Earle Dumler, principal oboe of the Los Angeles Opera, describes James Caldwell as "the greatest American oboist of my generation . . . Not only was his playing wonderfully elegant, he was truly a class act." Caldwell was also, from 1971, a Professor of Oboe at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he trained many leading oboists.
His interest in his art extended well beyond the traditional boundaries. It was in the late Sixties, while he was principal oboist at the National Symphony Orchestra, that Caldwell and his wife, the cellist Catharina Meints, became interested in the Baroque era and, although both had been trained on modern instruments, in their spare time learned to play the period equivalents. Caldwell had taken up the viola da gamba and with his wife went to Basle in Switzerland to study with August Wenzinger, one of the most celebrated teachers of the instrument. The couple began to collect period instruments.
In 1971, they moved to Ohio, where Caldwell was appointed Professor of Oboe and Meints joined the Cleveland Orchestra, and the following summer, at Oberlin, they founded the Baroque Performance Institute (BPI), the first American summer school for singers and instrumentalists to study and perform early music on period instruments. They invited Wenzinger to direct the three-week programme - which is now in its 34th year.
Caldwell was born in 1938 in Gladewater, East Texas, the son of a stationmaster. He showed very early musical ability and had his first lessons on the piano. He also possessed a fine voice and sang as a treble soloist. At 13 he had his first lessons on the oboe and decided that this was to be his instrument.
He was educated at Gladewater High School and during the summer holidays attended the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. In 1957 Caldwell entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with John de Lancic, principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Caldwell went on to serve as principal oboist of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia. He was also oboist and soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, soloist with the Casals Festival Orchestra and the Chicago Little Symphony. He gave recitals at Carnegie Hall and the Town Hall in New York. He was a fine chamber music player, performing with groups including the Oberlin Baroque Ensemble, the Oberlin Woodwind Quintet and the Soni Ventorum Quintet. He frequently gave concerts at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at Aston Magna, a foundation dedicated to early music and its cultural context.
At Oberlin, such was his reputation as a teacher that, from the time when he took up his appointment on the faculty in 1971, there was a threefold increase in the number of prospective oboe students. He was admired by his colleagues for his extraordinary musicianship and range of artistic expertise. The gamba player Mary Anne Ballard says:
He built a master harpsichord of three keyboards while living in the Puerto Rican jungle and playing oboe with the Casals Festival. He amassed and oversaw the meticulous restoration of perhaps the greatest collection of violas da gamba, carving bridges and performing other maintenance tasks himself, as well as becoming a quietly virtuoso player and performing as continuo accompanist and duet partner with his wife.
Jim Caldwell was also an avid collector of art nouveau glass and furniture, was skilled in stained glass, jewellery-making and bonsai cultivation, and became an expert on computer art and musical composition using synthesisers. He was passionate about everything he did, from playing Liverpool Rummy - which became an almost violent experience with him at the table - to crafting the finest oboe reeds.
Caldwell's discography includes orchestral recordings on RCA and Columbia Records and chamber music recordings for the Lyrichord, Desto, Cambridge, Phoenix, Gasparo, Vox and Smithsonian labels. A reissue of recordings he made throughout the last 40 years, on modern as well as baroque oboe, comes this year on Boston Records - Building Castles in the Sky.
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