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: