Nicholas Daniel: ‘I had no idea what an oboe was. My father sold cars’

The Westport-bound musician talks about his career and how the pandemic has radically changed his priorities

Nicholas Daniel is not what you call a star of the oboe. He gives the impression that he wouldn't ever want to be. And the oboe is one of those instruments that doesn't really breed star performers in the first place.

But he is a really exceptional musician. He takes an instrument that can sound a little bit, well, incalcitrant, and broadens and deepens its expressive reach. It’s like he increases its vocabulary so that it can express new feelings and new musical shapes. All without any recourse to in-your-face virtuosity – unless, of course, that’s explicitly what the music demands.

Daniel shot to fame by winning the BBC Musician of the Future Competition at the age of 18 in 1980. But less than 10 years earlier, he tells me, “I had no idea what an oboe was. My father sold cars, and then he became a prison officer for the last half of his career. My mum was a homemaker, and then she did old ladies’ feet and a little bit of home-helping. It was not a musical household in any way. But it was a Christian church-going household.

“I think my mum said to me, would you like horse-riding lessons or to play the piano.” He was seven. “I thought horses were huge, so I said I’d play the piano. I was living in Hitchin in Hertfordshire, which has an extremely musical parish church, and my singing voice got to be kind of good. So my mum thought she would do as her sister had done, and put her own son in for King’s College, Cambridge.” The Choir of King’s College has long had the aura of being the apogee of church choral singing in England.

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Two instruments

It didn’t work out. “I failed the academic test – their loss! I did get into Salisbury, where you had to read dramatically from the Bible, which I did apparently very well. To be at Salisbury you had to play two instruments. So my mum said to her mum, my granny, ‘What’s he going to play?’ And my grandmother said, ‘The boy must play the oboe.’ My mother famously said, ‘What the peep is an oboe?’ That’s how it started.”

He was, he says, very lucky with his teacher, Irene Pragnell, who was one of the first students of Janet Craxton, who would in turn become his own teacher.   He was 10 when he took up the oboe, and says,"That's quite late, but it's quite a good age, because all your teeth are in place. You can start a little earlier if all your teeth are in the right place." He's never stopped playing piano, and says, "Actually, I love playing the piano now. During lockdown, because I don't have a piano where I live, my husband bought me a beautiful electric piano. It's astonishing, I have to say, the touch, everything. So I'd throw open the French windows and play to the neighbours. I played for hours every day, though not always to the neighbours."

He conducts as well and has appeared as both oboist and conductor at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. "It's so useful to be able to score-read, and also to play for singers in rehearsals. When I conducted, for instance, Britten's Noye's Fludde, in Townsville in Australia, I read the score myself at the piano in all the rehearsals with the singers, so that I could coach them a little bit." Though, he adds, he doesn't see himself in any sense as an actual vocal coach. He was dealing purely with matters musical.

Understatement

A number of times during our conversation he sings the praises of violinist Catherine Leonard (now retired from performing), who, with Hugh Tinney, is co-artistic director of the Westport Festival of Chamber Music, where Daniel is returning next weekend. It's easy to see why Leonard and Daniel would hit it off. As musical interpreters they both favour understatement over exaggeration. They both favour the long musical line over momentary point-making. And they were also colleagues for a number of years in Camerata Pacifica, the Santa Barbara-based chamber ensemble, created by Northern Irish flautist Adrian Spence.

Over the last 18 months I have looked at what we do, and realised it's more and more miraculous in a way

He says that when he listens to a musical performance, his first question is, “Is the person communicating. And are they communicating through themselves the feeling of the composer? People have different ways of approaching being a musician.” When he is the performer, “I try to use all of my experience in the various styles of music so that my playing will transmit what the composer is saying to me. To me, that means that I have to subjugate myself to an extent, but at the same time I have to allow, as it were, the harp strings of my self to resonate with the composer’s intentions, and then communicate that through my playing.”

Like most of us, the life imposed by the pandemic has changed him. “Over the last 18 months I have looked at what we do, and realised it’s more and more miraculous in a way. It’s perhaps the most miraculous thing that human beings do – they make instruments, and then they communicate emotions to each other through them.”

‘A miracle’

And he marvels at the instruments themselves. “When you look into what we’re doing – I get this piece of reed cane from the south of France and do all these processes to it to make it into an oboe reed. And then I stick it into African blackwood from Mozambique and Tanzania . . . It’s so far away from the actual essence of it, but it is a miracle. I’ve never appreciated it more, and never appreciated audiences more.”

He talks of the experience, at the fourth attempt, of getting to give the world premiere of John Tavener’s La Nocha Oscura, eight years after the composer’s death. Daniel wrote an article for the Guardian about his relationship with the composer and also raised issues about how the musical world works. He wrote, “Commissioning musical works – even by our best known living composers – has become a labyrinthine nightmare in the UK, despite some wonderful institutions doing stalwart work.”

He tells me of hearing the Asyla Oboe Quartet and talking to one of the young players’ parents and saying to them, “I really do appreciate that he’s got to be this good from his own hard work, but also from your love and time and investment. They were so shocked. I don’t think anybody had said that to them before. Just getting work is all you hope for for your children if they’re in the creative arts.

“I can say that as a creative arts parent myself,” he adds. His daughter has been performing in the stage musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. “She’s been very lucky. I think her transition to female over the last year has also turned out for her to be a really great thing, actually, in terms of work. That was her lockdown!”

Big birthday

Given that he's got a big birthday coming up – he turns 60 in January – I asked him what his 18-year-old self might have imagined about what he would be doing more than 40 years later. "I had a naive expectation that things would go a certain way. But there's almost now precedent for what I've done." The only real precedent, he says, was Heinz Holliger, the now 82-year-old Swiss oboist, composer and conductor. "Even Leon Goossens – a key influencer on 20th-century oboe style – played in orchestras."

His youthful expectation was “that things would just happen. But I very quickly found that the expected career path is – he draws a line in the air angled like a plane taking off. And what a career does is this – he wiggles his index finger around in a random pattern. Then gradually you realise you’re in some kind of upward progression if you manage to keep yourself together through all the thick and thins of life, and your private life and your public life.”

It's funny how many of the things that disappoint one about life are not really about the career. They're about the way people behave

Early on, he says, “I wanted to be someone who commissioned composers. That was a precedent set down by Janet Craxton. Actually, one of the great things that happened when I won the BBC competition is that all the music publishers wrote to me and just sent me huge tracts of music for free. I’d always had to buy my music up to that point. The French stuff is so expensive you can’t believe it.”

He doesn’t think that he “would have had any idea about what it would feel like to be me now. If I was able to talk to that 18-year-old, I think I would say, just trust the process, because everything that’s meant to happen will happen. It will not be what you expect and will not necessarily be what you hope. But it will be something perhaps equal, and in some ways better. Not worse. It’s funny how many of the things that disappoint one about life are not really about the career. They’re about the way people behave. Most of the time I think people are absolutely amazing. Just when they let you down, gosh they let you down, don’t they?” Yet he adds, “I’m an optimist and I’m very satisfied with how things are.”

The lockdowns have meant that, “I’m impatient to get back to musical life in a strong way now. Not just for me. For everybody. And I’m impatient for audiences to hear how we’ve learnt things and how we’ve done over the last 18 months. And how our priorities have changed.

‘Changed radically’

“My priorities have changed radically. I don’t have the same need to be doing so much. Because I really want young musicians to have as much of a chance as they can. Also I don’t think there’s any point in working that way. So crazy. So much trouble. That’s changed.

“And also my appreciation of audiences. I think I underestimated their contribution. I should apologise, probably. And the sheer beauty in music. It hits me over and over again. I don’t think it’s just that we’ve missed it. I think we’ve all reassessed what it means. I don’t think we’re going to be – certainly my generation – taking it for granted ever again.”

The Westport Festival of Chamber Music takes place from Friday, September 10th, to Sunday, September 12th. See www.westportchambermusic.ie