Billings oboist, friends work to revive forgotten composer


EdenHill Photography

Marilyn Cole, left, plays in the Reeds Amis trio with Angela Shankar, clarinet, middle, and Melissa Kritzer, bassoon.

Marilyn Cole is trying to get to Japan to pay tribute to a forgotten French composer.

Cole is a 2002 graduate of Billings Senior High School who is now a professional musician in New York City. She belongs to a reed trio that has been invited to the International Double Reed (referring to oboes and bassoons) Society Conference in Tokyo this August.

There they are to give a presentation on and play the music of Fernande Decruck, who flourished in the 1930s and ’40s but never had a chance to publish most of her works.

Cole and her musical collaborators hope their appearance in Tokyo will be the first step in restoring Decruck to what they say is “her rightful place in history.” They are also planning to go into the studio to record their performances of the French composer’s works.

“It’s definitely an honor and it’s a little nerve-wracking because we have this music and we know other people are going to want it,” Cole said. “This will be the recording that future generations will be listening to to hear how it sounds.”

The trio is using Indiegogo, the crowd-funding website, to raise money for the trip to Japan, the recording sessions, and the printing and distribution of CDs. As of Monday evening, they had raised $8,776, or 64 percent of their goal of $13,760.

“This is where oboists and bassoon players come together for a week and go through exactly these types of things,” Cole said of the Tokyo conference. “This is a perfect way to showcase this music.”

Cole, an oboist, plays in the Reeds Amis trio with Melissa Kritzer, bassoon, and Angela Shankar, clarinet. The three are friends who all play with the Chelsea Symphony in New York, and they formed the trio about a year ago, partly with the goal of promoting the work of female composers.

The co-conductor of the Chelsea Symphony, Matt Aubin, discovered Decruck when he was chairing a competition and listened to a performance of her Sonata in C sharp minor for saxophone. He said he had never heard of Decruck before, “but I thought the music was beautiful.”

Off and on for three years, he tried to learn more about Decruck and her music, but he could find little besides a few other saxophone compositions. He did find an article in French, which he had translated, that told how Decruck had been commissioned by many of the best musicians in France to write music for them.

Eventually he got in touch with the two surviving children of Decruck, and in 2013 he met her son, Alain, who had all her original scores in boxes. Aubin spent much of the summer of 2013 going through those boxes and using his iPad to scan as many of the compositions as possible.

He said there are about 90 pieces, ranging from solo works to full-orchestra pieces, and among them there are six pieces for reed trio, commissioned by the most famous woodwind players in France at the time.


Fernande Decruck was a prolific French composer in the 1930s and ’40s, but few of her works have been published or recorded.

It was those he took to the Reeds Amis trio. For one thing, he knew Cole and the other two members were interested in evangelizing on behalf of female composers. For another, he figured it would be cheaper and easier to perform and record some of the trio pieces, rather than trying to assemble a full orchestra and work out the unfamiliar compositions.

“It’s been fantastic,” Aubin said in an interview. “I feel very proud, and I feel like I’m really doing a service for the family.”

He said Decruck fell into obscurity for several reasons. Having performed and composed successfully in France and the United States, she divorced her husband, an accomplished saxophone player, and returned to France to raise her third child by herself under difficult circumstances.

She also suffered a series of strokes beginning at the age of 56, and she died before being able to have much of her music published.

Cole said her trio is thrilled at the prospect of introducing Decruck’s music to an audience of their peers in Tokyo, and just as thrilled about performing the music in France, for members of Decruck’s family, perhaps as soon as next year.

Cole said she started out on the clarinet during a band program in the summer before fifth grade at Rose Park Elementary School. Because she took to it so enthusiastically, learning all the fundamentals in the summer, the band teacher at Rose, Mary Davis, suggested to her parents that she take up oboe, to avoid being bored with first-year band.

“Being an oboe player herself, she knew what a challenge that would be,” Cole said.

She continued playing the oboe at Lewis and Clark Middle School and Senior High, and also played with the Billings Community Band and the Billings Symphony. She earned a degree in oboe performance and music education from the University of Montana, then spent a semester in Germany, teaching at the Frankfurt International School, and another semester teaching in Seattle.

She later earned a master’s degree in music from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and she now performs and gives private piano and oboe lessons. She has played with numerous groups in New York, where she moved in 2009, and is currently working as a substitute oboist in two Broadway shows, “Les Miserables” and “Wicked.”

One person is hired to play each instrument for eight shows a week year-round, she said, so the substitute’s job is to fill in when that performer needs time off—or, in some cases, if there is an emergency as mundane as snarled traffic.

“It can be as quick as an hour’s notice before the performance,” Cole said. “I’ll drop everything and run over there to do the show.”

Cole is doing great things, but she comes across as self-effacing and down to earth. Asked how to pronounce Fernande Decruck’s name, she advised trying to do so phonetically, and as simply as possible.

“We tried pronouncing it with our French accents for a while,” she said, “but we felt too foolish.”


Go here to read more about the Indiegogo campaign, and all the swag you’ll get for contributing to the trio’s project. To learn more about the Reeds Amis trio, and to listen to them playing some of Decruck’s music, go here.

You can also visit Cole’s own website. And if you are unable to donate online or are uncomfortable doing so, you can mail a donation to Cole’s parents, Bill and Carrie Cole, 1842 Ave. E, Billings, 59102.

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