This season marks Judith LeClair's 25th anniversary as the New York Philharmonic's Principal Bassoon. Her performances this month as soloist in Carl Maria von Weber's rarely played Bassoon Concerto provide an irresistible opportunity to explore an instrument with which many music lovers may have only a passing acquaintance.
Of her instrument's ensemble role, Ms. LeClair has said: "In orchestral music the bassoon sometimes is asked to play a comic 'character role,' and sometimes it plays a more soulful, melodic part." Composers who she feels have written particularly well for it include "Britten and Ravel. Mozart wrote beautiful bassoon lines, and Beethoven, too. I like to cultivate the gorgeously lyrical sound it's capable of, and you find that a lot in Shostakovich and Stravinsky."
Ms. LeClair fell in love with her instrument at an early age: "I started studying it when I was 11, and I knew right away that playing the bassoon was what I wanted to do in life. Even when I was in high school I loved to practice." She must have practiced plenty because following conservatory studies at the Eastman School of Music and a brief stint with the San Diego Symphony, she achieved her present position at the age of only 23.
When asked about whether there are temperamental features generally shared by bassoonists, she smiles: "Oh, bassoonists are great. They're pretty mellow, not too high-strung. They like to have fun; you've got to have a sense of humor if you play this instrument."
While hardly comical, the work Ms. LeClair performs as soloist this month is, in her words, "a wonderful piece of lighter music; a wonderful piece of fluff, you might say. It shows off the technical brilliance of the instrument, in a very musical way. And the slow movement is like an opera aria with a beautiful lyric line."
James M. Keller is the Program Annotator for the New York Philharmonic.