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Interview: Peter Whelan on the Bassoon's Unique Standing

17 March 2017

Linn Records, Concerti Bizarri, Antonio Vivaldi, Ensemble Marsyas , Irish Baroque Orchestra, Monica Huggett

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Irish bassoonist Peter Whelan is a much sought-after soloist and chamber musician who possesses charisma, a rich sound, impeccable technique and an impressively diverse repertoire spanning more than four centuries. He is principal bassoonist of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and plays with countless other ensembles, among them Ensemble Marsyas of which he is the founder and artistic director and the Irish Baroque Orchestra. primephonic’s Rachel Deloughry had the opportunity to catch up with him to chat about a sumptuous recent release, upcoming projects and the uniqueness of the bassoon.

Firstly, I want to say that I was extremely impressed with the Irish Baroque Orchestra’s most recent Linn release, Concerti Bizarri. Can you tell me a bit about that?

The album Concerti Bizarri is the brainchild of Monica Huggett who is the artistic director and violinist extraordinaire. She is a maverick musician, like the Eric Clapton of the Baroque violin. She is kind of anti-establishment and she cares so much about the music and is always extremely keen. Monica creates a very special atmosphere with the orchestra and we are all very fond of her.

The music markets can sometimes seem a bit narrow, with Bach, Vivaldi and Handel as the highest selling composers of the Baroque period, and it is often tough to disseminate the ideas of other composers. And there are lots and lots of others! This album is very brave of her because there are only two very famous names included: Telemann and Vivaldi. The rest are unusual composers: Fasch, Heinichen and Graupner, writing music for somewhat unusual instruments. Besides Vivaldi who’s Italian, a strong theme that runs through the album is that the composers are of central European origin. You have lots of stringed instruments, as well as oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, flute d’amore, viola d’amore, then of course there’s the bassoon which is normal for me but bizarre for most people! Even the cover with the gargoyle is quite bizarre. So that’s the premise behind the album name!

It was recorded in St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda. It’s a beautiful 18th century church at the top of the town. It has great acoustics and it was quite nice to be recording somewhere slightly different. It was a pleasure to make this album, and for listeners it can be a very rewarding thing too because it is sure to pique people’s curiosity.

And what is on the horizon for you in terms of upcoming performances and recordings?

I am primarily a bassoonist, but now I am also directing from the harpsichord. I have played with the Irish Baroque Orchestra for ten years now. We have several projects per year and next year I am going to be directing them for the first time from the harpsichord.  

Next year at Kilkenny Arts Festival, with Ensemble Marsyas, we’re going to be playing some works by composers who lived in Ireland and composed for Irish audiences, such as – of course – Handel. It is well known that he wrote and premiered his Messiah in Ireland, but we’re going to play some works he composed when he first moved to Ireland. And there are other pieces by less well known French and German composers that I discovered in the archives of Dublin Castle.

With Ensemble Marsyas, we’re going to record Handel’s Apollo and Daphne in September.

image: courtesy of Linn records

What is your view on the ‘endangered bassoon’, a moniker that has become topical in the current climate?

That’s a tricky question. It’s true and it’s also not true. I think if you look around, at a certain level, bassoon is doing very well. The standards are extremely high, there are great soloists and ensemble musicians performing and at an extremely high level. Perhaps it is at the highest level it has been artistically for the last 100 years. There is heightened interest in historic types of bassoons and the discovery of old repertoire: there is all this virtuosic Baroque repertoire as well as contemporary composers who are continuously writing new music for the bassoon. This is my world. Sometimes I wonder am I a bit blinkered, that I don’t see the bassoon as endangered?

I teach at a few UK conservatoires – at London’s Guildhall School, at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and at the Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow – and I also give masterclasses across Europe. I continuously meet young bassoon students who are playing at an overwhelmingly high level. The sad aspect, not just with bassoon, but with many woodwind instruments, is that it’s almost impossible to get a job and very very talented people will struggle to find work, so this ‘endangered’ thing is a bit patronising to these fantastic young musicians. These young bassoonists are there and ready to go and calling them an endangered species or a dying breed is not something positive.   

I’ve worked out that the danger point seems to be at grass roots level. There are fewer people taking up the instrument in the first place and certain government funding seems to have dried up, which means that for future generations it is in danger of slipping a little bit. It really needs more publicity among young wind players. Not everybody needs to play the bassoon and we need not be evangelical about it, saying ‘Taking up the bassoon is the way forward.’

It’s a very niche instrument. It’s terrific but it’s not for everybody. 3 or 4 out of every 50 budding wind players might realise that bassoon is for them, rather than choosing the flute or clarinet, of which there are normally quite a few. They will find it rewarding and they will find it suits them: despite all its quirks and awkwardness, it can really suit certain personality types.

I played a contemporary concerto by Michael Gordon for classical bassoon with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, only about a month ago. Afterwards, I was interviewed. The woman grilling me asked ‘Why don’t we just let it go extinct?’ And it struck me that perhaps it’s true that the average passer-by on the street doesn’t know what a bassoon is, and it made me consider how introverted the bassoon is most of the time, and that maybe we do need to get out there a little bit more.

How do you strike a balance between the worlds of early and contemporary music?

I’ve always been drawn more towards the clarity of sound of early music and the transparency of the textures. Contrasting worlds often collide in unexpected ways, whether people like to admit it or not. It’s been a long time – over 50 years now – that historical performance practice has begun to be rediscovered, so now there’s an awareness of how early music sounds. Its influence has even crept into contemporary music, so it’s at an interesting place at the moment. There’s such a huge mix between the two styles. Performers of early music tend to be quite open-minded about their music-making. (Of course there are exceptions – sometimes you find people who only play Handel and refuse to play anything else). But easy-going music lovers and enthusiastic performers who have a point to make and those with a bit of an entrepreneurial edge who try to make something for themselves can be the most interesting individuals in music. For example Monica Huggett who I’ve already mentioned: it’s in her nature to take strange pieces and make them work. Monica and the Irish Baroque Orchestra are terrific in that regard and will take a challenge in their hands and run with it. But there are some slightly more institutionalised musicians who tend to resist this, no matter what repertoire they work with.

Just last week I was recording, playing on fantastic old instruments from the collection at the Edinburgh University. Trying out multiple instruments brought home to me how much we as musicians have our own unique personal sound. You have a slightly different angle that each instrument will bring, but ultimately, it’s your own voice coming through. As a wind player, you have a lot in common with a singer and no matter what instrument you play on, you express something unique. Instruments can point you in a certain direction and can give certain personality traits, but how you perceive the sound to be will come through, so it’s a great leveller.

Peter Whelan in conversation with Rachel Deloughry

Photo courtesy of Linn records

Concerti Bizarri


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