Governor General's award

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]