24th Apr 2017

Neil Black 1932 - 2016

Neil Black making oboe reeds at Abbey Road Studios. Credit: G Wharton, Koln Neil Black making oboe reeds at Abbey Road Studios. Credit: G Wharton, Koln Neil Black making oboe reeds at Abbey Road Studios. Credit: G Wharton, Koln
Neil Black making oboe reeds at Abbey Road Studios. Photo © G Wharton, Koln

I of course knew Neil for many years as we were honoured to have him as our mainstay of the celebrated wind section of the ECO. He participated in all the great concerts of the past and notably recorded the Strauss oboe concerto for EMI with our friend Daniel Barenboim. There have been many accolades to his musicality. I will only add that he was a sincere person, a great music intellectual and to me, one of the nicest people I have ever met.

Quintin Ballardie OBE FRAM

On 22 January, friends and colleagues of Neil met to celebrate his life with a concert in St Sepulchre’s. Present and past members of the ECO performed along with Jonathan Kelly of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Maxwell String Quartet, representing the younger generation.

If you would like to make a donation in Neil’s memory to Pancreatic Cancer Research, click here.

Neil Black Tribute - By George Caird

It is a real honour to have been asked to speak today in this celebration of the life and work of Neil Black, a great musician and a most wonderful friend and colleague. In doing so, I would like to feel that I am speaking for us all, as I know that many of you here today have your own memories and stories to relate in connection with Neil. I begin by quoting bassoonist Roger Birnstingl:

“I think that one thing anyone who met Neil would be moved by was his beatific smile. Indeed he was someone whose charm and amiability made him such a special person to deal with. Even if he was with complete strangers it was the same, and clearly he presumed instinctively that everyone was likeable”.

Throughout the tributes that I have read and heard in the past weeks, this is a common theme - Neil was a man whose generous personality shone out of him: kind, understanding, talented, knowledgeable but modest and even self- deprecating. Much admired and revered by all, he was seen as one of the most friendly and supportive of colleagues, true to himself and yet never placing himself on a higher rung than those with whom he worked.

This openness of spirit was present in Neil from his early days at Rugby School and as a student at Oxford. I know that a number of friends from these times are here today and I am sure they will confirm this. Neil’s formidable talent as a musician was already apparent in those days but he always worked with and helped those around him with useful tips and support in a most friendly and genial way.

As an oboist, Neil Black was surely one of the great players of his time. He had not intended to be a professional musician, choosing History as his degree at Oxford, but somehow the music profession pulled him in recognising the unique qualities that he had. Neil played with the most beautiful and rich sound that resonated in a similar way to his own deep voice. I have sometimes wondered whether he might have been a singer as he always cherished the connection between playing and singing. He himself said: “Any child learning a woodwind instrument should be encouraged to sing. Just as the larynx has slipped forward a few inches, so to speak, we oboists use a reed instead - we have no excuse for not singing”.

In addition, Neil’s playing was remarkable for its ability to blend, as is born out by the countless recordings of that great wind section in the English Chamber Orchestra (and how privileged we are to hear them here today). Neil also possessed an innate sense of phrasing which somehow served the composer perfectly whilst being unmistakably himself. This quality could explain why conductors, promoters, recording companies and soloists sought him out.

Charles Tunnell writes: “Being an instinctive musician with absolutely no stylistic hang-ups, he controlled and shaped melodic line in a way that was very much his own. His playing had a unique freshness and immediacy, as if he was recreating the music somehow, rather than merely interpreting it…..... just a few notes could put a smile on the lips or bring a tear to the eye”.

As a player, Neil was surely aware of himself as a part of the great tradition of English oboe playing. He showed particular reverence for Terence MacDonagh with whom he studied and with whom he played in London orchestras as a young man. Neil remembered that playing with Terry MacDonagh was (I quote) “like being thrown a Ming vase and having to pass it safely back. He had that sound in his ear, the freedom and fullness, the natural resonance, the living vibrato within the sound, the phrasing that could lead other players to forget to count their bars”. This description by Neil of another great player seems also to describe the very qualities that Neil had in abundance himself and which influenced so many younger players.

We should record here that Neil’s career, which spanned over sixty years from the early 1950s on, was hugely productive. Concerts took him all over the world and to the most celebrated halls and festivals. He played with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for a period before concentrating on work with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the London Mozart Players and the English Chamber Orchestra. He was a highly active chamber musician especially playing many concerts and tours with the London Wind Trio with colleagues Keith Puddy and Roger Birnstingl. Neil recorded and broadcast extensively including concerti, notably those of Strauss, Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and many more. And he collaborated with truly great conductors and soloists especially with his beloved English Chamber Orchestra the discography of which represents an important legacy for the future. Significant names here include Daniel Barenboim, Itzak Perlman, Pinchas Zuckerman, Janet Baker, Jeffrey Tate, Murray Perahia and Mitsuko Uchida.

Two such soloists have sent their very best wishes for today’s celebration. Murray Perahia writes “It is with great sadness that I learnt about the passing of Neil. Neil was more than an orchestral musician, more than an oboist - he was an artist: an artist whose song danced, dreamed, laughed and cried. He was allergic to anything academic or “correct”, over-rehearsing (which occasionally happened) drove him crazy. Playing with him was always an adventure, always spontaneous and musical - one of a kind. He will be greatly missed”.

And I spoke to Mitsuko Uchida on the phone last week. Her message for today reads: “From the first rehearsal that we ever played together we hit it off. I looked at him and he at me and when he played just one note I completely fell in love with his playing and this remained that way for the rest of our working relationship”. She reports hearing a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C No 21 and when the long oboe Eb in the slow movement was played she found herself exclaiming “That’s Neil” because of its unique character. On another occasion a conversation about Neil with a colleague concluded that “if there is a heaven, then surely Neil is there playing Bach’s Ich habe genug”.

Neil was for many years a revered teacher and here I would wish to record my gratitude to him along with so many others. He held teaching posts at both the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School where generations of oboists benefited from his guidance. He was more than a teacher, a true inspiration to his students encouraging them, as Graham Salter has written, “to offer more tone, more contrast, more personality, greater phrasing”. His teaching was music driven as everything was in Neil’s life. Nancy Ambrose King noted that his annual teaching at the Sarasota Music Festival in America brought “the highest level of musical awareness to his teaching, whilst sharing his joy for life, for music and for the oboe whilst at the same time remaining humble, humorous and so very generous”.

In later years, Neil took on the Artistic Directorship of the Kirckman Concert Society and also of the Barbirolli International Oboe Competition. For both these organisations he put much time and energy into encouraging younger players with all his experience and knowledge but also with the provision of opportunities to perform. Matthew Brailsford remembers attending the annual Kirckman Society auditions: “It was an education in itself to listen to Neil and his colleagues discussing the merits of what they had heard with great insight, musicianship and respect. There was always a genuine interest in the artists themselves and concern over their artistic wellbeing and development”.

Similarly in the Barbirolli Competition it was an honour to witness this generous care and attention that he gave to everyone. Neil was also able to bring amazing colleague jurists to the Barbirolli Competition - in 2014 for example, what a treat it was to see Neil with Maurice Bourgue and Han de Vries - three ‘greats’ of the oboe enjoying each other’s company and exchanging anecdotes in a conspiratorial way!

Neil’s life as a professional musician was full of energy and a sense of fun. He always managed to make the most of any situation - Roger Birnstingl remembers the aplomb with which Neil managed to negotiate his way past an enormous passport queue in an airport in the Middle East using his charm and guile in equal measure. He also remembers performing a Mozart Divertimento with the London Wind Trio at a concert in the Prime Minister of Jamaica’s residence. There was so much chat during the first movement that Neil stood up and said: “Please feel free to behave as a Mozartian audience would have behaved; you do not have to be quiet”. This subtle approach had the desired effect.

Another example of Neil’s brilliantly timed humour is reported by Jan from an ECO concert where a Chopin Piano Concerto was being played with, shall we say, a somewhat insecure conductor. In the rehearsal the inevitable moment of crisis came at the end of the first movement cadenza when the orchestra had to come in and it was clear that following the beat was out of the question. After a few fruitless attempts, Neil took over and politely asked the soloist to play the end of the cadenza a few times so that the orchestra could all learn the sound of what was going to happen. The conductor then chimed in with “You could try following me” and quick as a flash and with such an innocent look on his face Neil said “Oh yes, of course, I am so sorry, I hadn’t thought of that, how very rude of me”. The orchestra collapsed in laughter and even the conductor had to smile…...

Neil did have other interests outside music. He remained a historian all his life and was an avid visitor to historic buildings and gardens. He adored cricket and tennis and in later life each year saw him at Lords and the Oval as well as on a cherished annual visit to Wimbledon. Neil was also highly committed to his family and leaves three children and four grandchildren. Most especially his marriage to Jan was a great source of strength to him. They performed together over the years and shared their love of the oboe, music and so many other aspects of life.

I should end by saying that we all would wish to support Jan, and Neil’s family in celebrating the life of such a remarkable person and musician with the hope and belief that his legacy will live on as one of England’s great instrumentalists of his age or any age.

Jovial on deck picture. Neil Black and Daniel Barenboim. Caribbean Cruise, 1982. Credit: Margaret Cowen
Jovial on deck picture. Neil Black and Daniel Barenboim. Caribbean Cruise, 1982. Photo © Margaret Cowen