The yin and yang of CSO oboist Dwight Parry

By Thom Mariner

Dwight Parry is a study in contrasts.

On one hand, he’s an intensely focused, exacting, world-class musician. On the other, a gregarious, adventure-craving extrovert, who loves people, enjoys exploring new things and truly values being part of the fabric of the city he now calls home.

The first thing that strikes you about Parry is just how upbeat he is. He always has a welcoming smile, a hearty handshake, and an interest in you, as a person.

But when the subject turns to his work, to making music, yin shifts to yang. A focus emerges. A seriousness of purpose.

Now in his 10th year as principal oboist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Parry is about to step out as soloist – Feb. 3-4 at the Taft Theatre – in the exuberant, yet daunting Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, written in 1945 by Richard Strauss.

Even though it was 2 p.m. when we got together, Parry hadn’t yet had lunch, having endured a morning packed with student “juries” (performance evaluations) at Northern Kentucky University, where he is adjunct professor of oboe. Parry also teaches at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He performs with cutting-edge chamber ensemble concert:nova. He is a very busy guy.

Dwight Parry and CSO oboe section colleagues Richard Johnson, Lon Bussell and Chris Philpotts

Dwight Parry and CSO oboe section colleagues Richard Johnson, Lon Bussell and Chris Philpotts

“I feel so much better about doing this, and at the level I want to perform at, when I’m doing it all the time.”

Born in idyllic Ventura, California, Parry loved exploring the beach (more than the water), but being fair-skinned and a redhead, was better-suited to the mountains. “My mom used to slather me in SPF 5000!”

His father was a dentist. His mother worked in the practice as office manager. His sister played the clarinet, but later chose a different path “to get out of big brother’s shadow.” She now “catches babies” for a living, as a midwife. “That’s what they call it!” he said, enjoying my look of disbelief.

Parry began studying piano at the age of 4, then took up the saxophone in the fifth grade. He played lead alto in jazz band all the way up into college. Jazz was to be his musical future, until his class schedule (advanced chemistry, he thinks) conflicted with jazz band, and he was encouraged to try the oboe. He literally asked, “What’s an oboe?” before agreeing.

“You know, I had so much trouble, growing up, figuring out what I wanted to do,” he said, “not necessarily a lot of aptitudes, but a lot of different interests! (He laughs.) I thought I would grow up to be a dentist or in the medical profession in some way. But once I got serious about music, nothing else thrilled me like that, nothing else filled my brain where I wasn’t distracted by other thoughts.”

He attended the University of Southern California, where he studied with Alan Vogel, retired principal oboe of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Parry credited Vogel for helping him move beyond technique to shape music more expressively. He claimed Vogel would “draw every drip of emotion out of you, and make you realize how utterly vulnerable and human you are.”

Parry earned his master’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Music under the tutelage of John Mack, then principal oboist of the Cleveland Orchestra. His first orchestra gig was with the San Diego Symphony, before earning the principal job here in 2007.

Speaking about making the transition from saxophone to oboe, Parry said, “the saxophone is a technologically advanced woodwind instrument,” he said. “The oboe is an anachronism; you have to have a love for the antiqueness of it.”

The defining element of the oboe is the reed – a double reed, to be exact. The sound is produced by two pieces of cane vibrating together. Oboists have an often obsessive relationship with their reeds.

“I spend a fair amount of my professional time hand-whittling my oboe reeds,” Parry said, smiling. “And they have to be ‘just so.’”

Choosing and “shucking” the right piece of cane is the most important thing. “It’s like being a chef,” he said. As he scrapes the reed, he analyzes color and even taste to evaluate the quality. Eventually, if it “squawks just right,” he knows he’s on the way to a good reed.

This exactitude could be inherited from his dentist father, and it certainly carries over into his musicianship.

“Dwight is a very fastidious player, in the best sense of the word,” said CSO principal English hornist Chris Philpotts. “He wants it to be the best it can be, and he wants that from (the oboe section), as well. The English horn is the alto big sister to the oboe.

“He’s a beautifully thoughtful and intelligent musician,” said CSO principal second clarinet Ixi Chen, “with the perfect balance of care and freedom.”

It’s through his role as section leader that Parry’s personality serves him well, using what Philpotts termed his “good sense of humor” and “gregarious” nature to achieve artistic goals. “People really enjoy him,” said Philpotts. He and Parry often “nerd out together,” just “hanging out” at Parry’s Oakley house, “working on reeds.”

“He’s a terrific colleague who has a keen vision of the music,” said Chen. He is “efficient in suggesting fixes to create unity in our musical product, and always sensitive to textures of nuance and color.” Chen is also artistic director of concert:nova, with whom Parry performs occasionally.

But with all this focus at work, Parry craves interacting with the real world.

“I have to go out and live and have experiences and not just sit in the practice room.”

Last year, he took his sax out for a spin for the first time in eight years, for an open mic night at Stanley’s Pub in Columbia-Tusculum. Just for fun. “They had no idea who I was,” he chuckled.

“Any time I have a spare minute, I’m on some adventure.” Parry grew up caving, hiking and dirt biking with his father in Southern California and northern Mexico. “I’m more cautious now of my hands and potential injury, so now I hike,” he said. Hocking Hills and Red River Gorge are favorites, but he also enjoys “sussing out” little-known nature enclaves in and around the city, such as the McCullough Nature Preserve.

He also enjoys dabbling in the kitchen.

“When you have a lot of interests, you can’t be good at everything. You have to get over that and just enjoy experiencing,” he said. “I don’t treat other things in my life the way I treat the oboe, where I want to learn everything about it.”

Still single at 36, Parry explained he would like to have a family at some point. “I think the truth at this point is that I’m just a busy guy with a really full and rewarding life, though I always remain open to falling in love.”  

He has toyed with moving to a bigger market, to what some might consider a superior opportunity, but prefers the “speed of life” here in Cincinnati, the “humble character.” “People are easy to talk to,” he said. “I never feel talked down to, even by a bigwig at a Fortune 500 company.”

“For what I do as a musician, as an artist, this is a fantastic place to be, maybe one of the best places to be in the country.”

A CET video showing Parry’s reed-making technique:

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