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Meet the Musicians

Meet a Musician: Nathan Hughes

Nathan Hughes, smiling and holding an oboe
Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes

Minnesota Orchestra musician since: December 2022
Position: Principal Oboe
Hometown: St. Paul, Minnesota
Education: Cleveland Institute of Music, The Juilliard School

As a native of St. Paul, do you have early memories of attending Minnesota Orchestra concerts?

I remember going to some inspirational Sommerfest concerts with friends from MacPhail and the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, as well as observing an open conducting masterclass. These were the types of experiences that allowed me to dream of being a classical musician, and I feel fortunate to have grown up in a community that supports the performing arts, where it is accessible to everyone. The current Hall Pass option to get free tickets for young people to come to concerts is a fantastic initiative of the Minnesota Orchestra! 

You came to the Minnesota Orchestra after performing many years as principal oboe of the Metropolitan Opera. What can you tell us about the differences between performing operas and symphonic music?

Musicians tell stories through sounds. Opera conveys a very specific story based on a libretto. There are different nuances in this story one can choose to emphasize, but the general idea is given to us. Symphonic music also tells a story, but often the plot is one that has more possible variants, which we musicians need to clarify to effectively communicate with our audience. My hope is in either genre, the audience feels the emotional content of these stories and connects with them in a way that enriches their own lives.

You will continue to teach at The Juilliard School alongside your position with the Minnesota Orchestra. What do you find rewarding about teaching? 

Classical music is an art form that needs to be nurtured. Teaching has always been an essential part of what I believe makes a well-rounded musician, and it also greatly enhances my performing abilities. I am not only passing along what I have learned to the next generation, but in return, I am also inspired and challenged and gain a lot of clarity with my own musical insights. In addition to sharing specifics about the oboe, music and creativity, I try to instill other life skills in my students such as self-awareness, communication, listening and professionalism. I am very proud to have former students in many major orchestras, including the Minnesota Orchestra’s new associate principal oboe, Kate Wegener, who starts full-time this winter. 

You’re also very active as chamber musician and soloist. Why is this important to you?

Seeing the world through another lens is necessary to continue to grow as an artist and ultimately as a human being. Anyone trying to continuously improve their craft knows you need to stretch yourself, keep perspective, be inspired and be pushed out of your comfort zone. I’m constantly fascinated by how different situations will influence what sound I go for, how much vibrato I use, how loud or soft I play, or how I view music. Performing a wide range of music in these various settings and environments on a regular basis helps me stay on point. 

Why do professional oboists make their own reeds?

We all want to play on the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin to help bring our musical thoughts to reality. For oboists, this all gets down to the very personalized, extremely volatile and frustratingly short-lived nature of reeds. It means pouring our blood, sweat and tears into many hours of trying to craft the unattainable perfect reed (which will inevitably change with tomorrow’s weather) out of a finicky piece of cane that we scrape thinner than a human hair. The difference between sounding like a singing angel or a distressed duck is often less than one-tenth of a millimeter. I consider it my obligatory second job to be a reed-making carpenter, as I often spend as much time making reeds as I do practicing, rehearsing and performing combined. In this way, the responsibilities of an oboist are significantly different from many other musicians in an orchestra—although bassoonists know a similar pain! 

What does it mean to you to be selected as the soloist for Thomas Søndergård’s first concerts as music director this month?

It is a tremendous honor to share the stage with Maestro Søndergård as he ushers in a new era as the next music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. This will also be my first full season as the principal oboe here as well as my solo debut with the orchestra. I cannot think of a more meaningful way to be welcomed by everyone and return to my home in Minnesota!

Get your tickets now for the Minnesota Orchestra’s historic concerts from September 21-23, 2023, featuring Nathan Hughes as soloist in Mozart’s Oboe Concerto. Conducted by Thomas Søndergård in his first concerts as the Orchestra’s 11th music director, the program also includes two works by Richard Strauss: Don Juan and An Alpine Symphony.