Led by Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of an extraordinary three-week series honoring the exemplary works of playwright William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. From stage to screen, Shakespeare’s classic works have been performed and have inspired new artistic endeavors for generations.
The final series of Shakespeare-inspired performances pay tribute to the works of “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “Romeo and Juliet,” in music by Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Tsontakis from Thursday, February 11 through Saturday, February 13 at 8 p.m. This series will also feature the world premiere of Sonnets: tone poems for English horn and Orchestra written for accomplished BSO English horn player and educator Robert Sheena. Robert Sheena discusses Shakespeare, his proudest career moment, the upcoming premiere of “Sonnets,’ and his love of music.
Jeanne Denizard: Was it always your dream to be a musician?
Robert Sheena: My interest in music developed gradually when I was young. I did have piano lessons from the age of eight to thirteen or so, and that proved to be an invaluable start and introduction to music. When I was in junior high school I started to play the oboe in the band, and I became friends with the other students in the group. So in addition to the musical aspect, I enjoyed the sociability of band and orchestra life and that has continued to this day.
JD: What inspired you to make music your career? I understand you started with the oboe and then discovered the English horn.
RS: When I entered college at the University on California, Berkeley, I was assigned to the orchestra by the conductor, Michael Senturia. I got to play first oboe on Schubert’s Great C major Symphony. That incredible music and being surrounded by fantastic sound – I was hooked. It took me a few years to fully commit to the idea of trying to do it professionally, but I’m glad I did. I’m happy with my career choice and I feel very fortunate to have had such wonderful opportunities.
The vast majority of woodwind players start out by learning the primary instrument in the group before branching out to others. For example, students may concentrate on the flute and then later on try the piccolo, clarinetists eventually may play the bass clarinet, etc. It was similar with me: I started learning the oboe and then found I had an affinity for the English horn.
JD: : You have lauded a great deal of acclaim in your career. What has been your proudest moment so far?
RS: My proudest moment thus far was definitely the day Seiji Ozawa told me I had won the several-month- long audition to join the Boston Symphony Orchestra and been hired, nearly 22 years ago. Having “Sonnets” commissioned on my behalf by the BSO makes me equally proud.
JD: Do you have a favorite piece of work/composer you particularly like to play and do you still listen to classical music when you are not performing?
RS: If I had to pick a composer whose music I love to perform the most, it would be Maurice Ravel, but I think there are so many composers whose music is wonderful that I’d really rather not have to choose! When not performing I listen to new music (contemporary “classical” music), orchestral music of all time periods, jazz and the music my children like: groups like “Two door cinema club”, One Republic and Cold Play. We have an “Earth, Wind and Fire” CD in the car that is pretty worn-out. I also like the group “Alabama Shakes”.
JD: It’s such an exciting time for the BSO as they commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with special performances leading up to Valentine’s Day. What do you think it is about Shakespeare’s works that endear him to so many?
RS: Shakespeare’s works have enriched the lives of millions of people around the world for the last several hundred years because he speaks to us directly about our human experience, in ways many people can relate to and can imagine themselves experiencing. Love, suffering, tragedy, humor, wit, death, etc. – all the big important subjects of life are treated in ways that cause us to learn about ourselves.
JD: On February 11-13, in a series of programs led by Andris Nelsons featuring Strauss’s Macbeth, Dvorak’s Othello, and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, George Tsontakis’ “Sonnets: tone poems for English horn and Orchestra” will make its BSO debut. Please tell me about your role in that performance.
RS: I will be the solo English horn player, of course. This project and commission has been several years in the making, from the concept of the work to the choice of the composer to meeting to get to know each other to practicing and studying the new piece for many, many hours, etc.
Being asked to be a soloist with my orchestra is something that few other BSO colleagues are offered. It is the honor of my career.
JD: You are also on the Boston Conservatory, Boston University, and Longy School of Music faculty. What drew you to adding teaching to your career?
RS: When I was myself a student, all my teachers inspired me by their own artistry and musicianship. Also, they often set a difficult challenge before me in terms of the work needed to really improve, and I like a good challenge. So in essence I like to teach because I enjoy watching students improve and I hope to inspire them as my own teachers inspired me. It goes without saying that the added income is helpful, too.
JD: What are you still hoping to accomplish in your career? Are you working on new projects right now?
RS: Doing my part to keep great orchestral music alive is enough of a motivator for me to “accomplish” for the rest of my career. The only new project I have been working on for several months now has been my preparation for the premiere of Sonnets. Beyond that I hope to continue working directly with living, talented composers as they write music for my instrument.
See featured English horn player Robert Sheena perform the world premiere of “Sonnets” on Thursday, February 11 through Saturday, February 13 at Boston Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave in Boston, Massachusetts. Order tickets by calling SymphonyCharge toll free at 888-266-1200 or click here for more information and to order online. Visit bso.org for information on the full schedule of upcoming performances.