Alfred Genovese, 79; brought sweetness of tone to the oboe

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 16, 2011

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Soft and sweet, expressive as a voice, the sounds that Alfred Genovese coaxed from his oboe lingered in the memories of audiences and musicians decades after the notes faded.

His approach to playing was formed in part by Marcel Tabuteau, a legendary oboist who trained generations of the world’s best players, including Mr. Genovese, his last student.

“He did not stress volume of sound, but instead quality of tone, something we are in danger of losing as orchestras get louder and louder,’’ Mr. Genovese told the Globe in 1998, just after retiring as principal oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “We worked on the oboe like a singer works on the voice, beginning in the middle register; from that you could develop the top and the bottom. And everything else is produced from the basis of a dolce tone, a sweet sound.’’

Mr. Genovese, whose fine phrasing and generous playing helped elevate the performances of BSO musicians for 21 years, died Friday in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia of complications from cardiac arrest he suffered a few days earlier. He was 79.

“He was a superb player,’’ said Harvey Seigel, a friend and longtime violinist with the orchestra. “I have nothing but the highest regard for his playing.’’

During a career that began late because his family had no extra money to purchase instruments, Mr. Genovese played for some of the best conductors of the 20th century, including Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, and a stint with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell.

He also had a somewhat delicate relationship with Seiji Ozawa, who brought Mr. Genovese to Boston from the Metropolitan Opera in 1977. Soon afterward, the New York Philharmonic asked Mr. Genovese to become its principal oboe, but he stayed with the BSO after Ozawa assured him he would succeed the respected Ralph Gomberg as first chair in Boston.

Instead, when Gomberg retired in 1987, Ozawa appointed Mr. Genovese acting principal for three years as others jostled for the principal chair, until naming him principal oboist in 1990.

“After the auditions, Seiji said no to me, and I felt like he had taken a sledgehammer to my solar plexus,’’ Mr. Genovese told the Globe in 1998. “Finally, he relented after a number of people like Leonard Bernstein came forward and spoke to him. But he never said bravo to me, even once. I was always being scrutinized for what I was going to do wrong; the only thing I could do was play the best I could every day.’’

And he played well. In June 1998, near the end of that summer’s Tanglewood season and as Mr. Genovese closed in on his last weeks with the BSO, his colleagues stood to applaud him at the end of his final appearance with the chamber players.

“Like his predecessor Ralph Gomberg, Genovese contributed something special and memorable to virtually every performance he participated in, and he did it in his own way, by being Genovese,’’ wrote Globe classical music critic Richard Dyer, who praised one high entry by Mr. Genovese that night as “bold, absolutely in tune, pure, sweet, and tangy . . . entirely characteristic of his art.’’

Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Genovese was the fourth of nine children and had three brothers who also became professional musicians.

His father was a clarinetist who had played for vaudeville theater performances and in Atlantic City during summers until opportunities dried up and he turned to cutting hair. Money was so tight that Mr. Genovese’s family could not afford to get him an oboe until he was 16, an advanced starting age for the kind of virtuosity he would display.

“I would go to concerts by the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I loved listening to Marcel Tabuteau play the oboe,’’ he told the Globe in 1998. “He became my idol, and I wanted to play the oboe, too.’’

Friends of Mr. Genovese have set up a Facebook fan page, where they have posted stories such as the time he brought Tabuteau to tears while playing during a lesson.

Mr. Genovese, however, first studied with Laila Storch. “His first teacher always tells the story that when he went to her, the oboe he had was in such horrible condition that they spent most of the first lesson working on it,’’ said Mr. Genovese’s sister, Mary Ann of Philadelphia. “But then, when she gave it back to him, he just took to it. There was no honking, there weren’t any of the sounds you would hear from an amateur wind player, and she couldn’t believe it.’’

Mr. Genovese graduated from South Philadelphia High School and moved from Storch to studying with John Minsker, before being accepted at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he became Tabuteau’s student. He began his orchestral career with the Baltimore Symphony, then played with the St. Louis Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra before performing with the Metropolitan Opera from 1960 to 1977.

“He never talked about himself at all, Al just loved to play,’’ said his brother Arthur of Cherry Hill, N.J.

“You would never know he was the player he was. He was very common and down to earth. The stage hands in every place that he worked? They all knew him. He was just one of the boys.’’

His other consuming passion was old movies, a love he shared with Seigel.

“We sometimes had conversations just using movie lines,’’ Seigel said. “We reveled in the fact that we knew all these character actors of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s.’’

In addition to his sister and brother, Mr. Genovese leaves his son, Joe of Plymouth Meeting, Pa.; four other brothers, Lawrence of Douglassville, Pa., Anthony of Egg Harbor Township, N.J., Edward of Cherry Hill, and Richard of Hatfield, Pa.; and a grandchild.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Saturday in Our Lady of Calvary Church in Philadelphia. Burial will be in Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Pa.

Mr. Genovese, whose former wife, June Bonner, was an opera singer, often listened to vocal passages as he worked to improve his phrasing, which changed subtly from year to year, performance to performance.

“I just take the music and see what I want to do,’’ he told the Globe in 1998. “It is always evolving. I never say, ‘OK, here it is.’ A week will go by, and I will feel differently about a certain something or other.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at