EX CATHEDRA | Gail Hennessy - oboe

From our ‘Bach, Mass in B Minor’ programme, December 2019

Gail Hennessy was born in Wisconsin in the USA, and studied modern oboe at the University of Louisville before taking up a position as cor anglais player in North Carolina. A fellow musician encouraged her to acquire a baroque oboe, and she fell in love with its sound. This, together with her empathy for baroque music, led her to study Historical Performance Practice at Washington University, and ultimately drew her to Britain. She was an apprentice to baroque oboe-maker Mary Kirkpatrick in Oxfordshire, and studied baroque oboe with the late David Reichenberg through the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.

She now has a busy career playing and recording with many British baroque ensembles, as well as performing as a soloist and chamber musician. She also encourages composers to write new music for old instruments, and has premiered works by Jennifer Fowler (1988), Roderick Williams (2004), Rhian Samuel (2008), Thea Musgrave (2011) and Melinda Maxwell (2019). She teaches baroque oboe at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the Royal College of Music, as well as for Dartington International Summer School and the Cambridge Early Music Summer School.

1. How long have you been a member of Ex Cathedra and why did you join?

I first played for Ex Cathedra in 1983, not long after I first arrived in the UK, so it’s been a long time!

Funnily enough, that was also a performance of Bach B Minor Mass – I was playing 3rd oboe! I didn’t know then that it was also Ex Cathedra’s first performance featuring a baroque orchestra. At first I was an occasional player, but over time became a regular. It’s always been one of my favourite groups to work with: the choir is fantastic, and Jeffrey’s close attention to the detail of the music is truly satisfying. I particularly like his celebration and understanding of French baroque music, and really appreciate the opportunity to perform such rich, luscious and colourful music.

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

There is no typical day – every one is different! I am primarily a freelance player, which involves a lot of travel, often leaving home early and getting back well after midnight. I teach at three colleges, including Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, organise my own chamber concerts, teach on two summer schools, and help run Music in the Village, a concert series started by my partner Peter McCarthy. I am also a keen runner, and am planning to run the London Marathon in April, which means plenty of training runs to fit in. And of course I make time for practising and reed-making. So my life is like fitting a puzzle together. Some days I’m better at organising it than others, but I enjoy it all. Life is never boring!

3. If you could choose to perform again any piece you have performed before with Ex Cathedra, what would it be, and & why?

I’m spoilt for choice here, but it’s got to be Michel-Richard de Lalande Cantate Domino, which includes a heart-melting aria “Viderunt omnes termini terrae” featuring soprano and oboe. Recording that aria with Carolyn Sampson and Ex Cathedra for the CD “A French Baroque Diva” was a special treat.

4. What’s your musical “guilty secret”?

The very first time I ever tried a baroque oboe, I remember saying “Nobody in their right mind would play an instrument like this”! Little did I know that one would come back to seduce me later!