Orchestra Close-Up: The New York Philharmonic Bassoons

Classic Arts Features   Orchestra Close-Up: The New York Philharmonic Bassoons
 
The foursome who constitute the Philharmonic's bassoon section have embraced the complicated and cumbersome instrument with a passion.


Judith LeClair and Kim Laskowski fell in love with the bassoon at age 11; Roger Nye was in junior high school and Arlen Fast was in high school when they took it up.

"We are the foundation of the woodwind section‹the link between the lower and upper strings and the winds," explains Ms. LeClair, the Philharmonic's Principal. "If we were not playing, the woodwind section would fall apart. We add color and texture." "The bassoon can fill so many functions‹very high and very low," notes Ms. Laskowski, the Associate Principal. Mr. Nye enjoys the comic potential of the instrument, but adds that "The bassoon often represents melancholy. Quite often we are monks, as in Richard Strauss's Don Quixote, or priests and pilgrims. I call it the eunuch of instruments!"

One of the oldest members of the woodwind section, the bassoon was employed as far back as the 17th century. While many of its notes are not heard clearly above the louder orchestral sections, it figures prominently in numerous works, including Beethoven's Fourth Symphony (which will be played in Central Park on July 15, led by Music Director Designate Alan Gilbert); Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring; Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice; Ravel's Bol_ro; the symphonies of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky; anything by Mozart; and, of course, Prokofiev's familiar Peter and the Wolf, in which the instrument represents grumpy, over-protective Grandpa. "In different registers the bassoon produces very different sounds," says Mr. Fast, who plays both bassoon and contrabassoon in the Philharmonic. He has, in fact, redesigned the lower instrument to make it more responsive and agile in meeting the challenges of modern orchestras.

The challenges of both the "contra" and the bassoon are mighty. For starters, the bassoon weighs between 12 and 14 pounds (the contra is even heavier), depending on the number of keys. (To keep in shape, Ms. LeClair swims, Mr. Nye lifts weights, Mr. Fast bikes, and Ms. Laskowski "walks the dog.") The bassoon's fingering is complex, often requiring complicated hand configurations, with nine keys for the left thumb, and four to six with the right thumb. It also requires a double reed‹two pieces of cane that vibrate against each other‹each one tailored to an individual work and crafted meticulously by its player in a labor-intensive process that takes numerous hours out of every day. The bassoonists estimate that the section as a whole makes between 200 and 250 reeds a year‹and plays on about 60 of them. The remainder are relegated to the dustbin.

The challenges of the instrument, of course, transcend the physical. "You have to project your sound but also be able to play pianissimo entrances," notes Ms. Laskowski. "You have to try to make it sound smooth and elegant, not like you're moving furniture!" adds Ms. LeClair. "You have to blend, play in tune, and have a good ear."

Each member of the section works hard to achieve these nuances, and each has a different role. Ms. LeClair, who joined the Philharmonic in 1981 as Principal, and who is known affectionately by her troops as the "den mother," plays most of the solos, in addition to undertaking the administrative work for the section. Associate Principal Kim Laskowski, who arrived in 2002, plays a certain percentage of the principal parts‹about 40 to 50 percent of stage time. She also plays third bassoon in big works, and sometimes second. "My role is utility," she explains. "And if something happens, I have to be able to go on at a moment's notice." Roger Nye, who joined the Orchestra in 2005, plays second bassoon and as such is the foundation for the bassoon and wind sections in addition to having to "keep good track of my pitch‹otherwise there could be disasters." Arlen Fast has been with the Orchestra since 1996, and occasionally plays both the bassoon and the contrabassoon in the course of a single work.

Despite their disparate arrivals at the Philharmonic, the bassoonists share some common history. Ms. LeClair and Mr. Fast played together in the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera from 1979-81; Ms. LeClair and Ms. Laskowski performed together in Spoleto, Italy, in 1977; Mr. Nye studied with the teachers of Ms. LeClair and Mr. Fast; and Ms. Laskowski studied with former Philhar-monic Principal Bassoon Harold Goltzer, all of which, says Ms. LeClair, produces "a common understanding of musical things and sound." Mr. Fast notes that, "When new players come in, there is always an adjustment. Now, in our section, we have something I really cherish‹a common understanding of what we want to produce." Ms. Laskowski sums up the joys and challenges of being a member of the Philharmonic's bassoon section: "It's pretty exciting!"


Lucy Kraus is Senior Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.

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