A Gift to be Simple
by George Zukerman
When Murray Adaskin and his Saskatoon Symphony orchestra gave the world premiere of his Prairie Suite in late 1959 I was in the far North of the Province of Saskatchewan, on an organizational trip. I decided to attend the concert. What had looked like a perfectly ordinary secondary road on the map turned out to be a Department of Natural Resources Forestry Trail better designed for jeeps and 4-wheel drive vehicles than a compact rental car.
When I arrived in Saskatoon four hours later, I was weary, dusty and in need of a stiff drink.
The music Department at the University of Saskatoon was housed in two rooms in the Agriculture Building. Earthy farm aromas filled the air in Murray’s teaching studio.
I found the Maestro in great despair.
“Thank goodness you are here…do you have your bassoon with you?”
He waved a sheet of music in front of me, and I recognized his immaculate music penmanship. In those days before computer music programmes, the art of music copying was a form of elegant calligraphy, and Murray was a master of the art.
“Our bassoon player has just called and she is ill, and cannot make it tonight.” “But I don’t have a bassoon with me. I’m on a business trip!”. “We’ll get you one,” he insisted. “You have to play tonight” “But I haven’t rehearsed” “That doesn’t matter. You are a good sight reader. You know my style. I’ll cue you.” “The Union will not let me perform with non-Union members” “Our second clarinetist is the Union Secretary. Well obtain a special waiver for you” “I don’t have any decent stage clothes” “That doesn’t matter…just dust-off a little, you’ll be fine! Here’s your music” And with that he thrust the music into my hands.
Before I could protest any longer, a borrowed high school bassoon appeared complete with three ancient reeds – one caked solidly with lipstick, one cracked down the middle, and the third which was made barely playable after ten minutes of ardent scraping with a hastily procured kitchen-knife
An hour later, I was on stage sight-reading the bassoon part of a world premiere of a new piece under the composer’s baton…[Somewhere in my curriculum vitae, is it listed that I was for one night a member of the Saskatoon symphony! ]
Murray’s Prairie Suite was a triumph that evening. Saskatoon symphony-goers in the late 50’s were not traditionally well-disposed to contemporary works. Yet, many in the audience that night sensed a new significance in the performance of a work which was so obviously inspired by their Province.
Secretly, it was a joy to participate in such an evening of community-music making, A fee for the performance was the last thing that had crossed my mind.
A year later a package arrived in Vancouver.
It contained the score of Murray’s bassoon concerto, which he had written during the intervening summer, and dedicated to me. I sometimes look upon that gift from his heart as the finest concert fee that I ever received!
I premiered the concerto in 1960 with the Vancouver Symphony. Murray had a lifelong appreciation of the instrument, and he wrote several other works for me including a quintet for bassoon and string quartet; his Vocalise #2 for solo bassoon, and a remarkable trio for violin, bassoon and French horn [his Divertimento #3]. Before he died in 2002 I had asked him if he would ever consider writing a second bassoon concerto. “Murray” I said, “if there were two bassoon concertos…just think of it. When I suggest the Adaskin to a conductor he or she would be compelled to answer “yes, but which one”?
George Zukerman, July 2020
[reprinted with permission from galley proof manuscript of, CONCERTO FOR TWO HATS, scheduled for publication, 2021]