From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
By Donald Rosenberg
Plain Dealer Music Critic
John Mack, the revered former principal oboe of the Cleveland
Orchestra and teacher to several generations of superb players,
died of complications from brain cancer Sunday at University
Hospitals of Cleveland. He was 78.
Mack, a resident of Cleveland Heights, was considered a giant
in his field. He served as principal oboe of the Cleveland
Orchestra from 1965 until his reluctant retirement, due to an
eye condition, in 2001. During those 36 years, a record in the
post, he played under three music directors - George Szell, Lorin
Maazel and Christoph von Dohnanyi - and the conductor who would
become music director in 2002, Franz Welser-M=D6st.
Along with his legacy of performances and recordings, Mack taught
oboists who hold positions in orchestras throughout the United
States and abroad. Among them are principal players in the Boston
Symphony (John Ferrillo), Cleveland Orchestra (Frank Rosenwein)
and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (Elaine Douvas). Mack also
taught two other current Cleveland Orchestra oboists, Elizabeth
Camus and Jeffrey Rathbun.
'John Mack was an icon of the Cleveland Orchestra,' said David
Zauder, a retired member of the orchestra's trumpet section and
personnel manager. 'He touched thousands of lives with his special
way of helping. He made everybody better.'
When he wasn't performing in the orchestra, playing golf or
regaling colleagues with amusing stories, often in the thick
French accent of his esteemed teacher, Marcel Tabuteau, Mack
shared his knowledge of his beloved, and notoriously difficult,
He served as chairman of the oboe department and woodwind division
at the Cleveland Institute of Music, taught in the Kent/Blossom
Music program and held an annual summer oboe camp in Little
Mack instructed students not only in the fine points of oboe
playing and music-making, but also in the tricky and crucial art
'Oboe teachers don't really know how to make reeds, and if they
do, they don't like to give away their secrets or know how to
express it,' said Rosenwein, who studied with Mack at the Cleveland
Institute of Music. 'He was able to express very clearly how to
make reeds and musically how to best express using the unique
qualities of the instrument.'
Mack, whose playing was noted for a distinctive ripeness of
sound and elegance of phrasing, attributed what he called the
'cosmopolitan' nature of his oboe tone partly to Tabuteau, the
longtime principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with whom
he studied at the Curtis Institute of Music.
Mack believed his own playing was marked by a 'tone of complexity
and completion,' he told The Plain Dealer in 2001, shortly before
his retirement from the orchestra. 'The tone has to have enough
gumption. Szell wanted the tone to be heard, even if it sounded
false to you [onstage].'
In a 1980 interview, Mack articulated what he felt was the key
to one of the conductor's supreme achievements with the Cleveland
Orchestra - balance.
'If you were a player who had a solo passage, Szell would
direct his attention during that solo to you so single-mindedly
that it was a rejection of the rest of the orchestra, and they
psychologically accepted that, fell back and let their concentration
go toward you,' he said. 'It was as though the light had been
turned on you and all other lights had been turned out.'
Mack was born in 1927 in Somerville, N.J., and took up the oboe
in sixth grade. He studied with Tabuteau and Bruno Labate while
in high school and with Harold Gomberg at the Juilliard School
of Music. After Juilliard, he worked with Tabuteau at Curtis.
Mack began his professional career as first oboe of the Sadler's
Wells Orchestra, touring North America. He served as principal
in the New Orleans Symphony for 11 seasons and in the National
Symphony in Washington, D.C., for two before joining the Cleveland
Orchestra. (One of the pieces he played during his first concert
with the orchestra, Ravel's 'Le tombeau de Couperin,' can be
heard on 'The Cleveland Orchestra Seventy-Fifth Anniversary
Compact Disc Edition.') He also participated in the Casals and
By the time he became principal oboe in Cleveland, he'd already
auditioned for Szell twice: the first time in 1953 at the Casals
Festival in Prades, France, where he was playing assistant to
Tabuteau; the second in 1959, when Szell hired another oboist
as principal in Cleveland.
When he finally won the Cleveland job in 1965, Mack discerned
a different Szell from the tyrant of whom he'd heard so much.
'A lot of people didn't like working with him because he was
tough,' Mack said in the 2001 Plain Dealer interview. 'I loved
him. As demanding as he was, it seemed to me always for the sake
of the music. It was never for self-aggrandizement.'
Similarly, Mack had a reputation for toiling endlessly to improve
himself and to nurture his students.
'I feel he really revolutionized or redefined how oboe is taught,'
said Rosenwein. 'He knew he wasn't the most talented person. He
really had to work for what he had. The tools he was able to
give to his students let them in on how to become great.'
Mack derived as much joy recounting tales of Tabuteau, Szell and
others as he did recalling favorite performances.
'He had every reason to take great pride in looking back on a
wonderful life in music,' said David Cerone, president of the
Cleveland Institute of Music. 'He was the absolute epitome of
all that it means to be an artist and a teacher.'
Yet Mack also was an artist who could look whimsically on life
in the fast oboe lane while taking his art seriously.
'If you're going to play the oboe, you have to have elementary
bravery, or you're in big trouble,' he said in 2001. 'Some of
them are nutty, wild and unreasonable. I call myself a quintessential
Cleveland Orchestra player - orthodox, but zippy, and nonwacko.
I hate wacko.'