Marc Fink joined the Madison Symphony Orchestra in 1973 as English hornist and was named principal oboist in 1988 succeeding the late Catherine Paulu. In his long career he has had a front row seat to the incredible growth of the Symphony, has performed with a wide variety of soloists, and has traveled across the globe. We will be celebrating Marc’s tenure with the MSO when he performs Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in our season premiere concerts, Infinite Joy, September 23-25. Learn more about his background and career in this Q&A — plus, read Marc’s full biography and buy tickets to the concerts.
How did you start playing oboe?
I grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, and our grade school band director, Bernie Stiner, would recruit his band members by visiting each of the 4th grade classes in the city once a week. He would pass out plastic “tonettes” and taught us the basics of reading music and playing a wind instrument. One day, he approached me during class and said to me, “Marc, you are going to be an oboe player.” Of course, I knew very little about the oboe, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the sound of the instrument when listening to recordings of Peter and the Wolf, so I agreed with Mr. Stiner. Little did I know then that the oboe would become my life’s work.
What impact did your teachers have on your development?
Mr. Stiner was an outstanding educator and taskmaster in the military band tradition, and he connected many of his students with outstanding teachers in the area. For the three oboe players in his band, he contacted Robert Mayer, former oboist with the Chicago Symphony, and arranged lessons on Saturdays. Our parents would alternate driving us to Evanston. I would later study with Ray Still, principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony, who stressed the singing quality of the instrument and likened the oboe sound to the voice. We spent many hours doing vocal exercises and playing Bach arias.
I studied at Indiana University with Jerry Sirucek, a former colleague of Ray’s in Chicago, who was very organized and extremely dedicated to his students. He had a great plan for students to practice scales in 3rd and 6ths, orchestral studies and oboe repertoire. Lastly, after I began teaching at UW, I attended woodwind seminars in Brattleboro, Vermont, taught by the great French flutist, Marcel Moyse. The incredible tradition of French woodwind playing came alive as he constantly cited his teachers Paul Taffanel and Paul Gaubert in working with us on chamber music of Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorak as well as operatic arias.
Tell us about a unique experience you have had in your career.
In the mid-1980’s a got a call from my bassoon colleague at UW, Richard Lottridge, who told me that the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, Fairbanks, Alaska, needed an oboe player to go on their tour to some Native villages. I joined Gordon Wright, conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony and Arctic Chamber Orchestra (founder of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra) and had a truly unique experience. We flew to remote villages, set up in the high school gymnasium and played chamber orchestra concerts for the students and villagers. In nearly every event, our audiences were experiencing classical music for the first time and sometimes they would share their Native music with us. I did several of these tours to towns like Iliamna, New Stuyahok, Naknek, and Dilliongham. My last tour was to the North Slope (Barrow, Point Lay, Kaktovic) where I was featured in the Strauss Oboe Concerto which I performed later that season with MSO.
What has your involvement with the International Double Reed Society included?
I became active in the International Double Reed Society and served as president from 1998-2002. In that capacity, I attended and performed at several international conferences and I had the great fortune of being asked to sit on the competition young artist judging panel in Rotterdam in 1995. The international panel included the legendary Russian pedagogue, Ivan Pousechnikov. Ivan invited me to visit him in Moscow to audit his lessons and performing recitals at the Gnesin Academy of Music where he taught for several decades. Ivan started all woodwind students on the “blockflute” (a more refined “tonette” on which I had started) and required that all lessons be memorized by the young students. After two years of lessons on the blockflute, students went on to specialize in oboe, flute, clarinet, bassoon, or saxophone and they began study on those instruments. When I returned to Russia on several occasions and was asked to judge competitions, I found the level of technical accomplishment was incredible and as in their early lessons the entire competition repertoire was memorized.
From your perspective, how has the Madison Symphony grown since you joined in 1973?
Where do I begin? When I joined the MSO in the fall of 1973, we rehearsed weekly in a rehearsal space of MATC, originally Madison Central High School. We performed in the auditorium where seating capacity was about 700, the stage was quite small, the audience sat in uncomfortable wooden seats and sometimes the orchestra was too large for the stage. For example, I remember Roland Johnson programming Mahler’s 6th Symphony and our harpist Margaret Cooper was literally in the hallway and barely able to get a glance at the conductor. Moving into Oscar Meyer Theater in 1980 was a giant leap forward for the symphony and although the auditorium was not built for orchestral music and had acoustical problems, we were at last performing in a concert hall.
Moving into Overture Hall, thanks to the transformative endowment of Jerry Frautschi and Pleasant Rowland, allowed the orchestra to attain new heights. We could hear each other, see each other and the audience could enjoy the beautiful music in comfort. I was the orchestra representative on the search committee that hired John DeMain, and from the beginning he established a level of professionalism that remains to this day. I joyfully remember playing the Mahler Symphony cycle in John’s first 10 years, his attraction of world class soloists and his expansion of the repertoire to include classic warhorses as well as outstanding works by living composers. It has been an incredible opportunity to make music with wonderful colleagues in a beautiful space to a most appreciative audience base.
How has your family supported your career?
Of course, it all started with my family. Although we were not wealthy my dad found an old baby grand piano that was the focus of our living room. I would listen to my older sister Elaine practice for hours and as a small child I would climb up to sit on the bench and try to pick out some of the melodies I had just heard. Elaine, sister Margie, brother Vic, and I all had private lessons.
Marcia and I have been married for 37 years and many of our vacations with our 3 daughters, Leah, Anna, and Ellie, were built around double reed conferences such as Banff and Rotterdam. In fact, we all traveled to Rotterdam in 1995, stopping in London and Paris on the way when our kids were ages 6, 8, and 9, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Leah wound up living in Paris and Anna lives in London. We are proud of our four lovely grandchildren, Audrey, Jonah, Brinley, and Kenna and travel to Europe as often as we can.