Principal Oboe William Welter prepares for a concerto by Bach, his favorite composer

CSO Principal Oboe William Welter backstage at his first concerto performance with the CSO: Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major, K. 214, conducted by Dame Jane Glover, Mar. 17-19, 2022.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

By the time William Welter auditioned for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal oboe position in early 2018, he had already participated in other tryouts with smaller orchestras, so he was not optimistic about his chances with one of the world’s premier ensembles. “I had zero expectations of even advancing,” he said.

That mindset took the pressure off him, and he was able to just relax during his audition. Then, an odd thing happened. He kept advancing and advancing. “When things kept going well, I wasn’t believing it,” he said. By the time the process was over, he was named as the orchestra’s new principal oboe at age 24, becoming its youngest member at the time and the youngest in that role ever.

Six years later, Welter will serve as soloist for the second time with the orchestra, joining Concertmaster and leader Robert Chen March 28 and 29 and April 2 for a program focused on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his second surviving son, C.P.E. Bach. The oboist is looking forward to teaming up with Chen in J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, BWV 1060.

“Robert is just one of the great concertmasters in the world,” Welter said, “and I’ve played in the orchestra accompanying him in Mozart violin concertos and other projects, and to have the privilege to stand up there with him and share this musical offering will just be wonderful.”

CSO Principal Oboe William Welter performing Mozart’s Oboe Concerto in C major, K. 214, Mar. 19, 2022.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Bach is Welter’s favorite composer, and this double concerto is the work that induced him to take up the oboe shortly before he went into the sixth grade (more on that later). But in a fascinating confluence of events, it was Chen who chose this composition for the program, a selection that the oboist wholeheartedly embraced. 

The original manuscript for this concerto has been lost, so this work has been adapted from a later version for two harpsichords. Musicologists are pretty sure the piece was originally written for violin and oboe, because the solo parts so closely fit the range of the two instruments. According to Welter, Bach was inspired by the exceptional oboe playing he heard while living and working in Leipzig, Germany, and he wrote more solo music for the oboe than any other composer and often paired the human voice with the instrument in his cantatas and arias. “I think he considered the oboe to be the closest thing to the human voice,” the oboist said. And indeed, he pointed out, this work has many similarities with an aria, especially the second movement “The oboe and the violin take turns serenading the audience, with a very sparse pizzicato accompaniment in the orchestra,” he said.  

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Welter moved with his family when he was 2 or 3 to Crescent, a small, nearby town across the state line in Iowa. He began studying the violin when he was 4, but as much as he loved the instrument, it never felt completely comfortable to him. When he was about to enter middle school, he got a copy of Hilary Hahn’s 2003 album of J.S. Bach’s violin concertos with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He tried to learn the Violin Concerto A minor, a project that did not go well.

Then he heard another selection on the album, the Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C minor, the work he will perform on March 28 and 29 and April 2, and a light went on: “I said, ‘Man, I can’t play like Hilary Hahn on the violin, but maybe I could learn this other instrument. I think the oboe is fantastic.” Welter listened to that performance repeatedly with oboe soloist Allan Vogel and begged his parents to get him an oboe, and he received one for his birthday as he was going into sixth grade. He took lessons with the oboists in the Omaha Symphony, began taking part in his school band and played both oboe and violin with the Omaha Area Youth Orchestras.

Welter quickly realized that the oboe was something he might want to pursue seriously and even focus on as a career. “As soon as I got one and started playing it, it became the only thing that I was interested in doing,” he said. Playing oboe just came naturally to him, unlike the violin, and he enjoyed practicing on the instrument. In addition. Welter liked baroque music, and some of the best music for the oboe was written during that era (ca. 1600-1750). Learning the oboe gave him a good excuse to learn some of those works.

“As soon as I got [an oboe] and started playing it, it became the only thing that I was interested in doing.” — William Welter

As got older, he wanted to find an “atmosphere” where he could really dedicate himself to the oboe. So, it wasn’t surprising that he spent his senior year of high school at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school where he could focus on his music making. Daniel Stolper, a now-deceased oboe professor at Michigan State University, served as his mentor there.

Welter went on to enroll at the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Richard Woodhams, the longtime principal oboe of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was enthralled with recordings that Woodhams had made with the famed ensemble and Riccardo Muti, who served as that orchestra’s music director in 1980-92.

After graduating in 2016, Welter went on to the Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music for his artist’s diploma, a two-year program, studying with Robert Walters, solo English horn with the Cleveland Orchestra. During that time, Welter performed as a guest musician with the Cleveland Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony and New York Philharmonic and as guest principal oboe of the Saint Paul (Minnesota) Chamber Orchestra.

When Welter joined the CSO, he realized he would be able to perform under Muti, the very conductor he had so admired from the Philadelphia Orchestra recordings. The maestro served as the CSO’s music director from 2010–23. “It was absolutely incredible and surreal,” the oboist said. “When I got to Chicago and I was playing in this absolutely incredible, beyond-my-wildest-dreams orchestra with my favorite conductor, you couldn’t beat that.”

But he is quick to admit that making the transition to becoming a full-time professional musician in a top-level orchestra was not easy. “Words cannot describe the intimidation of the first couple of rehearsals,” he said. “I was very nervous, because you sit there and the sounds you are hearing — there is nothing like it.” He had played in other professional orchestras previously but not with the expectation of carrying out the on-going role of principal oboe. “It’s a shock,” he said.

In addition to performing, rehearsing and practicing music, Welter devotes 10-20 hours a week making oboe reeds, which degrade easily and vary with the weather. He makes his reeds from a cane sourced from the south of France. “It needs to be matured, not unlike wine,” he said of a reed, “and then we have these old woodworking-type machines — gougers and sharp knives —that cut out the insides. And, then, to make a good reed you need to have some kind of musical intention behind it. Otherwise, you wind up with something that doesn’t meet your expectations onstage.”

As intimidating as it was for the first couple of months, he loved every minute of his new job, because he was able to learn so much from his musical colleagues and the orchestra’s conductors. “It was just feasting on musical inspiration,” he said. “That’s how it felt.” He describes the musicians in the CSO’s woodwind section as the “utmost, highest caliber,” and they have been encouraging and supportive from the beginning of his tenure.

“I continue,” he said, “to feel very much at home playing in the Chicago Symphony.”

William Welter holds the Nancy and Larry Fuller Principal Oboe Chair.