Robert Douglas Walters, Jr.

1965 - 

Robert Walters, Jr., is a member of the oboe section and the solo English horn player in the Cleveland Orchestra, a position he has held since 2004. Prior to this appointment, he was the solo English horn player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, a position he successfully auditioned for in 1999 and assumed at the beginning of the 2000-2001 season. Walters played English horn in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for four years from 1996 to 2000. He is a frequent soloist with major symphony and chamber orchestras.

Robert was born on December 5, 1965, in Los Angeles, California, the son of Robert Douglas and Myrna Mae Kenney Walters.  His father, a string performer, composer, teacher, and conductor, was a third generation musician in a family of accomplished performers and teachers.

Robert’s interest in the oboe began with a concert by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra at his school when he was nine. An extended solo by the oboist caught his ear and piqued his interest; a visit with the player following the concert and a closer examination of the instrument and a subsequent viewing of the concert on PBS with his father led to the decision to learn the oboe. His love of music and innate ability, coupled with a creative incentive program for practice created by his father, led to rapid progress on the instrument as he began study with Dan Shultz and then continued with the professor in oboe, Robert O’Boyle, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

At age thirteen, he was drafted as a last resort by his father, conductor of the Lincoln Civic Orchestra, to play first oboe at its inaugural concert.  Although young Robert later observed that "I went in dragging my heels, kicking, and screaming," a review of the concert that mentioned and praised his playing was incentive enough for him to continue holding that chair for the next three years.

In ninth grade, Robert's visit to the Rocky Ridge Festival and the inspiration it afforded led to a decision to pursue a musical career. Following completion of a GED exam and a semester at Union College, where his father, Robert, Sr., was chair of the fine arts department, he left home at age sixteen to study oboe with Richard Woodhams, principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

He subsequently attended Curtis Institute of Music, where he first played the English horn and became acquainted with what, since graduation in 1990, has proven to be a network of musical associates and friends. By his early twenties he was substituting in and touring and recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Riccardo Muti. In 1989 and 1990 he attended the Blossom Music Festival, where he studied with the late John Mack, principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra at that time.

While studying at Curtis, Walters wrote a play, Songs of Addiction, which was sent to a director in New York by a friend. It was produced off-off-Broadway in 1991 and ran for thirty performances.

Walters moved to New York in that same year, hoping to establish himself as a free-lance oboist. His success with his play that year and other successful ventures in writing led to an interest in pursuing writing at Columbia University. At this point, Walters says, "I decided that if by the end of the year I could have established myself as an oboist, then I would allow myself to go to Columbia - if I got in. Both things happened."

While Walters wrote, he played oboe and English horn as a soloist with and performer in a number of groups, including the American Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Lukes, New York Chamber Symphony, American Ballet Theater, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the orchestra in Phantom of the Opera, in addition to studio work for TV commercials and films.

He spent five summers at the Marlboro Music Festival (1991-95), three summers at the Spoleto Festival (1991-93), and six summers at the Bard Music Festival (1994-95). He also toured as a member of Musicians from Marlboro in 1994.

Walters completed an MFA in creative writing at Columbia in 1995. He has written opera librettos and other musical texts, including one for a choral piece, Lullaby Requiem in the Time of AIDS, which he wrote with Robert Convery. It was premiered at Lincoln Center in 1993 by Musica Sacre.

The opportunity for a full-time position arose in 1996 when the English horn player in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra retired. Walters auditioned for the opening and was accepted. Four years later he successfully auditioned for the solo English horn position in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and in 2004 was invited to join the Cleveland Orchestra. Although offered the position of solo English horn in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2012, he declined.

Walters is a frequent soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra and has soloed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Beijing Radio Symphony, New York Chamber Soloists, and the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia. He became a member of the artist faculty of the Aspen Music Festival in 2005 and a member of the oboe faculty at Oberlin Conservatory of Music in February 2006. In July 2010 he became professor of oboe and English horn at Oberlin.  He was honored in 2017 with an Excellence in Teaching Award for the 2015-2016 school year. 

He teaches his students to approach their playing with a broad perspective, cautioning them "It's not just about the instrument, it's about the music." Several of his students now hold chairs in major orchestras.

Walters is married to Grace Chin and they have two daughters.  

ds/2017

Sources: Biographies at the Cleveland Orchestra (2012) and Oberlin Conservatory of Music websites (2007 and 2013); Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra program notes, 23, 24 April 1999, 9; Donna Kato, "Young Oboist ready for world-class studies," Lincoln, Neb., Journal, 13 April 1982, 9; The Lincoln Journal Star, 23 May 1999, 9H; "Walters Returns to Brownville for Benefit," Brownville, Nebraska, newspaper, unknown date, 1996; Janelle Gelfand, "His playing is the thing," The Cincinnati Enquirer, unknown date, 1997;  James R. Oestreich, "Uniting Behind a Friend in Need," New York Times, 15 April 1998, B1; California Birth index, 1905-1995, Ancestry.com; Interview (1999) and numerous contacts since then.

Seven Years of Plenty

Robert Walters, Jr.

In the spring of 1975, while I was nine years old, my father had arranged for my first oboe lessons to be held in the living room of our home in Lincoln, Nebraska. Dan Shultz, who was then teaching at Union College, was probably not in the habit of making musical house calls to beginning oboists; this scenario only makes sense when you realize that during my lesson, my father was upstairs in his studio teaching Dan's daughter Karan the violin!

From the first note on page one of Rubank's Elementary Oboe Method, I was entering the world of music, which was my father's world. That first note became the first step on the sung path that would become my life's vocation, a calling if you will. From that first note, my father stood just a few steps ahead of me, offering his gentle hand, inviting me to join him on the musical journey of his own life as he helped to guide mine and lay for me a foundation of musical experience that would become the basis for everything I've done since.

During the months of my first oboe lessons, my father was Composer-in-Residence for the county of Seward, Nebraska, through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Nebraska Arts Council. He wrote music for civic occasions, such as the annual Fourth of July parade, and taught every child in the elementary school system how to play a string instrument and, in fact, how to write music. Using such techniques as graphs and decks of cards, he introduced children to the freedom and creativity of writing their own music as a means of discovering what music was. The cards comprised carefully chosen pitches and rhythms to enable 12-tone and pentatonic writing. In some cases the students would combine the materials with words to make songs, and each project was carefully constructed in complexity to meet various age levels. I still remember attending a performance of J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit which the sixth grade class had turned into an opera using their own music!

Although my father spent most of his teaching career at the college level, I've always felt fortunate that during my formative years on the oboe, he was so deeply involved with teaching music to children. I remember sitting at the piano in his music studio one day after school while he was at the drafting table copying music. "What's that?" he asked. "What's what?" I said. "What you're playing... what's that music you're playing?" I was repeating over and over some little pattern I had made up and something about this would-be melody struck his ear.

He stopped what he was doing and came and sat next to me at the piano. He asked me to play it again. He smiled and began writing it down on staff paper. He then spent the next hour or so showing me all the things we could do with my piece of melody to turn it into music. He turned it into a self-chasing fugue, "Here" he said, "let's play it upside down!" He played it half as slow, twice as fast; he played it in different styles, showed me how the same melody could make you feel different depending on what kind of chords went with it or what register you played it in.

He took it even farther than that. He asked my permission to use our jointly discovered music in one of his own compositions. I can't describe what it felt like two months later when I heard that music being played by the Nebraska Chamber Orchestra at the premiere of his newly commissioned French horn concerto and then discovered that he'd thanked me for my contribution in the program notes.

In 1976 my father was composer-in-residence at the Brownville Summer Music Festival, where he had received a commission to write A Gift from the River, a work of musical theater that celebrates Nebraska history and was premiered as part of a state-wide Bicentennial celebration. For six weeks that summer, he and I shared a small red house furnished with only two beds, a table, two chairs and a music stand.

I had been playing oboe for just over a year and he wanted me to come away from that summer knowing all my scales and key signatures. My allowance at that time was based on how much I practiced, so he made up this elaborate graph of how long it might take to learn my scales and how much I might earn toward the purchase of a new bike in the fall! Needless to say, I learned my scales.

The atmosphere of a good summer music camp, being both serious and fun, was something I responded well to, so for the next several summers my father looked for similar programs for me to attend. In time I began to practice out of my own desire to play well and eventually weaned myself off of the initial "practice = allowance" incentive program. In truth, my father knew this would happen for me over time, and just wanted to spare me the psychological baggage of being "forced" to practice by a well-meaning parent.

I was entering the ninth grade in 1979 when my Father became chairman of the music department at Union College. That year he also founded the Lincoln Civic Orchestra, which this season celebrates its twentieth anniversary and which spent the first five years of its existence in residence at Union College. It was the first symphony orchestra in which I had ever played principal oboe, and my father was the first conductor that I learned to play for. Every Thursday night for the next three years, I would plod my teenage-self through the great symphonic literature under his direction. To this day I associate being in an orchestra with being his son.

My first experiences playing chamber music were also shaped by my dad. Dr. Robert Murray, who was on the piano faculty at that time and played a great deal of harpsichord, also had a son named Robert, who was just one year ahead of me at College View Academy and happened to play the cello. My father always knew an opportunity when he saw one, and before we knew it a chamber group was born with the improbable yet perfect name of Roberts IV: two sets of fathers and sons, all playing instruments, all named Robert. We rehearsed on Sunday mornings and read our way through endless stacks of trio sonatas by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, Quantz, Sammartini, and Bach (both JS and CPE - "another famous father and son team!" my dad would chime in whenever he could).

It was thrilling to be playing all this music with my own father and to feel him coaxing me along as a performer. Somehow he managed to make his acne-stricken, adolescent son feel like a valued and respected colleague. It was also incredible fun. My father's "impish" wit was unbridled during those Sunday morning rehearsals and kept them from getting too serious. The Murrays were no strangers to laughter themselves and I remember many times the music breaking down altogether because someone had said something ridiculous and the four of us would fall deliciously into this tandem father and son laughing fit, which, when I think about it now, makes me deliriously happy and grateful.

Our "Debut" occurred on the air during a fund raising drive for KUCV, which was at that time the college-owned classical music station for southeast Nebraska. Soon after that we were on the road. We packed up the harpsichord in the back of a Union College van and for the next three years played countless concerts in churches, auditoriums, academies and camp meetings throughout a seven-state region in cities like Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Minneapolis. Many who wouldn’t traditionally find themselves in the audience for such "highbrow" music were delighted simply to see two teenage boys in tuxedos on stage with their fathers.

Dr. Murray's son and I used to laugh at the fact that while most of our peers were at home forming garage bands and alienating their parents, here we were "on tour" with our dads playing all this "sissy" music. It was all great fun and besides being a pleasure for the four of us, it had the obvious benefit of letting the music department at Union College be "heard" throughout the land.

It makes my head spin to realize how quickly this all would pass, that soon the oboe which had made me so deeply a part of my father's world would send me out into a world of its own. By 1982, at the age of 16 - just seven years after those first lessons in the living room with Dan Shultz - I would leave my home in Nebraska to follow my own musical path. I had been accepted as a student of Richard Woodhams, Principal Oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and would subsequently study with him at the Curtis Institute of Music. I'm sure it was not an easy decision for my parents to let their only child leave home at such a young age. I recently found a letter my father sent to me the first week of my first semester back East: "It is a difficult thing to lose one's best friend and son at the same time," he wrote.

It was that mixture of roles that I cherished in our relationship. The fact that my early musical experiences are so closely aligned with the time I spent growing up with him is of great consolation to me now. As a young child he was like Brahms to me and even as a somewhat rebellious teenager, I preferred his company to just about anyone else's.

After leaving home when I did, I would have just a few more opportunities to make music with him. One summer he took the Union College chamber orchestra to England for a joint festival with the music department at Newbold College. With my father conducting, I played the Marcello Oboe Concerto on a tour of the great cathedrals of England, Scotland, and France.

The other occasion was with the China Film Philharmonic for a concert that was broadcast live on Radio Beijing. The Chinese press loved the fact that we were performing as father and son. When asked to respond to the upcoming concert with his son that would be broadcast throughout all of China, he told one reporter, "Considering that one quarter of the world's population has an opportunity to hear this concert - it's a bigger audience than we typically get."

I miss his sense of humor. I miss everything about him. It is hard to lose one's father and best friend at the same time. The week that he died was the end of my first season with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. We were playing a concert version of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde which has the famous off-stage English horn solo at the beginning of the third act.

Complications from diabetes had kept him in the hospital for weeks before this performance. Up until the day before the concert he was fighting with the doctors to let him go hear his son play the opera. I worried about him traveling and convinced him to stay in the hospital in part by the fact that I would be coming out to see him at the end of the week and would bring him a tape of the performance. A few days after that concert, I sent him a postcard which he did not live long enough to receive. It was very brief, but as I wrote it I felt as if I was thanking him for everything he had ever been to me.

Dear Dad,

If this card gets home before I do, it's to let you know I'm on my way and to say that my performance here in this weekend's Tristan und Isolde would never have occurred without the early musical nurturing that your Nebraska fathering provided. Thank you for making this all possible; I never play a note without feeling where it came from.

1999