Oboist Thomas Juhasz ‘26 Inspires the Next Generation of Musicians in BPYO and HRO

Photo courtesy of Thomas Juhasz.

Last week, WHRB had the pleasure of sitting down with Thomas Juhasz ‘26, a first-year at Harvard and oboist in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (BPYO) and Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra (HRO). He recently performed in the BPYO 2022-2023 season opener this past Sunday, November 20, in Symphony Hall playing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. Please enjoy our chat together about finding his passion for music and giving back to the next generation of young musicians.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Juhasz.

The transcript below has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

WHRB: How did you first become interested in music?

Thomas: My parents are both amateur musicians, so I grew up hearing my mother play oboe and my father the bassoon. Classical music plays in my house all the time – growing up, I remember spending hours listening and singing along to the classical radio and playing on a little toy piano I had received for my third birthday. After studying piano for four years, the time came to choose an instrument for 5th grade band. For me, it was a very clear choice — I had always loved hearing my mother play the oboe. I remember one particular time when she played the Prelude of Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin in the bedroom, and I was just amazed by how delicate and rich the instrument could be. I begged my mom to allow me to play the oboe. Having spent so much time on the oboe herself, she knew that it could be a very fickle instrument and warned me against playing it, but I was ignorant and stubbornly insisted. Now, I must admit that I completely understand what she was saying – I am so grateful to my mother for supporting me so much along the way; she taught me through 9th grade and was an amazing role model and teacher.

WHRB: Do you still keep up with playing the piano?

Thomas: I still play the piano! While I have to say that oboe is definitely my primary instrument, I took piano lessons all the way through senior year of high school. Piano was a great way to be able to let go of all of the stressful moments of my day and play whatever I found fitting for the moment. It’s wonderful to just sit down at a piano and play a tune. Especially here, it’s amazing how many great pianos there are. I walk into any room, and I see this amazing Steinway piano — I just can’t help but play on it!

Piano is also a very unique instrument in that one can hear all the voices at once, whereas oboe is different in just having one voice. When I started to play in a band – my first experience on oboe – my background in piano really helped me to listen to the other voices; it can be so easy to just get caught up in your little part and forget that you are one note of a chord or one color amongst the whole orchestra or band.

WHRB: As you shared, it seems that your mother was a big role model for you growing up. Did you have other mentors who have similarly shaped your playing and voice?

Thomas: Absolutely, my first music teacher and piano teacher all the way to college, Elissa Putukian, was so formative in the way I approach music; she fostered in me that love for music which I still hold a full 13 years after our first lesson together. As for oboe, after my mother, I studied with Lynn Jacquin, the former head of the woodwind department at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School – she was amazing, being able to detect the aspects in my playing that my mother may not have been able to help me with. Essentially, she broke my playing down and put it back together, all while being one of the most generous people I know.

My current teacher, Andrew Price, has added another angle to my playing; in addition to his selfless persona, he is incredibly knowledgeable in baroque music, and it has been amazing to study pieces of this time period in such great depth.

As for lessons that have stuck with me to this day, I heard this from someone recently: music is a gift, a very personal gift. As a musician, when you’re performing, it’s very easy to be nervous and think of all of the mistakes you could make in a musical passage. But, if you think about the fact that you’re giving something to the audience, the focus suddenly shifts from yourself to others. It turns music into a very unselfish purpose, which has been really amazing and beautiful for me as a musician to realize.

WHRB: How have your experiences playing solo and playing in an orchestra influenced each other?

Thomas: When I’m playing solo, I enjoy the freedom of interpreting a piece of music in any way I want, which has helped me find individuality while I’m playing in an orchestra. Additionally, when I am playing solo, I am in full control of the entire piece and must think about its musical direction; this helps me to think about the overall arc of a piece while playing as just one musician in an orchestra, which helps me to work with others to play together as one soul.

WHRB: Looking back on your career so far, what have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced?

Thomas: When one devotes so much time to their instrument, it’s very easy to start to feel jaded — you might lose a little bit of that love for your instrument you had in the beginning. Ultimately, I should be playing an instrument because I love to do so, so to constantly look back to that time you first picked up your instrument and try to regain that enthusiasm is really helpful.

WHRB: How has being at Harvard helped you continue your passions for music?

Thomas: I’m a first-year, so I’ve been here for just over two months now, but even during my short time here, I've been privileged to experience the exceptionally high caliber of musicianship present on campus.

As a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, it has been incredible as we really have some of the best musicians in the world here. Entering Harvard, something I was really excited about was the opportunity to meet others equally devoted to music. Now having them as friends has been not only fulfilling for me on my life journey, but also beneficial for the audience; as we know each other so well, we can really pull the best out of each other during our music making and deliver music to the audience in our best way possible.

Of course, it has also been exciting to go to all the other musical events I’m not part of at Harvard, whether it’s an orchestra or other genres of music. We have a lot to learn from our peers!

WHRB: Have you had any particularly memorable moments here at Harvard?

Thomas: The last concert we had for HRO was particularly meaningful, not only because it was my first concert in the orchestra, but also because we played Mahler Symphony No. 5. Mahler holds a very special place in my heart. It possesses a unique depth that really helps me to order my day, so to be able to have this piece in my first concert here at Harvard was just so fitting.

WHRB: What have you learned about yourself so far in being at Harvard and playing in HRO?

Thomas: Because everyone in HRO is so talented, the first rehearsal was a lot better than I had expected, and it’s just been interesting to see how we progress if we start at that level. In other orchestras, you might not start off quite together, but you will see a huge difference by the end. Here in HRO, because our technicality is already fairly strong from the start, we focus on musicianship and more nuanced elements, which may result in a smaller difference from the first rehearsal but is really what separates a good orchestra from an excellent orchestra.

WHRB: Are you thinking of venturing into other genres of music or ensembles here at Harvard?

Thomas: I really look up to jazz players. In classical music, it is easy to just stick to the notes – the closest we have to jazz is the cadenza. In watching a trumpet player or really any other jazz musician improvising, I am so impressed by the soul and spontaneity in the playing. I’m hoping to possibly branch out and do jazz piano or something similar, but we’ll see where I end up going!

WHRB: Turning to your involvement with the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, tell me about your journey with the group so far!

Thomas: I grew up in the Boston area, so since the orchestra’s founding in 2012, I always had it in my head that I wanted to someday play with the BPYO. I remember attending one of their concerts during the inaugural season in which they played Mahler Symphony No. 2, and I was just blown away.

When I was fourteen years old, I auditioned, and I was so honored to be selected as the youngest oboe player. As a result, there was a big age gap between me and the other players in the wind section, but I was really appreciative of the fact that everybody really took me under their wing and were so supportive and warm.

I remember being on tour for the first time in 2019, when we went to Brazil, during which other oboists would just invite me to come to their room to chat or play together. It was such a formative experience, and now that I’m in college, it’s exciting for me to strive to do the same for the younger players in the orchestra.

WHRB: That’s lovely to hear that you’re giving back as a mentor now. Because you’ve been in the orchestra for a while, how have you seen it evolve or shift, if at all?

Thomas: The orchestra really depends on its players you have that particular year. Sometimes, you might have an amazing trumpet player, and other times, an amazing solo violinist. I remember in 2017 and 2018 there was an amazing trumpet in the orchestra, so we played pieces which involved a lot of trumpet; now that we have an incredible concertmaster, we’re playing Ein Heldenleben, which has a huge violin solo in it.

WHRB: Looking beyond college, how do you hope to continue with oboe or music in general?

Thomas: Ever since I was little, I always had this idea in my head to become a professional musician, so I’m toying with the idea of auditioning to some music graduate schools. Regardless of whether or not I end up in music, I will continue playing music as much as I can. I will absolutely continue playing with local orchestras or start chamber groups. It’s just such an integral part of my life.

WHRB: What are you most excited for about the concert coming up?

Thomas: On Sunday, November 20th, we’ll be playing our first concert of the season -- Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben -- in Symphony Hall. What’s interesting is that each of these pieces usually acts as the final piece of the program, so I like to say that you’re getting a double concert! As different as these pieces seem, however, it is interesting that Ein Heldenleben, which is called ‘Hero’s Life,’ was actually inspired by Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica, which is hero as well). As a result, you’ll probably be able to hear hints of the symphony each relating to each other!

Speaking for this coming season overall, I’m super excited for Mahler’s Second Symphony, especially as that was my first introduction to BPYO, and now, to be able to play it with the orchestra, it is incredible. It’s probably my favorite piece of all time in the classical realm.

WHRB: Are there any parting words of advice you would like to share with young musicians out there?

Thomas: It’s very easy to get discouraged when you’re practicing. You might spend an hour each day and feel like you’re not improving at all. What I’ve experienced, though, is that improvement with music is not linear. I will spend months when nothing happens, but then one day suddenly everything will click and my playing skyrockets. As long as you continue practicing consistently, you are all set and will definitely improve!

WHRB: Anything else to share with our listeners?

Thomas: Overall, I just want to thank everyone who is so supportive of the classical music world. Especially right now, it could use a bit of a revival, and I’m so thankful for HRO, BPYO, and all the other experiences I’ve been a part of in classical music. It’s just incredible to have all of this support.

// Felicia Ho ‘23 is a producer for the Classical Music Department and the Director of Online Content for Classical Music.