“I don’t want this job,” I thought.
In part 1 of a series of ex-pat Canadian bassoonists, Gareth Thomas tells the story of how he joined the Cleveland Orchestra.
It was May 6th, 2014, around nine in the morning. I was seated onstage alone at Severance Hall in Cleveland, its impossibly ornate and detailed ceiling enveloping the stage like a pearl-and-gold cocoon. Nine years later, it’s still an arresting sight, though I see it every day.
I’d been the principal bassoonist in the Toledo Symphony since 2010. With the exception of eight months at Northwestern with Christopher Millard, Ohio never seemed able to get rid of me. Though it’s only a short ride away from Toledo, I’d scarcely been back to Cleveland in the five years since graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Music with a Bachelor’s in May 2009. I’d always enjoyed the limelight associated with the principal chair – I still do, truthfully – and I hadn’t played second bassoon in years. This would be my first time playing in the Cleveland Orchestra.
The Cleveland bassoon section was in a strange period; its longtime second bassoonist, Phil Austin, had retired in 2011 and three years later his permanent replacement still hadn’t been found. Substitute players were commonplace, and on this occasion I’d gotten the call from John Clouser, the principal bassoonist in Cleveland and my teacher at CIM. In a funny little quirk of fate, he’d called while I was driving back to Toledo after receiving my Green Card from USCIS. If John had called just twenty minutes earlier, I’d have had to turn the gig down.
The repertoire that week was Sibelius 5, with Osmo Vänska, then still music director in Minnesota, whose Sibelius interpretations are deservedly revered. During the week, the third audition attempt for the vacant second bassoon position would be held. I wasn’t taking it.
Other musicians began to trickle in, and by 9:45 the stage was full. The musicians I’d seen from the audience in full concert dress every week for most of the previous half-decade seemed much more human and relatable in street clothes. John, usually among the last to arrive, got there early to welcome me and play through the famous opening of the Sibelius before the downbeat. The clock ticked on towards 10am. We tuned, and Vänska stepped onto the podium.
“Yeah, I definitely don’t want this job,” I thought as he greeted the orchestra and the stage fell silent. “This’ll be great fun, and I can’t wait to play with John, but I like playing first and I wouldn’t want to do this every day.” But then the upbeat came and the horns came in.
It was like being bathed in liquid gold. Spellbound, I very nearly didn’t play my entrance, a unison F with John, followed by a lilting line down to the tonic chord, where the rest of the woodwinds enter. I’d played in excellent woodwind sections before (the Toledo section itself is extremely fine), but nothing approaching this. They communicated and moved together like a school of angelfish. I’ve gotten used to that degree of cohesion now, but at the time it was almost unsettlingly perfect.
The rehearsal flew by. It’s still a top-5 experience in my career; we’ve all heard of “being in the zone,” where a person can execute at a previously inaccessible level. I credit the section with dragging me along, but whatever the reason, everything seemed effortless. The opening of the second movement, a masterclass in pianissimo playing in the second-row winds, had been a daunting prospect in the practice room; onstage in the section, impossibly soft and delicate, it seemed to play itself. Absolutely astonishing.
In the car heading back to the hotel, I had a moment of clarity, as sharp as I’ve experienced. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do,” I thought, “to get this job.”
John Clouser, Gareth Thomas and Jonathan Sherwin sitting with some angels….
There were a couple of days after that on tenterhooks, hoping they wouldn’t hire anyone. I’m usually of the opinion that committees ought to hire a winner at auditions as often as possible, but on this occasion I was extraordinarily glad to hear they hadn’t. Contrabassoonist Jonathan Sherwin, at the next rehearsal, sat down next to me and clapped me on the shoulder. “Well, we missed you yesterday, young man.”
The most memorable lessons are those in which we learn how little we know.
The rest of the story is boring and doesn’t need telling – ten hour days in the room practicing and making reeds while holding down the Toledo job. My wife Brandy didn’t see much of me for the next six months. She maintained a full flute studio in Michigan in addition to publishing several contemporary flute works over that time, but she always made sure there was food in the house for those occasions when I’d emerge and stare at the fridge. The phone call after the audition was likely as much a load off her shoulders as my own.
Roots are down here now, and I can’t foresee a situation in which I leave this orchestra behind. It’s a rare week, though, in which I don’t think back to Sibelius 5 with Vänska and the route I took that day. I’m pretty sure I made the right call.
— Gareth Thomas and John Clouser in Amsterdam…