John Ferrillo is a consummate musician, he has a sensitive ear and a warm style. His musical ideas are clear and persuasive and in chamber music these are great attributes. He has a major role in the concert on June 2, playing and leading the Sinfonia from Bach’s Easter Oratorio. He joins an all star cast in the Brandenburg Concerto #2, and when the scene changes for Cantata #29, We Thank Thee O God, John and his fellow the instrumentalists are joined by great voices and a top flight professional chorus. We spoke with John Ferrillo about playing at the Bach Virtuosi Festival, touring and performing with the Boston Symphony as its First Oboe.
Bach Virtuosi Festival: You will open the Bach Virtuosi Festival this summer with The Easter Oratorio (Sinfonia, BWV 249). Can you discuss this piece and how you feel when you perform it?
John Ferrillo: One cannot get too far away from the demands made of the instrumentalist – this is very unusual writing for the oboe – in a higher register than many of the beautiful obbligati and solos that Bach has gifted to my instrument. The mixing of long sustained sections with melismatic, active ones has to be handled gracefully, yielding a beautiful sustained sense of line. The effect is very ethereal, setting the scene for the silent tomb, which Mary is about to enter. The mood is about to become buoyant, “come, rush here on speedy feet!” That is what makes the contemplative mood of this aria so powerful – it is setting the stage for the joyous central event of the faith which Bach was so devoted to. I have always lived for these moments in Bach – they are the highest artistic peaks in the oboist’s repertoire.
BVF: What is it about the baroque period that resonates deeply with you and many other musicians?
JF: These are the first, great lyrical expressions for my instrument – an instrument whose vocality drew the attention of three centuries of great classical composers. In terms of ingenuous use of form and harmony, these pieces have never been surpassed.
BVF: What sparked your love of classical music, particularly Bach and the baroque period?
JF: My mother was a music educator and choral director, and made sure her children all received superb training. The oboe was a particular fascination to my mom, who first heard the instrument live played by one of her classmates at Roosevelt University. When I was a boy, my mother was teaching music and appreciation to the children of armed forces personnel in Germany, and I would hear her preparing for this at home – I will never forget when she dropped the needle on the opening measures of the Second Brahms Concerto for the first time. I was mesmerized.
BVF: You have such an interesting and tremendous career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, and the Metropolitan Opera. For students of classical music, who may be reading this, what would you like them to know about having a career in classical music and with a major orchestra? What is one suggestion you would make?
JF: In this day and age, when it is so difficult to launch a professional career, and where training is so centered on competitions and auditions, it is helpful to remember that music making is a joyful, transportive process – I have the same thrill at age 63 that I had when I first played in the Greater Boston Youth symphony that magical summer in 1970 at Agassiz Village, near Poland Springs, Maine. I love it – I have always loved it, and can scarcely imagine life without it. In addition to it being this fun, it does not hurt that it also speaks to the noblest yearnings in our hearts in these troubled modern times.
BVF: Aside from performances at Tanglewood this summer, will you tour or travel in 2019?
JF: The Boston Symphony Chamber Players are about to depart on a three-week long tour of Europe, starting with a visit to Istanbul, and passing through Denmark, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Ireland. Despite many years of travel, both professional and personal, I will be seeing many places for the very first time, and I am very excited and happy about that. The BSCP is a very talented and convivial group. It should be fun. It will be hard work too, of course!