 10 years old and start playing the oboe!

Does the touring lifestyle bring out rock star behaviour in the orchestra?
If only we had the kind of money these rock stars have, then perhaps we would! It is great fun to be on tour. We definitely make sure we have a good time, but I don't think in the way rock stars do. We all want to play our best on tour. It is a question of pride and showing the world how good our orchestra is. For that, you need some self-control.

Have you witnessed any serious diva strops in your time as a musician?
Not just yet. I can't wait to see some one day.

What's the biggest challenge facing musicians like you these days?
Today, the current situation with all the cuts in the arts makes it a real challenge for orchestras to survive. We have to make sure we keep the music alive, find new ways to make classical music accessible to a larger, younger audience. We have to share our passion.

What's the best thing about being a musician?
The other day, we finished a concert, and the cor anglais player and myself had a drink afterwards. I just looked at him and said, "do you realise that today, most people are sat behind a desk doing their job? Tonight, we just played Debussy's La Mer for our living. This is our job!" It doesn't get any better than that.

Stéphane Rancourt performs the world premiere of John Casken's 'Apollinaire’s Bird for Oboe and Orchestra' with Sir Mark Elder and The Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall on Thursday 10 April 2014. Buy your tickets here.