Archive for January, 2011

My Heckel Bassoon #47xx, on his one-hundredth birthday

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

(This post is a bit belated, but I hope you enjoy it. Boris’ 100th birthday was July 2009.)

A musician’s relationship to her instrument is a unique thing. I often wonder if computer programmers get as attached to their PowerBooks as I am to my bassoon. Especially since I have played this instrument for eighteen of the twenty years I have played bassoon, I feel very strongly that he is responsible for much of my identity as a bassoonist. My sound and my style have been shaped and influenced by him. While I fully acknowledge that my instrument is an inanimate object, he does have expressive powers, and a personality.

The summer I turned sixteen, the school instrument I had been using was stolen. The school was not going to replace it right away, and I was starting Juilliard Pre-College in the fall. So an instrument was needed rather quickly. But buying a bassoon is difficult. Music stores rarely carry them, and buying a brand new instrument can be costly or risky. (How will it “play in”? What will it sound like in two years?) My teacher had met the man trying to sell #47xx a month or so before, and suggested I buy it. However, the owner and instrument had returned to California in the meantime, so I couldn’t really try it myself. I had to take my teacher’s word that it was good. My father, being practical and cautious, decided to fly out to LA with the check, and pick the instrument up himself. At the time, I don’t think I realized what an amazing thing he was doing for me.

When Dad brought it home, it was not what I expected. It was in a horrible case, the joints were banging around inside and it smelled of cigar smoke. It wasn’t shiny or pretty, like all the bassoons I had played before. It felt strange to blow into it (as I now know it is with any foreign instrument). In retrospect, these are the things I now love about this instrument. The lack of finish is why it sounds so beautifully rich and dark. The cigar smell gives him character and history. The little nicks in the wood from banging around in that case are battle scars. Now I can’t imagine playing on a brand new instrument, all perfect looking and shiny.

Heckel #47xx was originally purchased by someone in Boston in July of 1909. (My birthday is also in July. Coincidence?) I don’t know much about its first few decades, but since Boston was opening a new opera house that year, I like to imagine it was purchased by a bassoonist in the opera for his new gig. I bought it from Artie Drelinger, who purchased it from Simon Kovar. Kovar (1890-1970) was the second bassoonist in the NY Philharmonic, and taught almost every major American bassoonist of the 20th century. In fact, if I were to make a “family tree” of my teachers, and their teachers, all branches would lead back to Kovar (in some cases with only one degree of separation.) He also was Drelinger’s teacher. I don’t know if it was Kovar’s instrument, or whether he was selling it for someone else, but it is awe-inspiring to think it passed under his fingers at some point.

Artie Drelinger was a reed doubler, meaning he played most of the reed instruments. He played tenor saxophone in Charlie Parker’s Orchestra, and clarinet and tenor sax with Paul Whiteman’s band (who had premiered Rhapsody in Blue.) He later joined the CBS Studio Orchestra, where he played my bassoon on the Carol Burnett Show. In his retirement, he was running a music store and repair shop. Just after I first contacted him about the instrument, someone else called and offered him more money. He agreed to sell it to me, because he liked that I was a student.

I christened my bassoon “Boris.” All the good bassoon repertoire, as far as I’m concerned, is Russian orchestral music by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. Plus the beat-up, cigar smelling nature of the instrument made me think of tough, weathered, old Russian men who had survived a few nasty winters. I don’t refer to him by name very often, but I do think it fits his personality better than a mere serial number.

Boris has been with me through my entire adult life. In high school, we commuted to New York City to take classes and play at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division in Lincoln Center. Since then we’ve played in Carnegie Hall, Zipper Hall in Los Angeles, and the tent in Aspen. I’ve played him at conferences in New York and Melbourne, Australia. He accompanied me for summers as a student and a faculty member at Kinhaven Music School in Vermont. Together we played a gig at the Hamden, CT Post Office with Carol Channing to inaugurate the Thornton Wilder stamp. We’ve taken lessons from some of the greatest living bassoonists in North America. I think the best moment I ever had with him was in my practice cabin while doing an Artist Residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, Canada. No one heard it but me and the elk outside my window.  I’m looking forward to playing him at a competition in Paris over spring break. It may be his first trip to France!

Boris can be a crotchety old man. His keys stick in humid or dry weather, and his D’s are always sharp. I have to use weird fingerings for a few notes that make other bassoonists think I’m crazy. His 100-year old bocal (the curvy metal mouthpiece) doesn’t work as well as it should, so I’ve replaced it with a newer Heckel bocal that sounds much better. I have added a few keys to make it easier to play the extremely high notes that bassoonists didn’t use very often in 1909. He isn’t perfect, and neither am I. I’m still trying to figure out how to make the best reed for him, and probably still will be in another twenty years. It is rare for any woodwind instrument to last for 100 years, so I’m not sure how much longer he will last, but I hope we will enjoy many more years together. I can’t imagine playing without him, and would hate to have to replace him with a shiny new instrument.