In the Oboe Concerto it was the instrument itself that gave me the variety of materials. The oboe is capable of doing things other than playing a beautiful melodic line, and I used some of its unique abilities as building blocks for my concerto. For example, along with the bassoon the oboe is unique in that its lower register is its most forceful. This special quality gave me the idea of constructing a movement where there would be a dynamic arch which was reversed – i.e., the oboe would begin high and soft, drop to the bottom of its range for the music’s “peak,” then ascend for a quiet end.
The concerto is cast in five brief movements, the form itself arising from the different aspects of the oboe. Before I begin to write a piece I always want to know how each movement will relate to the other. Every movement of the Oboe Concerto – each based on a different quality of the instrument – was mapped out in advance: the way the first is based on the tuning ritual, the fact that the second avoids a climax, the use of multiphonics (non-definable chords, often using quarter-tones or tones between tones) in the third, the reverse-arch form in the fourth, the Arabic oboe in the finale.
It is highly theatrical virtuoso solo music for both soloist and orchestra. The first movement, as the title Tuning Game implies, is an extension of the pre-performance tuning into a diversion where the oboist tunes the orchestra by sections (percussion, brass, strings, winds) and then mistunes them after he has achieved his goal. The tonal center is, of course, A.
There are two slow movements, Song and Aria, but they are not alike. To me the difference between the two titles is that the former is less hyper and less concerned with display. And so the second movement deals in non-climactic simplicity. In it the singing qualities of the oboe constitute another kind of virtuosity – the ability to spin an endless, practically breathless melodic line beyond what one would think possible.
The Scherzo interrupts Song with a high-velocity polyrhythmic episode for oboe and percussion, with harp and piano. Here oboe multiphonics are set against percussion instruments. The trio, scored for vibraphone, celeste, and harp, is a graceful, pirouetting, china-doll kind of music that evokes 18th century in spite of the non-pitched percussion that whirls about it.
The dramatic and coloratura qualities of the oboe are emphasized in Aria. This section has a concerto-grosso aspect, with its concertino of string quartet and tutti of orchestra. The high point is a fiery oboe cadenza.
The rheita (or rhaita) is a Moroccan form of the oboe, and in the final movement, Rheita Dance, its pungent sound is simulated on the Western oboe by playing without using lips and tongue against the reeds. The “rheita sound” is produced by placing the lips on the string that binds the two reeds together, thus leaving them to vibrate freely. I first heard the rheita in Marrakech in 1966, serenading a dancing cobra. I was fascinated by the sound, heady and forceful, lacking both pitch and color controls of the Western oboe but having an infectiously exciting quality.
Rheita Dance is built around that quality. Formally, it is a rondo with two subsections. In the first, the music suddenly changes from the rough sound of the Marrakech oboe to a kind of refined, perfumed Stravinskian orientale, almost to a satire on Orientalisms-via-Paris. Then the wild dance returns, leading by way of a frenzied climax to a second interruption, where suddenly the orchestral oboe is heard playing a long-line melody in the pure and beautiful Western tradition. This is interrupted by the solo’s contrastingly “ugly” sound, and eventually the two oboes play in duet, then join in the conclusion of the dance, as the concerto ends exuberantly.
– John Corigliano