Sun Shines in Alicante
As part of our series on ex-pat Canadian bassoonists, Denise Sun tells us about her life with the ADDA Symphony Orchestra in Spain.
“When I grow up, I want to be a bassoonist “. These are the words and thoughts that I never uttered nor crossed my mind in my childhood and adolescence. I came across the bassoon by pure accident. I attended the Sydney Conservatorium High School as a piano student and was obligated to take on a second instrument; after a denied request to learn the violin due to my ripe old age of 11, I conceded to the idea of learning to play that long red stick with the bent metal rod sticking out. Surely I would just be sitting in the back of the wind ensemble enjoying the easy life of doubling the tonic and dominant of a tuba line on a red wooden bassoon. To my horror, the school issued me a black plastic bassoon. What followed was a couple of years of barely passing my bassoon exams, “forgetting” my bassoon at home for wind ensemble and completely disregarding any flat or sharp that would appear in my sheet music. Not to mention the onus of assembling the instrument every time it was to be played, followed by the disassembly and swabbing. It was a heavy burden for adolescent me, who was only acclimatised to the simpler routine of piano practice.
Fast forward 25 years and here I am today playing as one of the Co-Principal bassoons in the ADDA Sinfonica in Alicante, Spain. Alicante is a touristic coastal city on the east side of Spain on the Mediterranean Sea in the Valencian Community. I stepped out of my audition four years ago in the summer of 2018 in the relentless 40 degree heat, dreading to move to this party city, filled with hideous concrete buildings that were erected in haste towards the end of the dictatorship in the late 60s and early 70s to generate fast tourism revenue. I knew that life would be a stark contrast to that of Germany, where I had spent almost the previous decade studying and working in state theatre orchestras. The Alicante job would be for a shared solo position in a new symphonic orchestra, housed in a beautiful concert hall, amongst a luxury team of colleagues, playing all-symphonic repertoire so that I could kiss the long hours in the pit goodbye. However, I also had to say goodbye to impeccable orchestra management, swift bureaucratic procedures and my preferred hour of dinner time (Spaniards eat dinner at 9pm the earliest).
The orchestra’s season program consists mainly of the meatiest of the symphonic canon: symphonies and concertos of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Shostakovich, Beethoven and Stravinsky to name some. There were other more intimate concerts, my highlights being Mozart and Beethoven piano concertos played and conducted by Javier Perianes, as well as a Mozart concerto with one of my favourite pianists, Maria Joao Pires. I absolutely love playing without a conductor! I feel the group just engages completely undisturbed and having the musical antennae tuned to the maximum creates an exciting ambience where your senses guide you to map out the work and play the musical game of cat and mouse. I learn so much in that environment and I have so much fun as well! In that respect, we also have a chamber music series during the season, alongside a series of social concerts where we play in elderly residences, hospitals and other venues where the audience are not able to come to the concert hall. Our concert hall also plays host to the majority of European orchestras touring around the region. Not only do I have the good fortune to grab a complimentary ticket to hear these touring orchestras, but it also occasionally means that I get to catch up with some of my friends from my university days and summer festivals.
I am happy to say that I am adapting well to life in Alicante. The adjustment period in the beginning was a little rough; I had been spoiled with immaculate German paperwork, their organisation culture and their beautiful architecture. Now that my visas and papers have been sorted, I have come to realise that if you look, Alicante is full of beautiful little corners and surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Being an avid foodie, the gastronomy scene is vibrant. This vineyard spotted region is known for its seafood and paellas, amongst other dishes made from quality local ingredients. The city has a government subsidised language school for citizens and residents; not only did I do my Spanish course there, but I am now brushing up on my forgotten German. There is a café that is also a bookstore that I enjoy frequenting. If I open my eyes further, Alicante is so much more than a drunken tourist party town. The weather is mostly very agreeable and I have forgotten about winter. The ambience at work is so lively and supportive; the first time I spoke Spanish to the conductor in rehearsal, my colleagues erupted in full fiesta style applause and cheers, despite just asking something very basic. Over the past years, we have developed our own humorous banter amongst ourselves. We have meals together often, and even bought a giant paella pan for large barbeque gatherings.
I suppose my start in Alicante parallels my adamantly hopeless bassoon beginnings. Learning how to adapt quickly was (and is) a huge part of my growing up. Adjusting to life in Alicante entailed patience and self-reflection, so I was able to explore and discover the beauties that would unfold. My idealist attitude had me repeating my adverse childhood beginner bassoon mind set. Nothing and nowhere is perfect, otherwise how would anything evolve? Through personal evolution I have uncovered for myself a completely unexpected career path in a place that I never thought I would become a resident of. Of course, I can only hope that I never cease to cultivate this evolution. As cliché as it may sound, I am so grateful for the people in my life and where I am at the moment. I have so much to be content about. I am also thrilled to report that I own a red wooden bassoon now, although my contract stipulates that I play a bit more than a tonic-dominant tuba line.