Crystal Clarity: The Musical Career of Peter Christ
BY DAVID DEBOOR CANFIELD
originally in Fanfare Magazine January/February 2018
Peter Christ has made a profound mark on the world of classical music through his oboe playing, and founding of his Crystal Records label. Crystal has done more than any other label IÕm aware of to promote solo and ensemble recordings of woodwinds and brass, and has branched out over the years into other areas as well. In my 40 yearsÕ experience in the record business, I have found at least a few Crystal recordings in most of the collections IÕve handled, an excellent indicator of the broad appeal of this label. The Westwood Wind Quintet that Christ co-founded also quickly achieved a reputation as one of the finest quintets in existence, and the group has performed thousands of concerts all over the globe. I welcomed the opportunity to query this indefatigable musician via email about his various activities in July of 2017.
Peter, please tell us something about your musical background and training as an oboist.
I started oboe study in the 7th grade, with no previous music experience, studying with Salvatore Spano who was a music teacher and respected free-lance oboist in Los Angeles. By 12th grade I was studying with Bert Gassman, first oboe of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I studied with Gassman for the next 5 years and he was the major influence in my oboe playing. I played principal oboe in all the school orchestras and bands in Jr. and Sr. High School as well as All State (California), All City (Los Angeles) Orchestras, and the renowned Peter Meremblum Jr. Symphony, which regularly had guest soloists like David Oistrakh and Arthur Rubinstein. At U.C.L.A. I took requisite music classes and played principal oboe in the U.C.L.A. Orchestra while majoring in Mathematics. By the time I was 18 or 19 I was playing extra in the Los Angeles Philharmonic and doing occasional movie studio gigs. Shortly after that I was playing principal oboe in most of the L.A. area orchestras. The one year I was a participant at Marlboro was influential for me, as I met and played with the great oboist John Mack (principal Cleveland Orchestra) and recorded the Bach Brandenburg No. 1 with him, Pablo Casals conducting. Later I again connected with John Mack and put some of his solo recordings on Crystal Records.
What led to the formation of the Westwood Wind Quintet? Where did its name come from?
All of the original members of the Westwood Wind Quintet were either students at UCLA which is in the Westwood part of L.A. or lived in Westwood. Thus the name. I started the Westwood Wind Quintet in 1959 because I quickly found that my real passion in music was in chamber music. Though I did enjoy orchestral music, I really loved chamber music.
Your Quintet is reported to have given more than 2000 concerts over its long tenure. I would think this would have to be almost some kind of record, wouldnÕt it?
The 2000 figure is an understatement. I started counting them and stopped when I got to 2000 about 15 years ago, when we were really active as a performing group. Since then we only do a few concerts a year and have concentrated on recording. I know our number of performances as well as our recordings is more than most groups but whether it is a record, who knows.
Doubtless, you have many interesting stories from some of this multitude of concertsÉ.
Very true! One of our most memorable trips was when the Westwood Wind Quintet had a week in Juneau, Alaska, and during that time had a concert in Hoonah, a small town on an island off the coast of Juneau. Hoonah was approachable only by boat or plane, and with limited time we opted to fly on the small airline that serviced that city. When we arrived at the Juneau airport, we saw a young man, probably a teenager, sweeping the floor. We asked him where we would check in for the plane to Hoonah, and he pointed to a check-in counter. As we walked over to it, he put down his broom and walked over and got behind the counter, at which point he asked for our names and wrote our boarding passes. He was apparently the counter representative for that airline. We checked our bags and the same young man put our bags on a dolly and went out to the small airplane waiting on the runway. When he came back he said the plane was ready to go. We walked out to the plane, preceded by the same young man who opened the doors, checked us in, and then got in the plane. He was our pilot. I remember John Barcellona, our flutist, whispering to me, ÒIs he old enough to drive a car, much less fly a plane?" But he did fly it. When we got into Hoonah, we all got off to get ready for our concert that night, and I realized that our pilot/ticket taker/baggage handler had not put my bags on the plane. I did have my oboe with me (I would never check it) so we played the concert with the other four in their tuxedos and me in my jeans. Actually, the audience, which was almost all of the island, was very receptive and it was one of our most successful concerts.
Wow! Did many composers write works specifically for your group? I would guess that you were also inundated with scores from composers who were hoping that you would perform and/or record their music.
We did, and still do, get scores from many composers and over the years gave numerous world premieres. For many years I and the group were regular performers on Los AngelesÕ Monday Evening Concerts, which gave first performances of works by the top composers of the day, including Ernst Krenek, Stravinsky (who did not write a woodwind quintet but did write several works that I and our members did the premieres of), and many others. It was our performance of the Schšnberg Wind Quintet on Monday Evening Concerts that led Robert Craft to ask us to do the recording of it on Columbia Records and that recording is what got me excited about recording and ultimately led to the formation of Crystal Records.
What were some of WestwoodÕs favorite works in the genre, whether written for them or not?
That is a difficult question. Any work that we recorded could be on that list of favorites, which would include the Quintets of Carl Nielsen, Alvin Etler, Louis Moyse, August Klughardt, Dan Welcher (his Second Quintet), and the Hindemith Kleine Kammermusik, Dahl Allegro and Arioso, Barber Summer Music, Ibert Trois Pieces Breves. Then, of course, there are the 24 Quintets of Anton Reicha, all of which we recorded, and which I believe are absolute masterworks for any genre. People are still just beginning to know Reicha. I believe the time will come when his writing will be recognized right up there with Beethoven, who happened to be a friend of his. Certainly his woodwind quintets are right up there with the Beethoven String Quartets, which I realize is saying a lot for them, but I truly believe it. I could go on and on about ReichaÕs Woodwind Quintets, which I think have suffered from lack-luster performances that often trivialize them. When we were studying and recording them we found what profound pieces they are and we tried to present them as such. I am pleased that the reaction to our recordings indicate that we succeeded.
Westwood has had some personnel changes over the years, although you have been with them through its entire existence. How did you go about finding new players to fill out the Quintet?
They were usually players that I or the other members of the group had played with and appreciated the rapport and similarity of styles. Then a concert or two with them solidified it. The Westwood Wind Quintet has had remarkably stable personnel for the 58 years since it was founded in 1959. Our first clarinetist and co-founder David Atkins was with us for 40 years, our first flutist Gretel Shanley for about 20 years, and our present flutist John Barcellona has been with us for 38 years. Our horn and bassoon players also had long tenures.
Given that the very first Crystal LP, issued in 1966, was devoted to your QuintetÕs artistry, was the desire to have your group out on LP the motivation to form your own company? Was it your intention from the issuance of the first Crystal LP to found a new company, or did the success of Crystal S101 then cause you to think about continuing to release LPs?
Though I wanted to have my group on LP, it was never my intention only to feature the Westwood Wind Quintet. From the beginning I wanted to record groups that were not getting anywhere with the major labels. These were top brass and string groups as well as my own woodwind group, and woodwind and brass soloists. The major labels were not interested at that time in tuba soloists, for instance, and I knew Roger Bobo, and, with few exceptions, they couldnÕt care less about saxophone or trumpet, and I knew Harvey Pittel and Thomas Stevens, as well as many other first-rate artists that deserved to be heard. Things have changed now and it may be hard for people to remember the days when there were very few recordings of wind and brass soloists and ensembles.
In some ways, the second LP that a company produces is more important than the first, given the substantial number of single-disc record labels that never managed to issue a second LP. What led to the issuance of Crystal S102, which contained performances by the Los Angeles Brass Quintet?
See the answer to the previous question. The Los Angeles Brass Quintet was one of the best brass ensembles in existence, and still stands as one of the best ever. My original idea was to have a great woodwind quintet, then a great brass quintet, then a great string quartet, then saxophone, percussion, etc. If you look at the first Crystal LPs, you will see that S101 through S107 were, in order, woodwind, brass, strings, percussion, saxophone, accordion, and harp. I was fortunate to live and play in Los Angeles, where there were incredible musicians so there was a base for these recordings. Soon later I branched to New York, Dallas, Berlin, and many other cities.
Are you yourself a record collector?
Indeed I am. My love of records started in my father's laundromat in Studio City, California, where I worked after my daily classes in junior high school. One of the customers was a distributor for Westminster Records and learning that I was studying oboe, he graciously gave me my first LPs. Listening to records like the Mozart Serenades nos.11 and 12 with the Berlin Octet and exciting orchestral and chamber works by Villa-Lobos, I was hooked, both on records and on classical music.
In my late teens and early 20s, I got acquainted with most of the prominent orchestral works, including the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Dvoř‡k, Tchaikovsky, etc., and the major concertos. I built up my record collection by buying records of many of these fantastic works that I had come to love from playing them. In my personal library, still taking up much of my basement, I have retained most of the records that I had grown up with, and which gave me so much pleasure and education over the years, even though by now I also have a large number of CDs.
Crystal Records, as one of the largest surviving US-based record companies, has recorded music by as many or more different composers than any other company I can recall as a record dealer. Do you have any idea of how many composersÕ works youÕve recorded by now?
No, though I suppose you or I could count them from our catalog, if we wish.
Your notable series of issues of music by Alan Hovhaness and the complete recording of the Reicha Quintets excepted, you generally have avoided single-composer issues. Is there a reason for this?
Yes. The short answer is that we canÕt be everything to everybody, and there are a lot of labels doing composer albums. Frankly they sometimes do not sell well and we found that by featuring artists we at least draw an audience from the vast pool of performers playing particular pieces. You will notice that even in those albums that have only one composer (e.g. Hovhaness, Reicha, Harrison, Wilder, Zelenka, etc.), there is usually a unity in the performers (a specific orchestra, ensemble, soloist, etc.).
Speaking of Alan Hovhaness, did you know him? He was so prolific that you could never have issued his complete works, so how did you select those that you did record?
Yes I knew him well. Early on Tom Stevens suggested Prayer of St. Gregory to be included in a Ford Foundation grant album. There were several other Hovhaness works that seemed to be a good ÒfitÓ for the album so we included them. We wrote Hovhaness and he came to the recording sessions. That is when I first met him. Those recording are now on CD801 (which by the way is the best recording ever of Prayer of St. Gregory, in my opinion — Tom Stevens is phenomenal). Alan had previously recorded numerous of his works with top British orchestras and released them on his own label, Poseidon. Later Alan was in the throes of a divorce in which he gave all of his Poseidon albums to his ex-wife. Fortunately she realized the artistic worth of his music and knew she could not do the LPs justice. Through a distributor we both had at the time, she was referred to me. I jumped at the chance to get these and quickly bought all the rights from her. When CDs were viable, they were put in our Hovhaness series on Crystal. During all this I got to know Alan and his new wife Hinako quite well, going to their house in Seattle many times and having them to my and my wife LindaÕs house in Sedro Woolley for dinner, etc. He was a very warm and wonderful person. I am fortunate to have known him.
When did you transition from LP production to CD? Have you reissued all of your LP issues in the CD format by now?
Hardly. There were over 300 LPs and it was not reasonable to try to get them all out right away on CD. I am still in the process of rereleasing LPs on CD. I would love to have all of them of CD. But now, of course, even CDs are problematic for sales. In answer to your question, Crystal started doing CDs in 1985, I believe.
In your bio on the Westwood Wind Quintet CD under review and discussion here, you mention only 300 or so issues on your Crystal label, but there must be more than that, given the catalog numbers that go up into the 700s. Are you counting the LPs you issued in the 60s, 70s, and 80s?
There were over 300 LPs and now there are over 300 CDs. The number system is not consecutive. It is more geared to grouping, so for example flute albums are in the 310-319 or 710-714 range and the oboes are 320-329 and 720-729 and on. This kind of grouping can be found throughout the catalog.
Given declining sales across the industry, do you see a prolonged future for the compact disc? Will there be enough collectors who want physical objects to keep CD production profitable—or possible?
Good question with no clear answer. I am finding there are still people who want CDs.
Who would ever have guessed 20 or 30 years ago that there would be a resurgence of interest in LPs, but there is. (see next question) Streaming has made any kind of recording no longer profitable, but we still sell enough CDs to keep at it.
Have you seen any resurgence of interest in the LP format? Do you still have stocks of your LP issues, should collectors want to purchase them?
Yes there is some interest in LPs. Unfortunately we liquidated our LPs years ago. Just today a customer called who wanted our old ÒPrunesÓ LP (Roger Bobo and Fr¿ydis Wekre) and I do not have any left to sell. The music is on CD but this person really wanted the LP. But there is definitely not enough interest to start repressing LPs.
What future plans do you have for either Westwood Wind Quintet or Crystal Records?
Westwood has a concert coming up in a few weeks (Aug. 26) and there may be a few in the future but the time has probably come for me to stop worrying about oboe reeds. And when I go, that is it for the group. I do not see anyone willing or able to take it over. We finished the recording for the last CD (CD791 — Hindemith, Mathias, Stark, Janacek) last year and I contracted a bad case of tendinitis that kept me from playing for almost a year. Concerts had to be cancelled. Not a fun time, and I really am not sure I ever want to repeat that. But that said, never say never. Who knows? I can say I am no longer actively booking or trying to get concerts. I am now 79 years old and I am delighted that I have behind me a large collection of recordings and concerts. But going on a 10 or 20 weeks tour — I sincerely doubt it!
Crystal Records will undoubtedly continue. There are people and companies that would be capable of running it. I think I have provided a good catalog for them to work with. But I am not near retiring yet!!
What were some of the challenges in the music of your recent CD 791 ? If this does turn out to be the last CD issued by the Westwood Wind Quintet, did you select the works included on it in some valedictory fashion ? What led to your decision to include works that incorporated instruments not in the makeup of the standard woodwind quintet?
There are challenges in all recording. Not only does the sound have to be just what you want, but the composition has to be meticulously prepared, because what gets on the recording will be there forever, and it has to stand up to any other recording now and forever. We take recording very seriously. The Hindemith Septet is a work I have loved since first performing it as a student at UCLA. Trumpet and bass clarinet add wonderful colors to the woodwind quintet. Hindemith is such a remarkable craftsman and his music is exciting and just plain sounds good. There are very few recordings of the Septet. The Janacek Mladi has been recorded many times but it is a great piece and we felt we could give it the special Westwood treatment. I love the sonority of the bass clarinet added to the wind quintet. The Mathias is on the album because we have always loved playing with pianist Lisa Bergman, and the piece seems to fit well. Bruce StarkÕs Quintet was relatively new to us but we like to do new works and we all agreed this is a good strong piece which adds a lot of variety to the album. And it is always fun to be able to work with a composer when preparing a work — Bruce was with us for the rehearsals.