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Melanie Ragge recently took some time out of her busy performing schedule to talk to Joseph Watson about the nlce's new recording with Meridian and the inspirations behind it. Buy here

What was it about John Woolrich뭩 music that particularly compelled you to record this CD?
This CD was originally conceived in celebration of John뭩 50th Birthday.  John writes beautifully for winds; his fascination with sound in its own right and the wealth of textures and timbres of the wind quintet shines through.  His music can be unrepentantly challenging in his own words 밃 work needn뭪 descend to soap opera to gain access to universal emotions.  But it is also epigrammatic and really grows on you.  Each of the Studies on the CD are little 몆icture postcards - 몊tudies in sonority, you could say.  They are often only a couple of minutes long, so if you don뭪 happen to fall in love with one, it뭩 not long to wait till the next!

Describe the experience of working with the NLCE.
The NLCE is an extraordinary group to work with; they are simultaneously some of my closest friends and most highly esteemed professional colleagues.  When we are together there is an explosion of creative energy; everyone contributes something different (a high priority being quality chocolate brownies), and we are all strong personalities, so there is rarely a dull moment!

Our aim is to bring all styles of music 멲live to our audiences, including the most contemporary. Our rehearsals are about finding the musical quality of performance that will bring that about and the music is always the starting point.  But, originally inspired by the theatrical background of our clarinettist Neyire Ashworth, we also often stage our performances, or include theatrical elements.  We뭭e commissioned several new works that include script or staging, and often these works are performed partly or wholly from memory. I had no experience of theatre before working with the ensemble and workshops we have done with people like actor/writer Danny Scheinmann, and theatre directors Phillip Parr and Peta Lily, have been a complete revelation to me. When you뭨e performing chamber music from memory, you suddenly realise the relevance of all those 몋rust exercises they get you to do!  I뭭e also had to think so much more about the 몆hysicality of performance (ie how you use yourself physically on the stage) - including getting my creaking body to do some fairly challenging stretching! One of our workshops centred around 몆latform manner basically coming on and going off; you wouldn뭪 think you could spend 3 hours teaching a bunch of supposedly 몊easoned pro뭩 essentially how to bow but I think we actually came away realising how much more we still had to learn! Likewise, voice work for Berio뭩 Opus Number Zoo started me thinking of my speaking voice as an instrument, rather than a household appliance!  It뭩 a very different, fascinating and challenging training.

Have the players stayed the same since the ensemble first formed?
Of the 멵ore wind players, four out of five!  Steve, Lisa, Neyire and myself have all been there from the outset.  We뭭e worked with some fabulous bassoonists firstly with Sarah Burnett and then, including this and our Nielsen recording Meyrick Alexander.  And our most recent concerts have been with Graham Hobbs.

It was our intention from the outset to collaborate with other musicians; we met and first performed with pianist Julian Jacobson at the Swaledale festival where we also shared a residency with the Dante quartet.  It was a great meeting of musical minds, together, it would seem, with a communal love of good food!  

How did you come to be an oboist?  What/who has influenced you along the way?
I came to oboe playing very late and via a very circuitous route! 

My love affair with music began with the piano; it remained my first instrument for many years. Aged 11, my piano teacher뭩 husband (Arthur Davison) commented that I had 멲n oboe face and that was how the oboe began. My social conscience got the better of me, and I went off to read Medicine at Cambridge it was an impossibly difficult decision for a youngster with an equal love of the sciences and the arts.  After changing to music, I began by pursuing an academic path, doing an MPhil in Musicology.  I took a gap year 몋o get performing out of my system and went to the Royal College as a first study pianist, and also took oboe lessons with Michael Winfield; it had the reverse effect, and I stayed on at the College instead of returning to Cambridge to do a PhD.  Finally, in my second postgrad year at the RCM, I became a first study oboist!

Extraordinarily perhaps, I have few regrets except those technical moments when I think another 10 years or so of focussed training on the oboe would really have come in handy!  The medical training has proved incredibly helpful in understanding the physical side of things the mechanics of breathing, the muscles of the embouchure etc.  I also have a research sideline using a technique called Electromyography (monitoring the activity of muscles during performance) to help to reduce strain injuries in musical training.

Influences? - Wonderful and very, very  patient teachers just one example being Phyllis Sellick, with whom I learnt piano as a postgrad.  She taught me a lot about listening.  I just don뭪 think I뭗 got the hang of it, and expected the piano to do the work for me. One of her choice phrases was along the lines of 멬ell, you could make a sound like that but not on my piano! She made me close my eyes and listen really listen and try to find my 멼nner ear.

My students are another huge influence; I love teaching and am lucky enough to work with, and to have worked with, some fabulous young oboists at the Royal Academy and the Purcell School.  I find teaching and playing complement each other it sounds corny, but somehow they seem to 몁ourish one another.  And there뭩 nothing like trying to explain something to a student to make you really clarify it in your own mind.

And of course - very supportive parents, and a not-too-critical husband!

Finally, please tell us what made you choose to record with Meridian Records.
Steve introduced the NLCE to Meridian Records; he뭗 already recorded with them and knew about their 멞atural Sound philosophy the notion that their recordings are intended to reproduce the 멵oncert-hall experience as closely as possible. Perhaps it makes recording more of a challenge longer takes, and a little less flexibility editing-wise - to try to hold onto the energy and atmosphere of a single take without too much 멵utting and pasting. On a day when you happen to be under the Heathrow flight path that can be something of a trial!  But Richard Hughes combination of professionalism and a fabulous sense of humour just shines through; he knows exactly what it takes to get the best out of the players whether that뭩 an apparently perfect understanding of what it is to have 멲 bad reed day, or just plenty of chocolate in the tea breaks.