Stephen Franse – From Lone Star to Maple Leaf

 

 

Continuing a series of conversations with iconic Canadian bassoonists, Christopher Millard speaks with retired Calgary Philharmonic Principal Bassoon Stephen Franse about his musical foundation, his journey North and the evolution of the CPO.

-Stephen Franse

Stephen Franse recently joined the board of the Council of Canadian Bassoonists.  We took this opportunity to sit down with him to discuss his journey from his home town of Houston, Texas via St. Louis, Oberlin, Akron, Washington D.C., Richmond and finally to Canada, where he became a vital member of the Albertan musical communty.

COCB: Steve, you and I pursued very similar careers occupying bassoon positions in adjacent provinces for many decades.  Our paths crossed on occasion, including several pleasant meetings in Banff as well as on the stage of Jacques Singer Hall in Calgary.  But I have never really know much about your history South of the Border?

SF: Okay, you’d better pour a Scotch first.

COCB: How about a McMilde,1885?  I save this for one for bassoonists of our generation…

SF: Hmm.  A rich palate of chromatic harmonies in each sip… So, I was born in early 1947 in Houston, Texas. My folks were both musical, my mother a pianist and my father a Dixieland tubist. He was an oil chemist by trade and had a number of patents to his name. My mother was a stay-at-home Mom and didn’t work until I left home for Oberlin.  My Dad, well it was Texas and he worked as a chemical engineer for a company that designed refinery processes – he even had a couple of inventions.  Unfortunately, the company held the patents.  There was always music in our home, both classical and jazz.

COCB: A musical tradition going back generations?

SF: I am a descendent of the Confederate side. The Franses were downstate Missouri folk; the family split in the Civil War… My grandfather had three brothers several of which married sisters, which made for a rather large extended family. I had a widowed aunt who was a piano teacher and had a magnificent Knabe in her dining room.  I studied with her for 6 years.

COCB: This was in Houston?

SF: No, when I was 6 we moved to St.Louis Mo. where my dad became the lead chemical engineer for his company. My mother had an extended family there including a cathedral organist. I developed an early passion for the organ and wanted lessons very much, but that was on the Catholic side of the family and my mother decided I should have piano lessons with my Protestant aunt. A fork in the road !!

COCB: It’s always wise to take a fork when you have to… But, what happened to your concert career as a pianist?

SF: I joined the school band on clarinet and then bass clarinet.  Moving in the right direction.  We moved back to Houston when I was 13. The school band already had two bass clarinets but no bassoon.  They did  have an old Kohlert so I took that home and learned to play low F…then I learned to play low F with vibrato…I was in love !! There was a student teacher who was herself a student of Paul Tucci – he was the Houston Symphony Principal – and she gave me some pointers and reeds.  Of course, I soon found my way to Paul and studied with him for 5 years .

COCB: Paul Tucci was with the orchestra 1958 to 1979. 

SF :A long and impressive career.  Succeeded by Ben Kamins, of course. My high school career was very successful, I won a lot of awards and contests, played the All-State Orchestra three years and was honoured asTMEA” Outstanding Woodwind “ for 1965. I attended NMC at Interlochen in1962 and 1963 and worked with Herb Fawcett on reed making.  He was very helpful.

COCB: Herb was second bassoon in Houston, right?

SF: Yes, a Curtis grad. In the summer of ’65 I played, wait for it, 130 performances of “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off” and then toured Europe with the Houston All-City Symphony Orchestra.  That was the very first American youth orchestra to tour Europe.

COCB: I imagine that 60 years later tunes from that musical remain deeply ingrained…like ‘What Kind of Fool Am I?”

SF: More Scotch please.

COCB: College time. Where did you wind up?

SF: Oberlin College. I studied bassoon with Kenneth Moore… an exceptional fellow.  He came to the bassoon late in life after playing clarinet in the Navy bands.  Crossed over from the dark side. His outstanding talent was as a conductor. Unfortunately, Moore’s reeds were a mess!  He played mainly in woodwind quintets and did so on ‘tissue paper’ reeds. But he was a great teacher; he taught the student rather than the instrument, the music rather than the technology.  And thankfully, Tucci had alreadygiven me a solid grounding in reed-making.

COCB: Kenneth Moore played an important part of North American bassoon pedagogy.  A really interesting character who lived to 87.  He taught at Oberlin from ’55 to ’87 – an avid sailor, a long distance cyclist, too.

SF: He cycled from Oregon to Washington, D.C. in 1976! Can you imagine? 58 days.  He cycled from Denmark to Italy and back to England.  Biked in New Zealand. And then, not too many years later he and his wife crossed the Atlantic in a small sailing ship.  33 days at sea.  This is a guy who lived a full life.

 

 

– Paul Tucci

– Herb Fawcett

Kenneth Moore

-Bernard Garfield

SF: Paul was a Garfield protege who studied a Yale, so I got his translation of the Garfield approach right from the outset. It is based on a reed scrape which reduces the bulk of fundamental frequency, thereby revealing a wealth of overtones.

COCB: As a student at Curtis in the early 70s I had the pleasure of hearing that sound in concert dozens of times.  Without going into nerdy stuff like spectrum analysis, how would you describe the sound?

 

 

SF: Hmmm. Pour me some more Scotch. The sound has a clear vowel and an inner light or glow. The mouth stays mostly open and one plays up near the wire. I eventually did some work with him. His reeds were derived from the German reed master  Knockenhauer – with a slight challicing at the tip. Quite short : 25 mm tube / 25 mm blades and narrow….you played near the collar, it was similar to what Skinner later described to me as “swallowing the reed”, which he meant with respect. The scrape was quite light with a “ventilation” at the centre of the back.  Garfield gave me two: one was a tortured blank with an initial cutting, the other was well used and still is the best reed I’ve ever played. Spent my career trying to equal it.

COCB: Schoenbach gave me old reeds from time to time.  There were a couple of antiques from Mechler and Knockenhauer which were probably 30 years old in the 70s.  The wood was petrified by then!  He once regaled me with a story about a trip he made to Germany to study reed making with Mechler.  Possibly apocryphal of course…. Apparently, Sol cut his thumb on the first day of reed lessons and vowed then and there not to make his own reeds.

SF: That’s hilarious, and probably even funnier to hear it in Schoenbach’s famous voice.

 

-Sol Schoenbach

COCB: Tell me some highlights of your time at Oberlin.

SF: The most special memory was Marcel Moyse’ visit to the College in 1967.  He had a big impact on my musical development.  You too, right?

COCB: You bet.  Along with Schoenbach the most important teacher in my own life.

SF: I was able to spend more time with Moyse in the 70s when I worked with him in Vermont.  I was his driver one summer so I got to spend time with him outside of class.

COCB: The first time I had coffee with him he used 8 lumps of sugar.

SF: [Laughing…]  Larger than life.  I remember we played the Reicha op. 100 quintet for him and he got very choked up.  Said he hadn’t heard the piece in 50 years.  Maybe it was 70.  He was in his late 80s by then. He was a “no holds barred” teacher. I can remember him “savaging” young flautists who didn’t listen.

COCB: The first time I played a solo for him – it was a simple melody from his ‘Tone Development Through Interpreation” book.  While I played he stealthily walked over and started bobbing my music up and down on the stand.  With a sparkling grin on his face he turned to the other musicians and said, “Philadelphia School of Vibrato”.

– Marcel Moyse

SF: I found myself as Principal for the Akron Symphony.  Age 19.  A lot happened that year including dealing with the Draft situation.

COCB: Vietnam was still raging.  What happened?

SF: Well, the Houston draft board granted undergraduate exemptions, usually 4 or 5 years. Not so much for graduate work.
I had a low lottery number and was likely to be called up, I decided joining TUSAB was a great solution.   Besides, I was tired of school and needed a job.  Thankfully, the closest I got to Vietnam was Washington, D.C..  After basic training that summer, I arrived in DC in August of 69 and became a member of The U.S. Army Band – “Pershing’s Own”. It was a really big group, some 90 players if everyone was there. We had 4 bassoons and a contra. The standard was very high and there were many fine players within the ranks. Except for the summers it was a pretty easy job…morning rehearsals but most of time that was it for the day. The summers were when you earned your pay: three different books per week, in at least three venues, all in woollen uniforms. There were several tours and many run-outs. Still there was enough time for outside playing. I joined a civic chamber orchestra and began working with some baroque players at the Smithsonian. We had the beginnings of a period orchestra in which I played bassoon or conducted.

COCB: So, I’m sure during all these transitions you were immersing yourself in recordings?

SF:Once the bassoon had become important in my life, recordings became necessary.  In the early 60’s there were only a few. Above all the Haydn Symphonie Concertante with Philadelphia and Garfield’s K 191. There was an excellent Vivaldi record with Sherman Walt as well as Vivaldis with Virginio Bianchi. John Miller had recorded the Hummel and the Weber and Allard ’s Jolivet was amazing. There were also Mozarts by Camden, Ohlberger, and Gwydion Brooke.  He was an amazing player – you can hear the brilliance even from old 78 RPM technology.  And we shouldn’t forget Schoenbach’s famous recording of the Burrill Phillips Concertpiece.  That’s a work completely unknown to students these days.  Throughout, George Zukerman’s presence was pervasive.

COCB: I can picture everyone of those LP covers in my mind.  Every bassoonist growing up in that time owned these recordings.  And yes, we really must talk about George Zukerman

SF: Do you know, I only met him twice. A wonderful recitalist, I first heard him live in 1974 at Mount Royal College.  He truly had the ‘gift of gab’ – very entertaining. I remember in particular a Fasch Sonata that was really beautiful.  But the second time I met him was a complete surprise.  I was in rehearsal for a program that included both K191 and the Villa-Lobos Ciranda de Seta Notas. He somehow “appeared” at the rehearsal and had some very good ideas to share with me about the Ciranda.

COCB: George was very supportive of other bassoonists.  As you know, he and I lived and worked in Vancouver simultaneously for decades and he always came to concerto performances that I gave.  Steve, I would never have had the courage to play Mozart and Villa-Lobos together! Wow.  I confess, the Villa-Lobos was never a good fit for my own abilities.  As I have aged I have become more interested in the piece and have heard a couple of performances by young players which I found persuasive.

 

-George Zukerman

COCB: Getting back to your developmental days.  I’m interested in your activities while in the Army Band.

SF: Fortunately, I had enough time to play with the Richmond Symphony as a temporary principal…Unfortunately, it all got screwed-up because I had surrendered my union card when I joined the band.

COCB: I don’t think younger players know how restrictive AFM locals were in the 60s and 70s. You couldn’t walk into a new city and begin working without a waiting period  Import status, right?

SF: Yes, and the DC local could be quite strict.  But the military was even worse.  Band members were not simply not allowed to be AFM members!  So, I surrendered my union card only to find out – to my chagrin – that this rule was neither observed nor enforced!!
So it ruined my Richmond situation, because someone complained that I was playing without a union card!

COCB: Nowadays I presume they would be saying “Thank you for your service!”  What happened next?

SF: When I got out of the band, the Washington, DC dept. of recreation hired me to do a civic conducting job  – that I was already doing.  Associate conductor of the Baroque Arts Chamber Orchestra. There were several of these civic groups, mainly military players looking for musical outlets. I was with the group for almost 4 years, the last several as Associate Conductor. I hasten to add…”associate conductor”  was really code for  personnel  manager and librarian. {Laughs] But it was an income. I also had two quintets one of which made money playing school concerts and the other which never earned a dime but covered all the great literature.

COCB: So…life after the Army Band.  What happened?

SF: I was a bachelor when I arrived in DC, but after 4 years I had become a husband, a father and owned a dog and a cat.  I needed to move on, so I hit the audition trail  I found out about the Calgary Philharmonic from a high school friend, who was already the principal trumpet there.  I took the audition. All of that went well so we decided to come North. We jumped through the official hoops and arrived in Calgary in August of 73.

COCB: A huge fork in the road for a kid from Houston. What were the challenges for an American getting work in Canada in the 70s?

SF: It was actually far more complex getting the two animals in than the family. And even though Calgary is arguably the most American of the Canadian cities, there were lots of cultural differences, like left hand fork technique and Eh, what’s poutine?  In Alberta???  All kidding aside, coming to Canada was the best and luckiest decision I ever made. I have never looked back.

SF: By the early 70s, the CPO had become the darling child of Calgary philanthropy. There was money and excitement , change and growth were in the air. I had joined under the English conductor Maurice Handford, a protege of Sir John Barbarolli.  Following his departure, there were two seasons with Franz-Paul Decker as artistic adviser and principal guest, then seven seasons with Arpad Joo, a passionate Hungarian who was a world class pianist. The fun really started with the appointment of Mario Bernardi in 83. Two seasons later we moved into the splendid Jack Singer Concert Hall. Mario worked like a dog training a robust but somewhat rough-hewn orchestra and tuning the many acoustical adjustments built into the hall. Mario covered an amazingly wide repertoire: Mahler 8, Britten War Requiem, Fidelio, Damnation of Faust. There were a swath of recordings and three tours, the last in 92 to the US. Anyone who ever encountered Mario knows that he was truly a force of nature.

COCB: Absolutely,  I worked with him for almost 25 years in the CBC orchestra and recorded many bassoon solo works with him.  I grew to be very fond of him personally.  I’ve spent the last 20 years in Ottawa with the National Arts Centre Orchestra, which certainly encodes much of his musical DNA.

SF: When Bernardi became Music Director, the CPO was playing in a very robust style . Arpad had strived for big, dynamic playing…almost aggressive you could say. This was due both to his fiery nature as a pianist, but also dry acoustics of the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.  This was an acoustically dead, all-purpose ‘horn shaped’ hall. The joke was that there were two dynamic levels…loud and take no prisoners! Bernardi had to put up with this hall for two seasons. Thankfully, we soon moved into the Jack Singer Concert Hall which is far better.  It’s a resonant hall with adjustable baffles and ceiling. i remember Mario spent much time experimenting with seating schemes and adjusting the height of the central ceiling panels.  It speaks to his good judgment that when Hans Graf came to the orchestra as the next music director, he kept Mario’s adjustments intact. Pretty much everybody had to pull up their socks a bit for Bernardi. More delicate and refined playing.  For me, a lighter more responsive reed as I didn’t have to play so loud…floated attacks were very important to his music making.

COCB: I get that. Of course, much of our work in the CBC orchestra was done in the studio where there were microphones everywhere and balances could be achieved in the control booth.  The primary challenge we had was the constant demand to record a 90 minute radio show in three services. Bernardi had to be very efficient with his time management.

SF: It’s hard to explain to younger generation players how important the CBC was to classical music for so many years. When I first came to Canada, I was delighted that I could hear orchestras from coast to coast. it was a real unifying force, particularly in the prairie orchestras.  It made us feel connected to the larger musical picture from coast to coast. It is truly regrettable that this connectivity has largely disappeared.

 

COCB: Tell me about the development of the orchestra in the last 20 years of your tenure.

SF: Okay. Following Mario’s departure and after several seasons of guests, the Austrian conductor Hans Graf was appointed. He really was the perfect choice to inherit Mario’s superbly disciplined orchestra. The only problem was that he was never here very much…three two week visits.There were many guest conductors. Perhaps the high point of his tenure was the tour to Europe in 2000. Playing Berg and Schumann in the Musikverein was a professional and personal wonder. Hans was followed by the Brazilian Roberto Minchuk. He was very strong, dripping with self confidence, and really good at the large scale works.  Interestingly, he was also surprisingly good at Mozart.

I’ve always had an interest in conducting.  I had guest conducted my high-school band, the Houston All-City Orchestra and then the Oberlin Ensemble and then the work with DC that I mentioned.  So when there was an opening with the Calgary Civic Orchestra, I became Music Director for 4 seasons. Later I became Music Director of the Calgary Concert Band for 8 seasons. I also had a small string ensemble for three seasons. Mike Hope sang with both the Civic and the Band for me .

-Arpad Joo

-Hans Graf

-Mario Bernardi

COCB: Words of wisdom about bassoons versus batons?

SF: Yes…Conducting is a lonely job…and usually comes with a ticket out of town! By the way, I think we both have an interest in acoustics – you with bassoons and me… well I developed a relationship with a speaker manufacturer of all things!  I’ve always been a hifi fan.

COCB: I must ask you about instruments and reed setups.  What did you play on during your long career?

SF: Okay, let’s see. Kohlert, Puchner, Heckel 9000, Heckel 7000, Heckel 8000 and a pre-whisper key Heckel, plus a 1950 era Buffet-Crampon.  What about you?

COCB: i have a form of attention deficit disorder.  I’ve had six Heckels, four Bells, two Walters, two Puchners and assorted other curiosities.  What did you like best and what about reeds?

SF: My 7000 series Heckel was always first choice,  I’ve talked about the Garfield influence. I certainly had to beef-up my reed a bit here in Calgary.  The reed which plays in DC doesn’t fare well in Calgary’s dry elevation and I had to deal with the old Jubilee Auditorium’s dead acoustics. Moving into Jack Singer was a great relief…still high and dry – you can’t change geography – but quite resonant.  So, I’ve stayed with my Tucci/Garfield  scrape for 50 years. Of course, I’ve tried other recipes, like Skinner, but I had no good reason to change.  And I managed to stick with Glotin cane the whole time!

COCB: Steve, you retired from the CPO in 2011 You were 64?

SF: Yes. In April of 2009 I became a stroke survivor. With a great deal of support from my late partner Diane, my colleague Mike Hope, and the staff and management of the CPO, I was able to return the following season. However the stamina and endurance never really came back. I would play quite decently for a couple of weeks and then hit the wall. After a season or two, it became apparent to me that I needed to retire. I retired in June of 2011, but continued to play extra until 2019. Of course I miss being in the middle of Brahms 4th, but not the responsibility on a daily basis.

COCB: You left big shoes to fill and a legacy of beautiful playing. It’s great to see the very gifted Antoine St. Onge in your old chair, quickly developing into a marvellous artist. And our mutual friend Michael Hope remains in the section, a real stalwart both musically and personally.  We should drink a toast to our good fortune having so many years making music in good orchestras.

SF: I like this McMilde  It’s earthy and a bit smoky. But maybe we should switch to Cognac?  It just so happens that I have a bottle of vintage Oubradous just waiting to be opened.

 

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