New Bells, Old Heckels and Covid in Calgary
Michael Hope, in his fifth decade with the Calgary Philharmonic, professes two main goals before he retires:
“To be the person who has been around the longest – I still have to outlast our English horn Player, our Principal Trombonist and a brave second violinist – and to be the first musician in the history of our orchestra to play 50 seasons. 41 seasons down, 9 to go!”
Michael writes about his happy, singing life in the second bassoon chair.
My partner at home is not terribly enthusiastic about me attaining these goals, because she believes that each day I play in the orchestra makes me a little bit more deaf. She would like me to still be able to hear her talk after I retire. She’s not wrong, but I still am having fun playing. I think that comes from my belief that my career really has been like winning the lottery.
I was once asked what the high and low points have been in my career. I honestly couldn’t think of any low points.
That being said, coming to work these days is not as simple as it was 41 years ago when I first started with the Calgary Philharmonic. Back then, I would just hop on my bike, ride 10 minutes to the hall, take out my horn and start playing. Nowadays it’s a good deal more complicated. My days of bike riding are long gone, so I take public transit. From my beautiful (but quite suburban house) it takes about 50 minutes to get to the hall. For a number of reasons, I have to leave quite early now – the main one being that in order to play properly, I now have to warm up and practice way more. Even with pieces I’ve been playing my whole career. The best way to do this is to come way early.
Also, before rehearsal starts, there are now a few finicky steps I now need to take before I start playing:
Change my glasses to ones with special lenses for reading music. They make mid-distance stuff on a music stand crystal clear, but the sacrifice is that I cannot see objects at distance very well at all. These objects might include conductors…
Remove the face mask I now wear everywhere outside my house. I got Covid a few months ago – I don’t want that to happen again. It was inconvenient…
Remove my hearing aids – worn to alleviate the hearing damage I’ve acquired after sitting directly in front of the aforementioned principal trombone player for the past 41 years…
Remind the stagehands to please install a plexiglass shield behind my chair, then insert my Musician’s Earplugs to prevent more damage from aforementioned trombone player…
Insert a non-adhesive grip shelf liner on my chair (tip: a shelf liner greatly improves posture and playing position. I’ve just discovered this! Only because it’s gripping surface completely prevents your seat strap from slipping or moving around anywhere. They cost $1.75 at the dollar store. A steal).
At the end of the rehearsal, this sequence of events with my ears, eyes, and rear end is all done more or less in reverse – but I keep having to remind myself to take out my earplugs and re-insert my hearing aids last. Only because our brass players often “warm down” directly towards the side of my head as I’m bending down to put my instrument away (with hearing aids in this is quite uncomfortable). I kindly asked our principal trumpet player to do this off to the side. He was a gentleman and kindly agreed.
The point is: Getting ready to play a rehearsal is certainly more of a song and dance than it used to be when I was a young whipper-snapper. But I don’t mind. Just being able to come to work and still play music is a joy which compares to nothing.
I often wonder if the secret to having a long and happy career is being a second player. Playing second bassoon you get to play in the fun part of the instrument most of the time. You’re important but not terribly exposed, and you still get to enjoy the music around you without the stress of the first chair. I have loved playing 2nd bassoon in this orchestra; it was the first job and will be the last job I will ever have. It’s the life!
Playing second is an art unto itself. I enjoy the responsibility of setting the foundation for the woodwind section’s pitch, stabilizing things by blending, and the most important part of the job – supporting my principal.
I’ve now had three principal players in my career. All fine players with different strengths. One was a lovely poet with the instrument, with a gorgeous sound always ripe with overtones. (Stephen Franse) He could make all the great lyrical solos sound like he had composed them himself. Another (Chris Sales) was a technical master who could player faster and louder than any bassoon player I have ever heard. My current principal player (Antoine St. Onge) is a splendid young man (younger than both my kids) who has a solid technique, a lovely sound, fine musicianship and perhaps the most enviable quality of all: He is uncommonly nice. This is a quality that can make you as valuable a colleague as anyone could ever be. It certainly makes Antoine remarkably easy to play with and a gift to me as a colleague and friend.
Antoine is also very smart. At only 28 years of age he has already started wearing earplugs. I wish I had at his age.
He also plays a fine Bell Bassoon – #123. It is a very handsome horn with a “gentlemen’s cut” long joint and bell. When ordering the instrument in 2012, Antoine had decided to get a thin wall instrument. (that’s what he was used to having played on a 9000 series Heckel that he had borrowed from the conservatory in Montreal) However, Antoine was surprised when he saw in 2013, that Ben had made him a thick wall bassoon.
Apparently, Ben was familiar with Antoine’s playing and decided to make a bigger instrument thinking it would fit his playing better. After all, Ben has an incredible understanding of bassoon playing and he was right about that instrument fitting Antoine better. Since then, Antoine says it’s just been more and more joyful to discover making music with such a rich sounding instrument.
It took Antoine and me a little while to find just the right blend. We eventually did it by being patient, listening (despite our constant earplug use…) and simply feeling things through. I think part of the challenge with this was finding common ground with the sounds of our different instruments – Antoine with his Bell and me with my Heckel.
My horn is a lovely 5611 series Heckel which I bought when I was 19. Before that, my first Heckel was a brand new 12000 that I bought brand new from the Heckel factory in the 1970’s for the exorbitant sum of around $6500 Canadian dollars. It was stuffy and dull with a bad scale. My teacher at Curtis (Bernie Garfield) loathed it. It had as anti a Garfield sound as any bassoon I’ve ever heard. That Heckel and I went mano a mano during my entire second year at Curtis until I finally decided to put both it and myself out of our mutual misery.
I traded it to a dealer named Alvin Swiney for my beloved 5000 series which has been by my side ever since for the past 44 years. Swiney eventually sold that horrible 12,000 to a young man named David McGill who played it happily and went on to become the principal in The Cleveland Orchestra. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad horn after all…
An ancient Heckel like mine has been just right for my career. Made in 1920, it is not an instrument of high value (5000’s are “strictly for collectors”, Nadina Mackie Jackson once told me over coffee). It has a gentle compact sound and a great scale (due to its long bore construction) which is just right for second playing. It’s very good at blending and making the instruments around it sound richer and warmer. I love it, and I recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday by having it completely refinished by Frank Marcus with help from Ben Bell to get the colour just right. (It was imperative to me that they preserve the Heckel crest on the bell – this involved some finesse in blending the new colour with remnants of the old). Frank put so much time, love and detail into getting everything just so. It looks beautiful and brand new. It is a treasured friend in my life.
Antoine with his Bell, and me with my 5000 have had fun times in the Calgary Phil. From playing the most challenging of pieces to simply enjoying the everyday camaraderie that goes into the splendid life of being bassoon players. Whether it’s a Mahler Symphony or a Jeans n’ Classics concert of Rock and Roll tunes, we always feel lucky to have jobs as splendid as ours.
Like the rest of the world, our jobs have come with challenges in the past three years but we’ve navigated the ups and downs of the pandemic with patience. One week this season was remarkable. 17 members of the Calgary Phil came down with Covid at once, and had to be absent. 2 of those 17 people were our first call extra bassoon player and me. Apparently, there was a similar outbreak going on in Edmonton and none of our regular extras in the whole province were available. Thankfully, Catalina Guevera Klein – the wife of our principal oboist- is a baroque bassoon specialist and she came in to fill in for me with aplomb. It was a crazy week for our personnel manager as people kept calling in sick and the orchestra kept getting smaller and smaller – luckily, we were performing Beethoven 8 that week which could withstand being a Farewell Symphony of sorts.
Our last concert of the season was a blast where Antoine and I got to play the mysterious bassoon duets at the beginning of La Valse. I then got to hear Antoine completely nail the tricky and nerve-wracking solo from Bolero. Of course, he made it sound easy – his specialty with difficult solos – and very, very expressive and stylish. On my end, I had the more subtle challenge of playing the accompanying triplets on the high G in a way that sounded hopefully just right. Most people who have played Bolero know that this is much harder to do than it sounds. (If nobody notices you, then you’ve done it the way Ravel intended).
As I prepare and condition myself for the final 9 years of my career before hitting season # 50, I’ll continue to stay healthy, avoid complaining, keep using my earplugs, and most of all cherish this wonderful job that seems to somehow keep me feeling young.
When I first won the audition for this job, I asked my teacher at the time (Otto Eifert in Cincinnati) what the secret was to not becoming jaded. “Drink beer”, he said. I think I may have done a bit of that over the years, but I think the best advice is to always feel lucky, to always be a good colleague, to help others around you to thrive, and most of all to revel in every single note you play.
- Michael Hope is a CCOB Board Member who has been playing second bassoon in The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra since 1982.
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