Neil Black who has died aged eighty-four was surely one of the most admired and influential British oboists of the last sixty years, a player with a unique singing sound and outstanding musicianship who worked with leading orchestras, great conductors and soloists, and himself enjoyed a distinguished solo and chamber music career.
Born in Birmingham in 1932, Neil began to play the oboe at the age of eleven studying with Lucy Vincent who kindly lent him an oboe at a time after the Second World War when ‘oboes were like gold dust’ and with Hilda Hunter. Inspired by the playing of Léon Goossens in recordings of Rossini’s The Silken Ladder and Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, he progressed rapidly and became a member of the National Youth Orchestra at the age of 16, playing Principal Oboe with the orchestra for three years.
Neil did not initially intend to become a professional musician and, after National Service, he read History at Exeter College, Oxford. Whilst at Oxford he took part in Professor (later Sir) Jack Westrup’s opera productions, notably of Macbeth with a young Heather Harper as Lady Macbeth. Having had lessons with Joy Boughton, first oboe of the English Opera Group Orchestra, he played with her in a performance of Bach’s B minor Mass. These experiences lead to an offer to join the London Symphony Orchestra as second oboe, which Neil turned down because he still had to sit his Oxford Finals. But soon after, lessons with the distinguished oboist Terence MacDonagh resulted in offers of work with him in London orchestras. For the inexperienced young oboist playing with MacDonagh was ‘like being thrown a Ming vase and having to pass it safely back. He had that sound in his ear, the freedom and fullness, the natural resonance that he also had in his voice, the living vibrato within the sound, the phrasing that could lead other players to forget to count their bars’.
Neil Black soon secured his first full-time playing job as Principal Oboe with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he held from 1959 to 1961, leaving to concentrate on solo and chamber orchestra playing and chamber music. During the 1960s and early 1970s he held principal positions with the London Mozart Players and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, making significant contributions to the development of these orchestras.
In 1970 Neil was appointed as Principal (initially shared with oboist Peter Graeme) of the English Chamber Orchestra, a post that he held for the next twenty-seven years. His achievements during this time cannot be understated. Under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zuckerman and other great players and conductors, Neil’s beautiful oboe playing contributed to an extraordinary woodwind section which included flautists Richard Adeney, William Bennett and Kate Hill, clarinettists Dame Thea King, Julian Farrell and Anthony Pike, bassoonists Martin Gatt, Graham Sheen, Robin O’Neill and Julie Price and horn players Anthony Halstead, Frank Lloyd and Richard Berry. The orchestra completed three Mozart piano concerto cycles with Daniel Barenboim, Murray Perahia and later with Mitsuko Uchida, and in each of these the playing of Neil Black and his woodwind colleagues was outstanding. The ECO toured the world, performed at The Proms and in regular series on London’s South Bank, broadcast and recorded extensively.
Neil also appeared as a soloist on numerous occasions, performing in many of the world’s great concert halls including Carnegie Hall, The Royal Festival Hall, the Musikverein in Vienna and halls in Tokyo, Munich, Hamburg and Paris. He recorded the Strauss and Vaughan Williams concertos with Barenboim, the latter recorded with Jacqueline du Pré present at the sessions which, according to Neil, ‘raised the temperature considerably’. He also recorded Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi concertos with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields, the Vivaldi Double Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin and the Polish Chamber Orchestra, and three recordings of the Bach Violin and Oboe Concerto with Itzhak Perlman, Dmitri Sitkovestky and Frank-Peter Zimermann respectively.
As a chamber musician Neil played regularly with the ECO Wind Ensemble, recorded the Mozart and Beethoven Piano and Wind Quintets with Murray Perahia and chamber works with Mitsuko Uchida. He was a member of the London Wind Trio (with Keith Puddy, clarinet and Roger Birnstingl, bassoon) which toured extensively for the British Council to the Middle-East, Africa and the Far-East.
Neil taught the oboe at the Royal Academy of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and was devoted to helping younger oboists at the beginning of their careers. In this respect he was Artistic Director of the Kirkman Concert Society for many years, Artistic Director of the Barbirolli International Oboe Festival and Competition in the Isle of Man and taught for the Tunnell Trust on annual music courses in Scotland. He was a sought-after adjudicator in later years where his passion for music and his fair-mindedness were much appreciated. In 1989, Neil was appointed OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours for his services to music.
Neil worked with many other musicians in his busy life as a London professional player. Most especially, he was often able to play alongside his second wife, Janice Knight, who had been a student of his at the Royal Academy of Music. Over the years Neil and Jan performed regularly and did much together to support and encourage other musicians and students. Neil leaves three children from his first marriage with Jill Hemingsley, and four grandchildren.
When once asked what he could pass on to future generations, Neil replied: ‘Any child learning a woodwind instrument should be encouraged to sing. Just as the larynx has slipped forward a few inches, so to speak, we oboists use a reed instead: we have no excuse for not singing. Don’t let the oboe get in the way of the real expression of the music’. All who knew and heard him would agree that this was the unique quality that Neil had: his playing served a remarkable, intelligent musicianship and seemed to transcend the instrument that he played.
Anyone wishing to make a donation in Neil’s memory, or to send a photo, please go to http://neil.black.muchloved.com