mcclainFormer Tafelmusik oboist Washington McClain died suddenly and unexpectedly at his home in Windsor, Ont on Feb. 24. He was 52.

McClain was one of the pioneers in historically informed practice on the oboe and principal oboe with Toronto’s Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra through the 1990s. He played with the orchestra during the 1991-92 season and became a core member of the ensemble the following year.

As a longtime teacher, his influence reached out in some way to just about every period oboe performer in North America.

The graduate of Northeast Louisiana University and Northwestern University was until his death teaching at Indiana University’s Early Music Institute in Bloomington. He was also principal oboe with Montreal’s Ensemble Arion and Apollo’s Fire, and was in demand as a baroque oboe guest with period-instrument orchestras across the continent.

Reached in Montreal this morning, bassoonist, conductor and Ensemble Arion colleague Matthieu Lussier said that McClain had been suffering from some unusual health problems in the last few weeks, including Bell’s palsy, a viral ailment that had temporarily left the oboist unable to provide fine control over the muscles around his mouth.

Lussier said that next week’s Ensemble Arion concerts will likely be dedicated to McClain’s memory. “He was so generous, so sincere, you can’t just say, oh well…”

After leaving Tafelmusik for Ensemble Arion at the end of 1998-99 season, McClain had gone to live in Montreal for several years, where he left a deep impression.

Lussier said that the oboist was gregarious and made friends wherever he went — including customs officers at the airports where he travelled most frequently. “But he looked for real contact, not just small talk,” added the bassoonist.

Although there probably isn’t a colleague or audience member who wasn’t struck by McClain’s natural warmth and fine musicianship, he appears to have been an intensely private individual.

Lussier said he and McClain had spent many months of their lives together on tour. During one trip to Japan, they were roommates for three weeks. “Wash told me about his life, which was a miracle,” recalled Lussier. “He could have ended up in prison, but somehow ended up playing baroque oboe. He was the sweetest guy with the roughest childhood. It says something about his force of character and determination.”

“There are so many fond memories,” Tafelmusik music director Jeanne Lamon wrote in an email. “A very special one was when we were on tour in Athens performing at the Odeon theatre on the Acropolis. Wash spoke to the audience in fluent Greek, being the only one amongst us who knew any Greek, and the looks on their faces were priceless. ‘Surprise’ doesn’t even begin to describe it!”

UPDATE: The Windsor Star carried a death notice on March 2 that stated funeral arrangements had not yet been finalised, and to contact Families First funeral home in Windsor for more information.

UPDATE: Matthieu Lussier has posted this great little YouTube clip of McClain playing Bach, in his memory:

John Terauds

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21 Responses to Sudden death of former Tafelmusik oboist and period-performance teacher Washington McClain

  1. Oh, Wash! What a shock and both a musical and personal loss… doesn’t matter if I haven’t worked with or seen him in years: the world is the poorer today.

  2. This is a terrible shock. I only had one artistic experience with Washington, a series of concerts and a recording of Handel and Hasse with Arion in 2003. I will never forget Wash’s impeccable musicianship and artistry, but more than anything, it is his kindness and humanity that struck me. He was so generous and warm, so reassuring, calm and sensitive. What a terrible loss to the musical community.

  3. So sad to hear this news. So many fond memories! Wash was truly one of a kind – a wonderful human being and an amazing musician. He will be missed!

  4. Very sad news. Wash was a beautiful player and a gentle man full of integrity and warmth.

  5. Quelle choc et quelle triste nouvelle!

  6. Bruce Fowler says:

    I grew up with Wash in West Monroe, Louisiana where we worked together in the band and choir. We continued as close friends at Northeast Louisiana University before my transfer away. He was as dear a person as I have ever known, always thankless, self-effacing with that extraordinary talent and just simply a kind person. He will be missed by everyone with whom he touched in any way. Rest in peace, Wash.

  7. Meredith Hall says:

    Hearing this sad news I realize that just sharing space with Washington McClain was a blessing . His warmth, tenderness and gentility came across whether in performance, conversation or just a look or hello. I had the good fortune to perform Purcell’s “Halcyon Days” with Wash and I now pray for him “Halcyon Days, now wars are ending, you shall find where e’er you sail. Tritons all the while attending with a kind and gentle gale”. Certainly I cannot imagine a better citizen of Heaven.

  8. Teri Dunn says:

    I will miss this extraordinary musician and wonderful human being. My times singing with Wash count as some of the most wonderful musical experiences I can recall. He was a warm and generous musician, and a warm and generous person.

  9. Larry Rosenwald says:

    Oh, how awful – I can hear him as I write, all that elegance of tone and phrasing, and I remember in particular what he was like directing the band last summer at Amherst Early Music for the Sondershausen Singballet, how unflappable he was in the middle of chaotic rehearsals, and how he communicated to the band members, even without playing, some of this elegance and precision.

  10. Deion Thomason Hemphill says:

    Wash and I were in high school band at the same time. He was a gifted musician and a friend to all who met him.

  11. Curtis Streetman says:

    Sounds trite, but Wash was one of those guys that always made the job better: through his tone and phrasing, and his genuine, infectious uncanny ability to always have positive energy. “Et in Spiritum” now has a deeper, personal connotation for me.

  12. Fran Johnson says:

    I am so sorry for this loss! We had just found eachother on fb a couple of years ago…. I so enjoyed being in choir with him during high school…. I so loved me some Wash! He was a great guy and great friend….. Much sympathy and prayers for his family.. Love you Wash!

  13. Anastasia Cwiklinski says:

    Wash was my God Father and although we didnt always keep in contact i hold him very dear to my heart. when i was younger i even took up the oboe because of him. So full of talent so kind and loving. Rest in peace and may your memory be eternal.

    -Anya

  14. Melody Cook Kirkwood says:

    The worls morns today for tge loss of such a great person. I haven’seen Wash in many years, but he was so kind to me while we attended Northeast. God Bless you Wash!

  15. Melissa Duchak says:

    A wonderful oboist and a lovely spirit.

  16. DeeDee says:

    Though the years has seperated us as we go our way, we never forget those we love. Heaven has gain another angel. Can you hear the trumpets blowing loudly, as our dear beloved brother enter into the gates. Glory to Our Father that take care of our precious ones. You will always be in our memories and in our hearts. It’s never goodbye, It’s I’ll see you soon. Walk proud my beloved brother your crown awaits.

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