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Florida Orchestra principal oboe John Upton takes the lead in Mozart concerto

John Upton, Florida Orchestra’s principal oboist, center, rehearses with the orchestra at the Mahaffey Theater in  St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
John Upton, Florida Orchestra’s principal oboist, center, rehearses with the orchestra at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jan. 23, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — John Upton wondered if Michael Francis would remember him.

The young oboist and the music director of the Florida Orchestra had met just a few months earlier. Upton was playing principal oboe for Miami's New World Symphony, a training ensemble for young musicians. Francis had told the young oboist he had promise, and to stay in Miami for a few more years working on his craft.

A few months later, Upton heard the news. The Florida Orchestra was looking for a principal oboe. It would be a blind audition, in which musicians play from behind a partition. Francis likes it that way since it helps him focus only on sound. Upton hoped that would be enough.

"I remember thinking, 'Is Michael going to recognize me and think, 'He needs a few more years'?"

Instead, Upton's blind audition impressed the music director.

"It was a clear he was a fantastic musician," Francis said, "but also that he had the potential to go much further."

Now Upton, 26, is one of the orchestra's most recognizable faces. As principal, he handles brief solo interludes written for the oboe, often in support of a visiting violinist or pianist. This weekend it's his turn to shine.

Upton will stand by conductor Stuart Malina to play Mozart's Oboe Concerto, which shows off the instrument's expressiveness and versatility.

Upton grew up in Lake Orion, a Detroit suburb. Neither of his parents are musicians. At the start of his fifth grade band class, he chose the oboe as his instrument because he thought it was a bassoon.

"They just gave me a reed," Upton said. "I still hadn't actually seen the instrument. And they said, 'Oh, great, you can make a sound on the reed, you have to play the oboe.' And when all the instruments came in, they gave me a tiny little case and I said, 'No, I want to play the big instrument.' I was not happy."

At 19, in his sophomore year at Eastman School of Music, he won a position in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He went on to earn a master's degree at the Juilliard School.

Upton lives in St. Petersburg with partner Evan Epifanio, a bassoonist for the Sarasota Orchestra. They spend spare time each week making reeds for their instruments, which can easily dry out or warp, while watching Netflix. Having a steady supply of reliable reeds keeps him from worrying about the next concert, in which he plays an especially critical role.

"The oboe is the orchestra leader of the wind instruments, in the highest echelon of importance," Francis said. "There is something in that plangent sound that speaks to the soul."

For Upton, it's the music itself.

"The music the oboe gets to play is what I really like about it," he said. "Whenever there's a love scene in the music or something more somber, there always seems to be an oboe solo."

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Mozart's wrote the concerto in 1777, the peak of the classical era, when the number of solo pieces for other instruments passed those written for the violin. As a child, Upton had always loved the first and third movements, but not so much the slower and more meditative second movement.

"I don't think I understood slower music, the beautiful emotional music," Upton said. "Now it's just shifted. I live for the beautiful oboe solos. The fast, flashy stuff, take it or leave it. Anyone can do that stuff if you practice hard enough."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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