St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2019

The oboist: Jelena Dirks ’96

You could argue that Jelena Dirks ’96 was destined to become a professional musician. Her father was a cellist. Her mother played viola and violin. And her mother’s mother was a pianist, cellist, singer, organist, and choral director. All three spent a portion of their careers with the San Diego Symphony.

“Ours was a family deeply steeped in music,” Dirks says.

Jelena Dirks ’96 is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal oboist.

Given that background, it’s perhaps not surprising that Dirks started on her first instrument (violin) at age three. But today, her primary instrument is a double reed: Dirks is the principal oboist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“When I was 10 years old, one of my parents’ friends who was an oboist jokingly had me make an oboe embouchure and said I’d make a perfect oboist. After that, I begged my parents for an oboe,” she recalls. “I’m not even really sure I knew exactly what it was at the time, but it didn’t matter. I was so taken with her and with the fact that I might make a perfect oboist.”

Dirks played both oboe and piano while in high school. Her search for a college where she could continue her musical education but also engage in other kinds of study eventually led her to St. Olaf.

“I didn’t want a large school; I wanted a small school. I visited St. Olaf, and it was like I had come home,” says Dirks, a San Diego native. “The only question was what instrument was I going to play? I was accepted on either one, but they said, ‘You have to choose.’ I decided on a piano major.”

I didn’t want a large school; I wanted a small school. I visited St. Olaf, and it was like I had come home.

She studied with Music Professor DeWayne Wee, an experience that fully met her expectations. “It was wonderful,” she says. “I played a lot with singers, and I wanted to be a vocal coach. I still love art songs. I was traveling down that path, and I thought, ‘This is my fate. I love it.'”

But her senior year, fate threw her a curve ball. Eiji Oue, the conductor of the Minnesota Orchestra, came to St. Olaf to conduct the St. Olaf Orchestra in a performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 1, with Dirks playing principal oboe. “He was so encouraging. Something about playing that piece and how encouraging he was made me do a complete 180. I decided I wanted to become a professional oboist.”

Powell Hall, a 1925 theater in mid-town St. Louis, is home to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Post-graduation, Dirks pursued a master’s degree at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and eventually landed a spot in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, where she worked with such musical greats as Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, and Wynton Marsalis, among others. The Civic Orchestra also acts as a feeder program for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and when a one-year post opened up, Dirks was invited to audition for it.

“I got the job and spent five years playing with them. I was what was called a ‘permanent substitute,'” she says with a laugh.

In the end, however, the permanent position was awarded to another oboist. Dirks wondered if she should pursue a different career path. She and her husband discussed moving to California so that he could purse his interest in wine making. But the longer Dirks was away from an orchestra, the more she missed it. “They say sometimes you don’t realize how much you love something until you don’t have it anymore, and I’d say that was very true for me,” she says. “I realized that that’s what I wanted to do.”

“I’ve lost track of how many auditions I took before I finally won one.”

So when a position at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra opened up, Dirks applied. “I’ve lost track of how many auditions I took before I finally won one,” Dirks recalls. “I think there were 90 players that went for the job here in St. Louis. I sort of had this feeling like all the stars had to align, your reed had to be just right, and everything had to just be in order to get the chair.” But she clinched it: at age 39, she became — like her parents and grandmother years before —an official member of an orchestra.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra currently has more female principals, including Dirks, than any other major American orchestra. “I don’t feel any different being a woman, which I think is an absolutely wonderful thing, and I feel very blessed with that,” she says. “Some of the stories my mother and my grandmother told me are very interesting and shocking. My mom talks about how when she first got into the San Diego Symphony, all the women had to sit on the inside with their hair up so that they’d look like they were men. The women were hidden from view, which just I found absolutely shocking.”

“I really appreciate the fact that St. Olaf takes care of the whole person. It makes life richer.”

Dirks doesn’t have much time for activities outside the orchestra, but she does enjoy gardening and restoring an old historic home with her husband. Such activities add balance to her life, she says, something she appreciates.

“I went to St. Olaf because I wanted an education that was well-rounded,” she says. “I wanted to take language classes and history classes and religion classes. Looking back on it, I really appreciate the fact that St. Olaf takes care of the whole person. It makes life richer.”