by Mike Telin
It was a grand night for the bassoon last evening (Saturday, January 16) when five outstanding judges and clinicians from the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Bassoon Competition and Symposium came together to perform the second of three Joint Recitals of the weekend in Warner Concert Hall at the Oberlin Conservatory.
In general, the programming of bassoon recitals is problematic. Keeping the audience musically engaged for 90 minutes is not an easy task, however these five soloists chose works ranging from the unknown to staples of the bassoon repertoire, as well as transcriptions that brought out each individual performer’s unique personality and playing style. This, in addition to some brilliant programming co-ordination from Oberlin Professor of Bassoon George Sakakeeny, proved that a bassoon recital is able to provide audiences with a musically magical listening experience.
First up was Francine Peterson, principal bassoonist of the Northwest Sinfonietta and the Bellevue Auburn Symphony (Washington), treating us to two movements of an unknown work for solo bassoon, Fantasie Numerica Sonata (1960) by Nicholas Van Slyck, a student of Walter Piston. Francine used her great sense of humor as she told us about how she found the piece in the Bargain Bin of a music store for $1 and later discovered that it is a “little gem”, and I agree. While Van Slyck may never become a household name, he clearly has something musically to say and obviously understands how to write for the bassoon. The two movements lyrically explored the range of the instrument and offered enough rhythmic nuance for interest while never verging on becoming math music. Ms. Peterson possesses a beautiful, expressive sound and she performed both movements with great control and shaping of the line. All in all, this was a dollar well spent.
Second on the program was Leonardo Deán of the Simon Bolivar Orchestra A (Caracas, Venezuela) interpreting two works written in the 1970’s: Valsa-Choro (1979) of Francisco Migone for bassoon alone and Interfaces I pour bassoon et piano (1972) of Roger Boutry. In addition to having a large beautiful tone, Mr. Dean is a musician with extraordinary technical ability who can make even the most difficult passages sound effortless. He performed the Migone, a lyrical piece, with complete physical control, often producing sounds of silk especially in the upper register. Before beginning the Bourty, he offered a brief overview of El Sistema, the musical program in Venezuela that has been receiving a lot of worldwide attention in recent years. The Boutry is considered by many bassoonists to be one of, if not the most difficult pieces in the literature. This rhythmically complex piece requires a performer to have nimble dexterity from the very lowest note of the instrument’ss register through to the very top. Yes, the piece does have a high F (for non-bassoonists, that’s really high). Pianist James Howsmon proved himself to be the perfect collaborator for Mr. Dean, bringing out the underlying rhythms with strength, while never covering his musical partner.
The last performer before intermission was Monica Ellis, bassoonist with the Imani Winds. Ms. Ellis possesses an enormous musical and technical ability as well as a personal charisma that is evident from the moment that she enters the stage. She also has a way of making you feel as though you have received a personal invitation to sit next to her while she performs. Ms. Ellis’ two musical choices, Lauro for Bassoon Solo by Antoino Lauro, the Waltz King of Venezuela, and the Prelude et Scherzo of Paul Jeanjean, were perfect choices, allowing for her to show off her beautiful singing quality along with an innate ability to change tonal colors in the middle of even the fastest technical passages, of which there were plenty, especially in the Jeanjean. Once again, James Howsmon was a fantastic collaborator.
After intermission, Julie Green Gregorian, assistant principal of the Baltimore Symphony took the stage, and informed us that her section of the program was ‘brought to you by the letter V” with works by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Six Studies in English Folk Song), and Hector Villa-Lobos (Ciranda Das Sete Notas), in which she partnered with pianist Vincent DeVries. It was a complete pleasure to hear Ms. Green Gregorian’s musical selections, especially at a point in the evening when one’s ear could easily have begun to tire had she chosen more of the pyrotechnical music that dominated much of the first half. While the Vaughan Williams is a well-known work, this was the first time I have heard it arranged for bassoon and piano and it really does work for this combination. She performed the six short selections with a beautiful expressive sound. In the Villa-Lobos she offered a very thoughtful performance bringing out the lyrical qualities of the piece and handling rhythmic complexities with ease while providing an overall beauty that left one wondering why this piece is not performed more often.
The final work of the evening was Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango for 2 bassoons and piano arranged by George Sakakeeny, who also performed it with Monica Ellis and pianist Vincent DeVries. The piece was originally written for the great Argentine cellist José Bragato. Mr. Sakakeeny’s arrangement is expertly crafted and truly captures the full emotion of the piece. The three performers gave an energetic performance of the work playing off of each others’ lines in a seamless fashion. Mr. Sakakeeny and Ms. Ellis wowed us with their precise execution of the long octave unison and rhythmically complex passages. This was the perfect piece to end a thoroughly enjoyable evening of music, and the very large audience responded accordingly by giving the three performers a well-deserved standing ovation.
This was not only an evening of great music making but also one which marked the coming together of bassoonists from across the Americas. It was fun to see Professor Sakakeeny and his 20 plus students on stage for a group photo, and Co-Director Kristin Wolfe-Jensen made a special tribute to Kenneth Moore, the long time professor of bassoon at Oberlin, who was spotted sitting in his accustomed seat at the back of Warner Hall. Moore was responsible for the careers of many bassoonists around the world including Kristin and myself, and his presence tonight was both an example of the camaraderie that exists between the players of this remarkable instrument and the lineage of teachers that keep its traditions alive for future generations.