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Inherent in the life of a musician is communication – the creation beauty, even in its dissonant forms. It is to love the timbre so much that you wouldn’t consider speaking in anything but crescendos. Inherent in the life of a professional musician, however, is skilled instability. You do it because you have to – because better options are abstract concepts and a desk job is out of the question.
There are currently three oboe players in the San Antonio Symphony. Mark Ackerman is one of them. He is also one of only about 100 people in the U.S. who can call himself a professional oboist. Ackerman, the principal oboist of the symphony since 1975, recently announced his retirement. He will be performing in his last production with the ensemble on May 24. The program titled, “Patriotic Pops,”will celebrate the United States during Memorial Day weekend with patriotic favorites.
Ackerman studied with Rhadames Angelucci at the University of Minnesota and Marc Lifschey at the San Francisco Conservatory. He is an active chamber music player and has collaborated with pianists John Browning and Warren Jones, the Emerson Quartet. He is the artistic director of the Olmos Ensemble, and he teaches at Trinity University
“See, it’s like coffee,” Ackerman says. “Coffee is an acquired taste. I don’t know anyone who enjoyed his or her first cup of coffee. Classical music is entirely too complex and intimidating, just like your first cup.”
Growing up in McLaughlin, S.D., a town of 800 people on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, the probability that Ackerman would be a professional musician was essentially none.
“I began in band as a clarinetist. I had a babysitter as a young boy who played the oboe. When she was at our home, she practiced often. I loved it.”
There were no teachers of oboe on the Great Plains, so Ackerman began playing the oboe in college. When hired, Ackerman had studied the oboe for only three or four years after switching from piano in his sophomore year.
Sitting with a classical musician of such stature, I am both intimidated and plagued with the two questions playing principal to all others: One, with dwindling audiences, what does the future for symphony music look like? Two, what the hell is an oboe?
“It’s a real fear that all musicians have,” Ackerman said. “Our audiences are aging quickly.” He quickly adds he is confident that programs such as the Tobin Center Ghost Light Society are leading a new generation of San Antonians to cultivate and support the arts. As a young professional in the performing arts and a musician in my downtime, I still have my doubts.
Historically, the San Antonio Symphony and many others around the country have struggled financially, with too few people having an appreciation for classical music and the performing arts. Despite all that, Ackerman notes that the level of quality is astonishingly high.
“No complaints about pay grade are brought into rehearsal,” he said. “We are prepared and working hard all the time. I do hope, though, that for my colleagues’ sake, pay increases.”
He has performed under seven music directors and uncounted scores of sheet music in 38 years, an extraordinary run. Ackerman brightens and smiles each time he consults a memory to respond to one of my questions.
“I have a flute player next to me,” he said. “And there is a bassoon player behind me. You spend so much time together that these coworkers become friends. Friends become family. I guess you could call them ‘tested’ relationships’.” He chuckles.
Favorite performance: Mahler’s “Symphony No. 6” conducted by Lawrence Leighton Smith. “The orchestra has improved so much since then, but it was a standout for that time. Everything came together just right.”
Favorite composer: Brahms, who Ackerman describes as a, “bit of a beautiful humanist.”
The high point: “I have performed as a soloist six times that I can remember. The high point was playing the Concerto of Richard Strauss. One of my teachers said, ‘You can’t memorize Strauss.’ I played it from memory.”
Artistic challenges: No matter how well you play, there is always something more to reach for. “Getting better as a group of musicians is an ongoing process,” Ackerman said. “It is part of what keeps work so tremendously interesting.”
Ackerman appears to carry nothing but fond memories with him as he transitions to retired life.
“It’s hard to believe 38 years have passed,” he said. “There is a joy in playing with such wonderful people that is hard to describe. There is also a responsibility that draws the best from us. We don’t always agree about everything, but somehow work by consensus and what is best for the music. I wish my colleagues well and every kind of success in the future.”
Ackerman will continue to teach oboe lessons at Trinity and looks forward to traveling with his partner. But first, he has a few more performances at the Majestic, and symphony goers have a few more opportunities to listen to him play the oboe.
*Featured/top image: The San Antonio Symphony and the San Antonio Mastersingers. Courtesy photo.