Francesca Davenport with her 4k series Heckel
Canada is a young country, and our tradition of great bassoon playing can be traced to a small number of very important teachers and performers. Nadina Mackie writes about Francesca Davenport.
When I was a student in my late teens, and later a young professional, the name of bassoonist Francesca aka Fanny Davenport of Newfoundland kept coming up. Her well-deserved reputation for bringing more bassoonists into the world than was expected from this somewhat remote Canadian island province and sending them to fill the ranks of the bassoon-hungry universities in Toronto and Montreal made her a person of genuine interest yet there were no opportunities for us to meet until later in our careers.
Recently, I decided it was time to learn more about Francesca Davenport. After assuring her that this wasn’t an April Fool’s joke, she answered many of my pointed questions with a frankness that revealed a full life of family and work along with an early drive to become a musician and true dedication to the bassoon. From this grew her gift for teaching all who wanted to learn. Fanny reminded me that I telephoned her out of the blue when I was 15 years old to ask about the baroque bassoon, so apparently this is not the first time I’ve plied her with queries.
Her life began in a London suburb, with an educated and loving family unencumbered by wealth, yet rich in cultural appreciation and skills. Fanny’s mother had played viola in a London Youth Orchestra and her father was a visual artist with a day job as a banker. They introduced her to piano and recorder very early in life and the family gramophone introduced Fanny to music that would be part of her entire life. Fanny vividly remembers performances of Berlioz’ Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral, the Bolshoi Ballet, and a performance of Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardé (The Wayward Daughter). Fanny’s father took her to live performances in Festival Hall and to the ballet and when Fanny started playing recorder, her father made certain to take her to orchestral performances that included the recorder, such as Noye’s Fludde, a one-act opera by Benjamin Britten. Decades later, Fanny performed the recorder solo in this same work at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in St John’s, Newfoundland, with her own children playing viola and cello in the string quartet, her students forming the recorder orchestra and her youngest child taking a star turn as a duck in this production. I was struck that her introduction to the glory of classical music was through playing and through full performances, rather than curated “children’s concerts”.
Later, her brother bought a record player to replace the family gramophone, and he allowed Fanny to play Brahms symphonies repeatedly so that she could sing along to her favourite parts, which she realized later in life were all the bassoon solos.
Fanny mentioned in passing that she contracted polio just before her ninth birthday and spent two months in a glass-walled hospital isolation ward, with no gramophone or piano. She discovered that she could play the recorder while otherwise immobilized. Moreover, by doing so, she found that she could also annoy the nurses.
When Fanny recovered from polio, life went on as before. Her enormously rich musical education did not provide an automatic entry into the professional world of music. Earning a living was not the purview of a good Catholic girl in those days, so all education for girls was meant to enrich the future lives of their children. Yet because Fanny attended a convent school, she was continually exposed to the rich world of sacred music and her education continued apace. Later, Fanny attended Durham University and read Anglo Saxon language. Fanny had yet to meet a bassoon.
Interestingly, Fanny has always been fascinated by languages and enjoys puzzling the meaning out of different languages and alphabets, starting with Latin and Anglo Saxon. She has recently added a Greek keyboard to her computer to brush up on the Greek that she learned in school. Without claiming fluency in any language, Fanny speaks some French and German, having served as an au pair in Germany. During the recent Covid incarcerations, Fanny discovered Duo Lingo and started learning Swahili again after being first exposed to it when she and her husband went to Tanzania for volunteer work. And she has been working on Spanish and Welsh, both languages that she was exposed to as a child when on holidays.
After graduating, Fanny worked for McLean-Hunter, a Canadian publisher, in London before emigrating to Canada to work as an editorial assistant for McGill-Queen’s University Press in Kingston, Ontario, the same university where her husband was completing his PhD in geochemistry.
The family then moved to St John’s, Newfoundland where Peter took on a position with the Newfoundland Geological Survey. Freelance editorial work for Fanny was very scarce and she had to give up the little work that she had when they adopted their second child as the rules at the time required the female parent to be always home until the adoption process was complete. Little did she know that Newfoundland was going to the be place where she finally discovered the bassoon.
The Anglican Cathedral of St John the Baptist in St John’s, Newfoundland where Fanny & her students and children were part of the production Noye’s Fludde by Benjamin Britten.
Drawing by Marjorie Rusted (a rendering of the Cathedral with a Tudor Tower, rather than the tower roof which it actually has)
Along with tending her growing family, Fanny was an avid recorder player and spent many hours practising and playing chamber music. Despite all this activity, her strongest wish was to play in an orchestra, so she bought a flute, hoping this would be the answer, but did not enjoy playing it, given that it was so like the recorder yet also more cumbersome when it came to playing sonatas that she already knew very well.
One day, there was an odd-looking instrument propped up in the corner of her flute teacher’s studio and Fanny was immediately intrigued. When she asked if it were a bassoon, her teacher replied, “Yes! Do you want to borrow it?”
Without hesitation, Fanny said YES and was immediately smitten. She even gave up chain-smoking when she realized that she loved the sound of the bassoon and wanted to play it to the best of her ability.
Fanny started the bassoon with the help of her flute teacher and the oboist in the orchestra. When an elderly relative died, the inheritance permitted Fanny to buy a good Fox Model IV which was a vast improvement over her first bassoon. In short order, she won auditions to attend the Memorial University School of Music and become a member of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, where she stayed on as principal bassoonist for 24 years (1975 – 1999).
Early on, Fanny’s oboist colleague connected her with a bassoon teacher who would change her life, Christopher Weait, then principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony and one of the contract bassoon teachers at the University of Toronto.
Franny and her husband Peter with Chris and Padge Weait.
Fanny describes her independent studies with Christopher…
“What guides and friends he and his wife Padge became. Every Spring I would go to Toronto and stay in the Weait basement and every day he would teach me about reeds, about bassoon, we would play trios with Paul Buttemer—another of his bassoon friends who also became a good friend, (he and his wife Molly and child later coming to stay with us in Newfoundland).
My first meeting with Chris was funny. As soon as I spoke, he said “I know that accent!” and named the area of London I was from. Turns out that he grew up 3 streets away from me and went to the same school as my brother. Anyway, he really took me under his wing, inviting me back every spring for intensive lessons. I don’t recall that he ever let me pay other than accepting a fresh Newfoundland salmon from me every visit. I recall this because it was not easy to travel by air with a bassoon and a fresh salmon. Now it would be impossible Eventually Chris found me an old Heckel (late 4k series) and took it and me to Frank Marcus for its thorough renovation. Soon my new-to-me bassoon was set up with the best of everything. Chris taught me all the aspects of bassoon playing and reed making and was altogether a very special person: he gave a recital at the school where I was doing undergrad and insisted that I join him on stage for a duet performance. Then he came to my home and coached all my students. He was willing to chat when I called him in the wee small hours of his time zone to inform him that I had just aced the high notes in a performance of Ravel Piano concerto. When I visited him in Toronto, he insisted on taking my 4-year-old for his first ride on the subway.”
At Memorial University, Fanny studied with Paul Bendzsa, a wonderful clarinetist and saxophone player and of course, her right-hand colleague in the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. Paul was a hugely supportive teacher to Fanny and taught her phrasing, interpretation, and general musicality. Fanny also took every opportunity to attend workshops and camps—Glickman Popkin when both those artists were still teaching, Miller-Skinner, and every IDRS convention she could manage. In this way she met and learned reed making from Lou Skinner and many others. The first IDRS (International Double Reed Society) conference that Fanny attended was in Manchester, UK in 1989 where she met and had many conversations with a young kid who seemed like a fine player, named Sergio Azzolini.
At this same conference, the Russian virtuoso, Valerie Popov came to perform a recital. He was phenomenal even though he was playing on a borrowed bassoon as his country would not let him bring his own for fear he might defect.
By a quirk of fate, Popov looked exactly like Fanny’s husband Peter, who plays no musical instrument whatsoever.
“At breakfast the next morning about 50 people came up to my husband to congratulate him on his wonderful performance. The poor man was totally flummoxed.”
Fanny, son, Chris Weait at IDRS Frankfurt. Note composer Victor Bruns in background (wearing a red rose)
Fanny went on to play many performances and teach many students in Newfoundland before moving to Calgary, Alberta.
She remembers a remarkable moment when the Newfoundland Symphony combined with another orchestra for a performance and when the players arrived, she realized that her section of four bassoons and one contra included 4 former students. And another time when life and bassoon came together, Fanny coached a bassoon quartet of grade 3 students – one of whom was her youngest son.
On Fanny’s very last evening in Newfoundland, the orchestra performed Carmina Burana with the King’s Singers as part of the 1999 large choral Festival 500. Fanny was testing a new Fox 601 and she found that it responded beautifully in the famous roast swan solo for bassoon. Once again, the entire bassoon section consisted of Fanny and her former students. As she walked home that night after the concert, pretty much everyone she had ever known in St John’s stopped her to say goodbye. Fanny reports that she almost decided to stay.
Fanny on Lake O’Hara (photo by Peter Davenport)
Fanny had planned to retire from teaching and performing upon moving to Calgary.
She had a few weeks of peace before her husband’s boss caught wind that Fanny was a bassoonist and connected her with a young friend who needed lessons. Somewhat reluctantly, Fanny took this new student and before long, not only was she teaching again, but was playing in the Bach Society Orchestra, appearing as an extra with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and in the pit for National Ballet tours and for Calgary Opera.
Fanny’s strong foundation as a recorder player allowed her to introduce very young students to music through the ubiquitous recorder and she used the bass recorder to see which students might reveal a proclivity for the bassoon. The recorder was the perfect affordable gateway instrument for parents too, allowing them to assess if their child really wanted to do more in music before investing in a costly bassoon.
In terms of developing a structure for her students, Fanny relied on the Warm-Ups book produced by her first bassoon teacher, Christopher Weait as a diagnostic tool in clinics for beginning bassoonists, and his Strategies book for more advanced students. Fanny had made many suggestions for the early editions of the Royal Conservatory of Music bassoon syllabus and used this as a guide and incentive for her students.
Christopher Weait signing copies of his book for Fanny’s students
When I asked Fanny why she continued playing the bassoon, she replied with her trademark candour and forthright honesty:
“Because I was totally addicted and could not conceive of NOT playing. I continued teaching because I needed the money and people kept asking me. Also, I found after a while that I really enjoyed it, and I noticed that many of my truly good friends started out as my students.”
When I first contacted Fanny about writing this profile, she was cautiously amenable, and I compiled pages of questions that she could use as a starting point. I asked many questions from my perspective, including the role of family during her career. She responded with specific examples of the challenges and joys from her own life, such as her youngest son putting the wing of her polypropylene Fox in the bathtub to better command his mother’s attention. And at the other end of the spectrum, the joy of playing duets with her eldest son who became a fine cellist.
I have a feeling that there is much more to be learned from Francesca Davenport and I am grateful to have had a glimpse into the rich life of an enormously productive and well-travelled bassoonist and teacher.
—Nadina Mackie, Dunchurch, April 7, 2023
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