Never has a retiring oboist left such a legacy. Rogene Russell recently retired as principal oboist of The Dallas Opera orchestra after 25 seasons. She was also a member of the oboe section of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra from 1977 until 2017. She is a founding member of Fine Arts Chamber Players, where she served as artistic director until recently. But it is perhaps her role in the fine arts players’ after-school musical program and as a part of Dream Collectors where Russell was the most revolutionary. Throughout her career, Russell has been committed to providing free classical music concerts and educational opportunities in Dallas. Chosen to receive the Texas Commission on the Arts “Exemplary Programming for Children” award, the Dream Collectors’ troupe of musicians and actors celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014. The Dream Collectors provides original musical programs to schools and community facilities. A graduate of the University of Tennessee and Yale University School of Music, Russell lives at Hillcrest and Orchid Lane with her husband, a retired principal percussionist with the Dallas Symphony. Their son, who is now in his 30s, graduated from the Greenhill School. She enjoys walking to Central Market.
Why the oboe?
My mother was a church organist, and she loved classical music. Her father was German. They had a piano even though they were farmers in Nebraska. We had a lot of classical music in our house. I remember my mother playing music and saying, “Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the oboe.” The voice of an instrument calls you. I started life singing in a mid-soprano. I’m now an alto, and that’s where the voice of an oboe is in the score.
“The voice of an instrument calls you.”
Tell me about Fine Arts Chamber Players.
It started back in 1981. I’ve always loved playing chamber music. It’s not conducted by anyone. The musicians choose their own tempos and usually are also involved in choosing the music they want to play. We didn’t seem to have that in the Dallas area. I was commuting with a bassoonist from Dallas to Fort Worth, and we had a dream to put together some chamber music during the summer and make it free. In 1984, the Dallas Museum of Art moved downtown and invited us to do concerts October through May. It was accessible to everyone. We hoped this would introduce families to classical music. Even though we can pull out our cell phones and listen to anything, when you watch someone put their heart and soul into music, there’s a connection.
Do you have a favorite piece?
I love all the pieces with the oboe in it. My favorite piece of chamber music is the Mozart oboe quartet. I’ve learned to be specific about how you describe things. I can advertise we’re going to do the Mozart oboe quartet, and someone might show up thinking that four oboe players will play. As musicians, we know that an oboe quartet would mean strings with an oboe soloist.
How does it feel to play music for Dallas?
It’s been a joy to see the growth of the arts in Dallas. I’ve had opportunities to play in people’s homes and get to know a lot of the Dallas arts patrons who are enormously generous. After our concerts at the art museum, we have something we call “coda.” The musicians come on stage, and audience members or I ask questions. The intelligence and the knowledge of those in the audience astound me.
Why are you so passionate about children and music?
Right after we moved into the Dallas Museum of Art, we started to figure out how we could involve children more. This was also about the time that many of the schools were cutting back on music programs. We started the Dream Collectors and went into every DISD elementary school to do programs for free. We did a meaningful program about dyslexia. It was called the LD Zone, the learning difference zone. Our musicians went to Scottish Rite Hospital and participated in teacher training. Scottish Rite connected us to the Shelton School. We created a play, and we did 50 performances in one year. We performed for the International Dyslexia Society. In that story, a young girl named Alexis has dyslexia and there’s somebody trying to grab her spirit called the “Grab Snatcher.” That was probably one of the most meaningful things I ever did.
Why do you love opera?
I love being up close and personal to those fantastic singers. During rehearsal, as the first oboe, I get to play a lot of the beautiful singing lines that the soprano is singing. I watch the singer, where she breathes and how she phrases things. I love that first rehearsal when we get to see the person singing.
What’s one of the more challenging things you’ve had to overcome?
As a nonprofit, we’re smaller than a lot of the major organizations in town, but our purpose is grand. We don’t have big marketing budgets and we don’t throw big galas, so we have a less public profile than a lot of big organizations, but I think that Dallas is the richer for the work that we’ve done.
What’s surprising about your organization?
One of the things we’ve done in addition to our children’s programming is we give free lessons. We have about 600 free lessons. We have an after-school string program that we do at Peak Prep in East Dallas. We provide all the instruments for free. All the teachers are paid. Our voice program is at Townview, Carter and Wilmer-Hutchins high schools. For the first time in the history of Wilmer-Hutchins, one of our voice students made all-state choir. I tell you why this is important. These kids can sing beautifully, but many of them can’t read music. We offer piano, voice and violin lessons.
How many hours a day do you practice?
A lot. One of the things about playing the oboe is you must make your reeds. When you decide to play the oboe, you have no idea that you’re going to spend hours sitting at a desk making reeds. I buy the cane from southern France. When you put it in the oboe, it acts like a megaphone and turns that little funny peeping sound into beautiful music. It’s almost a meditative process.