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Saxophone of the 18th Century – Peter Whelan and the Bassoon

Fri Mar 4 2016

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Here at the OAE, we’re known for working with the best performers to bring you the most vivid and authentic historically informed performances we can. Therefore, news of us working on a brand new commission might turn a few heads. Peter Whelan is the Bassoonist who will bring Michael Gordon’s Bassoon Concerto, a new piece written specifically for our period instruments, to life for us in early May. We conducted a quick interview with him to find out a bit more about what makes him tick as a performer…

How long have you been playing the Bassoon, and what attracted you to it?

I’ve been playing bassoon for 20 years. They say the bassoon isn’t an instrument you choose but one that chooses you. I was a pianist and in my teens desperately wanted to play in orchestra. I’d left it too late to start a string instrument and my options at school were oboe, bassoon or horn. I wanted to play oboe but my piano teacher’s husband was an oboist and she vetoed the idea! Bassoon was the next best option. 

Tell us about the specific instrument(s) you play. Where did you get it from / who made it?

The bassoon I will play is a copy by the Dutch maker Peter de Koningh after of an original by JH Grenser (c.1800).

Could you tell us a bit about your favourite qualities of the Bassoon as a solo instrument?

One of the best parts of playing solo works on the bassoon is watching the faces of the audience! They never know what to expect and are almost always surprised by what they hear – even seasoned concert-goers are not quite sure what the bassoon does at the back of the orchestra. The bassoon can be an agile and virtuosic soloist with a surprisingly good tenor voice. I think that the bassoon is like a chameleon and can be anything you want it to be. 

Do you have a favourite piece of Bassoon repertoire? Tell us about it.

I love performing the bassoon parts in Mozart’s operas and piano concertos. Mozart had a perfect understanding of the capabilities of the instrument and fully utilised its human characteristics. I can’t wait to play Figaro this Summer at Glyndebourne with OAE – this is the best bassoon part in the world in my opinion. The bassoon has a role in the drama, commenting on the action on stage and laughing or crying alongside the characters.

What are the challenges you face working on a brand new piece (such as Gordon’s Bassoon Concerto) as opposed to an already established one? What excites you about it?

It’s enormously exciting to work alongside Michael Gordon for this new commission. It challenges the way I think about the classical bassoon and encourages me to consider new possibilities in terms of timbres and extended techniques. We are from very different backgrounds and at the beginning of the process we spent time together discussing the quirks and traditions of the instruments. Michael’s eyes lit up when I told him that the classical bassoon was the ‘saxophone of the 18th century’ – he has run with this idea…

What is the most played piece of music on your MP3 player or in your CD collection?

At the moment it’s Geminiani’s, Concerto Grosso, ‘La Folia’. I am currently obsessed with baroque music by composers who lived in my hometown, Dublin.

What other talent or skill would you like to possess?

I’d love to be better at languages… 

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

There are no grown-ups. Everyone is winging it, some just do it more confidently. 

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