Who or what inspired you to take up the oboe and make it your career?
I was on my way home from school aged 7 when I heard the oboe on the car radio. As soon as I heard it I knew that was the instrument I really wanted to play. I pestered my parents until they let me start lessons. I have always loved music and playing the oboe but it was probably the summer I turned 19 that I decided that life as an oboist was something I wanted to commit everything to. I had just finished my first year of university when I travelled on to Banff Arts Centre in Canada for an intensive masterclass course there. I spent much of that summer taking extra lessons and practising as much as possible. I felt by the time I went back to university I couldn’t imagine being anything other than an musician.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
There have been so many influences to be honest. My teachers have always been fantastic to me and I feel lucky that I have been surrounded by such kind and generous mentors within the music world. I am hugely influenced from my time studying in Germany with Nicholas Daniel. He taught me repertoire I had never considered before and inspired me to work closely with composers. I remember asking him about why commissioning new oboe repertoire was important. The answer he gave me changed everything for me and working with composers to increase the oboe repertoire is something I care deeply about.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I found the period in my early twenties very tough going. I knew I wanted to play the oboe for a living but let a fear of failing get in the way sometimes. I’ve always felt I need to turn every experience into something I can draw on so now I look back and think how important that time was for me.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
Back in 2010, I gave a recital at Wigmore Hall and that was a very important concert to me that meant a considerable amount to me. It coincided with me finishing my studies and also releasing my first solo disc ‘Fierce Tears’.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I’ve found in the past few years I always end up gravitating towards contemporary British repertoire which I love performing. I think the feeling of discovering something new in the repertoire is something that always pushes me so this often informs my approach to programming. I want the audience to leave feeling like they’ve discovered some fantastic repertoire they never knew about before.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I always programme each concert separately and try not to think in terms of a focus for one season. Inevitably I find I go through times where I play a piece several times in a row but generally I try to put together a recital that balances out and suits the particular venue and audience. I always try to include a contemporary piece and also an older piece that may be very rare but an absolute gem.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t have a favourite venue but I enjoy venues like churches were the acoustic adds something to the atmosphere of the concert. When performing pieces like the Howells Oboe Sonata, having an interesting space with a good acoustic can make a big difference.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I have a very strong affinity with Michael Berkeley’s Fierce Tears I & II. Every time I play that it feels very different and changes all the time for me. I also enjoy his Oboe Concerto as well as works like the Strauss Oboe Concerto which is a favourite of mine. I particularly love oboe repertoire by Rubbra, Bowen, Lutoslawski and Antal Dorati too. In terms of listening, I really enjoy lots of different things. Most recently I’m listening to a lot of electronic music but also love vocal recital discs. In particular Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake’s recording of ‘Silent Noon’ always has an incredible effect on me when I listen to it.
Who are your favourite musicians?
This is a tough question as I think there are so many to think of. For me, I tend to think in terms of favourite composers or favourite repertoire. At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Sibelius and Prokofiev amongst other things.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It is a long time ago now but when I was 18 I performed in Mahler 8 with Simon Rattle at the Proms just before he started his post in Berlin. I’ve enjoyed plenty of memorable experiences in concert since but this contributed to me making the decision to become a musician so for that reason it is probably my most memorable.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
The most important thing is to be very open to various opportunities. Take every experience as a positive one. There are inevitably times where you suffer what feels like a knock back but often these turn into catalysts for better things. My feeling is that you end up exactly where you want to be but usually by taking a completely unpredictable route to get there.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m just putting the final touches on a disc that Champs Hill Records is releasing later in 2015. It is full of fantastic repertoire that I’ve really enjoyed recording. My next big project is establishing a new series of chamber music events with my group Ensemble Perpetuo. It is going to be my busiest year yet but also one I’m incredibly excited about.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
My idea of happiness revolves around balance. It involves me being busy enough with music to feel fulfilled but also relaxed enough to spend time with my family.
What is your most treasured possession?
My answer should probably be my oboe but in reality is something far less poetic like my phone or laptop!
What do you enjoy doing most?
The thing that makes me tick is working on new projects. Sometimes it is a recording project, sometimes it is a new kind of recital programme. That feeling of limitless possibilities is what I find exciting and what makes me keep trying to move forward with my playing.
What is your present state of mind?
Really excited about the future but also slightly sleep deprived!
(Interview date: March 2015)
Described by The Independent as “a worthy champion” of contemporary oboe music, James has dedicated much of his performing life to promoting and extending the oboe repertoire. James has performed frequently throughout the UK and Europe including a solo recital at the Wigmore Hall in 2010. He has broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and appeared as a soloist in numerous UK festivals including Oxford, Leicester, Cambridge, Thaxted, Ryedale, Machynlleth, Swaledale and, King’s Lynn. James has released solo recordings for Champs Hill Records, Quartz Music and the ABRSM as well as featuring on a disc of Thea Musgrave’s works for Harmonia Mundi USA. Gramophone Magazine described his debut recital disc, Fierce Tears, as a “notable debut” and it was selected as the Editor’s Choice Recording by Classical Music Magazine.
James was seven when he began his oboe studies, learning with Irene Pragnell, Melanie Ragge, Celia Nicklin, Tess Miller and Chris Cowie. After gaining a First Class degree in music from Christ Church, Oxford University, James continued his oboe studies at the Royal Academy of Music and under Nicholas Daniel at Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany, where he was awarded First Class for both his Artist and Soloist Diplomas.
James is deeply committed to expanding the oboe repertoire. He worked closely with Michael Berkeley, John Casken, Jonathan Dove, John Woolrich, Thea Musgrave and Tansy Davies on their compositions for oboe. Composers including Patrick Hawes, Thomas Hewitt Jones and Norbert Froehlich have also written for him. James has a keen interest in researching lost repertoire and bringing to new audiences works which have been rarely performed. In 2011 he worked closely with Christopher Hogwood on preparation for a new edition of Thomas Attwood Walmisley’s Sonatinas for oboe and piano.
James is an active chamber musician and is Artistic Director of Ensemble Perpetuo. Founded in 2013, Perpetuo is a chamber music collective that specialises in multi-art form collaborations and innovative ways of performing chamber music in new contexts. James has also performed with other chamber music ensembles including the Berkeley Ensemble and the Allegri String Quartet.
Aside from his performing interests, James is dedicated to broadening the appeal of the oboe and encouraging young people to learn the instrument. To this end, he has launched the website LearnToPlayTheOboe.com which now receives over a thousand new visitors every month from across the world. James also teaches at the Royal College of Music Junior Department and gives masterclasses across the UK.
James plays a Lorée Royal Oboe and Cor Anglais supplied by Crowthers of Canterbury. For more information about James and his playing, visit www.james-turnbull.com.