Nicolas Richard, FINALIST, OSM Concours/Montreal Symphony Competition 2020

Nicolas Richard, FINALIST, OSM Concours/Montreal Symphony Competition 2020

The Council of Canadian Bassoonists congratulates Nicolas Richard for advancing to the Finals of the 2020 OSM Concours/Montreal Symphony Competition!

See links below for the final event on December 12.

#OSMCONCOURS – Annonce des finalistes !
Bravo aux 6 candidat.e.s qui ont été sélectionné.e.s par le jury ! 👏👏
Catégorie Bois : Stephanie Morin, Arin Sarkissian et Nicolas Richard
Catégorie Cuivres : Robert Conquer, Léonard Pineault-Deault
et Cyril Fonseca
Retrouvez-les pour la finale virtuelle le samedi 12 décembre !
Pour revoir leur performance: https://bit.ly/3kQZEt2
#OSMCONCOURS – Finalists Announcement!
Congratulations to the 6 candidates who have been selected by the jury! 👏👏
Woodwinds Category: Stephanie Morin, Arin Sarkissian and Nicolas Richard
Brass Category: Robert Conquer, Léonard Pineault-Deault
and Cyril Fonseca
Encourage them at the virtual final on Saturday, December 12.!
To watch their performance: https://bit.ly/2IZSEgo
bassoon, winner

Nicolas Richard, Finalist, OSM Concours 2020

Bassoon Wizard in the Woods – Benson Bell

Bassoon Wizard in the Woods – Benson Bell

Benson Bell

Bassoon Wizard in the Woods

by Darren Hicks

Part One

After being asked to write this post about Benson Bell I thought “How well do I really know him”?! I don’t think I have ever had an in depth discussion about anything other than the bassoon (and specifically MY bassoon), its assorted accoutrements, and how to get an attractive and beautiful sound out of it. And now that business is booming and hunting season is in full swing I don’t think I’ll be able to get him on the phone for said in depth discussion any time soon. So until I can pin down the elusive bassoon maker extraordinaire let me tell you about my introduction to the man, the myth, and the legend that is Benson Bell and B.H. Bell Bassoons.

My first encounter with Benson Bell came out of a mildly traumatic experience.

In my second year of university, my teacher and lifelong mentor, Christopher Millard, loaned me a bassoon to play. I was beginning to outgrow the Takeda bassoon my parents had purchased through Gerald Corey and Chris was kind enough to give me the opportunity to play a professional-level instrument (i.e. break in his new bassoon). At the culmination of the loan period, I pulled my old Takeda out of the closet and, to my horror, the cork on the tenons had warped and the joints wouldn’t fit together. Word of warning: make sure the bassoon in your closet gets pulled out and played with regular frequency, especially if the closet is not insulated properly.

Oh, what surprises were in store for naïve Darren! As it turned out, not only was the cork on the tenons warped but the tenons themselves had warped. Additionally, and perhaps most crucially, the entire bore of my bassoon was out of whack.

Eek.

Needless to say the search for my new instrument began immediately. Cut to the phrase “Ben Bell has a bassoon he is selling” coming out of Chris’ mouth at one of my lessons a few weeks later. I nodded and said “Oh yes, of course: Ben Bell” knowing full well I hadn’t the foggiest what that name meant. I grew up fairly ignorant of the bassoon world outside of my high school band and provincial youth orchestra. Such is life in rural Nova Scotia for a physics-obsessed teenager. After that lesson I walked home, immediately googled “Benson + Bell + Bassoon”, and, lo and behold, a website appeared about a Canadian bassoon company owned and run by a man named Benson Bell. “Huh! How had I not heard about this?” I said to myself. “Wow, it looks like some people really like his bassoons!”

At my next lesson I asked Chris for more information about this bassoon for sale and he said, “It’s number 50 and a bassoonist in the States is selling it through Ben.” I took a deep breath and asked the scary question:

“How much is it?”

“It’s under 30 thousand” Chris replied, as if that was a bargain for a sophomore in college. I blinked, gulped, and quickly reminded myself how to breathe. “I’ll need to have a chat with my parents” is all I managed to squeak out. [By the way, Chris was right: under 30 thousand is a bargain for a professional level instrument!]

Thank heavens my parents were on board and understood how important getting a quality instrument was for my success in bassoon-playing. After trying out the bassoon and listening to Chris play it for me in my lessons, money was moved around and Bell #50 was in my hands. To say the adjustment period was fast is an understatement. I was playing the bassoon in ensembles within a week, and with a much higher success rate in projection and tuning to boot! On my former bassoon, intonation and tone required an in-depth discussion between me and the instrument, one that often devolved into a stalemate. On this Bell it all just happened.

A little while after purchasing the instrument I had to take a trip to his “factory” and have a new key put on. I rented a car for the very first time and drove down from Ottawa to the forests outside of Peterborough. I remember specifically having to rent a GPS unit from the car rental place because I did not have a smartphone yet and the drive to the workshop is, shall we say, a little off the beaten path.

In a clearing in the woods stood a house and behind it what looked like a large garage. That garage turned out to be the workshop where the bassoon magic happens. I opened the front door and took in the space where the life of my bassoon started. Benson took me on a tour of the facility, showing me where the wood for his bassoons sat and aged, where his lathes and machines were, and his smaller workshop space where so much of the fine-tuning and adjustments were done on each bassoon. Once the tour was done and introductions to his staff were made, he took the wing joint of my bassoon in for surgery. I was having a French whisper key put on and although I had told him I didn’t want to watch, curiosity got the better of me. I was in this workshop of wonders and thought that I would regret not seeing the magic happen.

What I witnessed still haunts me to this day.

I’m just kidding. But it was pretty frightening seeing my brand-new-to-me bassoon under a drill press! Had it been anyone else I would have been much more nervous, but if I can’t trust the guy who built the thing who could I trust!? Under his expert hands many repairs and tweaks to my bassoon over the years have helped me get to where I am today.

My admiration of Benson and his encyclopedic knowledge of the bassoon has only grown over the last decade of owning a Bell bassoon. Every time I send an email, call, or visit the shop he has a solution to every problem I bring with me. It’s akin to alchemy the way he works on a bassoon, knowing precisely what adjustments need to be made by listening to the sounds coming out of the bell in tandem with his masterful skillset. His never-ending curiosity about the bassoon and sound in general is an inspiration to all bassoonists who meet him. I know he has been a catalyst for me to think more deeply about how to get the best out of my bassoon and for that I am eternally grateful. The head start he gave me with an incredible horn has informed and shaped my musical identity and career. In my continuous journey to develop as a bassoonist and as a musician having Ben in my corner undoubtedly fuels my success.

In my next installment I will delve into Benson Bell’s personal history, exploring how he got his start playing the bassoon, fixing bassoons, and building his bassoons. Stay tuned!

Read more about today’s guest blogger,  Darren Hicks, Associate Principal Bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Finalists for the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition 2021

Finalists for the Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition 2021

Congratulations to all of the 2021 Meg Quigley Vivaldi Competition Finalists!
And the COCB is especially thrilled to see Canadian bassoonist Thalia Navas in the final round of this distinguished competition.
Sarah Bobrow (USA)
Amelia del Caño(USA)
Lauren Henning (USA)
Rachael Lee (USA/Taiwan)
Julianne Mulvey(USA)
Thalia Navas  (Canada)
Tatia Slouka (USA)
Quincey Trojanowski (USA)
Sandra Vieira Ribeiro (Brazil)
Laressa Winters (USA)
Congratulations to each of the many talented young women who entered this year’s competition!  Your dedication and hard work, particularly during these tumultuous  times, is very impressive.
The preliminary round judges  included Canadian bassoonists Catherine Carignan, Christopher Millard along with colleagues Catherine Chen, Francisco Joubert, and Anthony Parnther, who each wrote detailed comments to every applicant.
The final round  will take place in a multimedia video format at the 2021 MQVC Virtual Symposium January 3-10 and incorporates audience engagement and other creative elements. In addition to artistic bassoon playing, finalists are encouraged to pursue other creative mediums to present the music in ways that will appeal to a wide general audience by incorporating elements from other art forms such as poetry, photography, drama, dance, visual art, videography and more.
MQVC will provide each finalist with a new bassoon quartet arrangement of the orchestral accompaniment to the Vivaldi Concerto so that she can record the parts separately and edit them together. MQVC will provide the finalists with workshops on effective audience engagement and creating an artistic concept for the videos, as well as education on managing the technological aspect of this project in order to optimize the audio and video quality.
Free recording equipment will be supplied to each finalist by Fox Products Corporation for making the final videos.
MQVC awards $1000 to each finalist who submits a successful final round video that contains all of the required components. Additional prizes to be awarded on the final night of the Symposium include:
$2500 Vivaldi Prize
$2500 New Music Prize
$2500 Media Prize
$2500 Engagement Prize
The Symposium will also feature health and wellness events, master classes, reed hangouts and recital performances given by an incredible and diverse line-up of professional performers and teachers.
More info on the Symposium, including how to register and a schedule of events, will be coming soon at mqvc.org,
Frank Marcus – Canada’s Bassoon Repairman to the World – by Michael Sweeney

Frank Marcus – Canada’s Bassoon Repairman to the World – by Michael Sweeney

Frank Marcus – Canada’s Bassoon Repairman to the World

by Michael Sweeney

When writing pretty much anything, one of the first things you must do is determine your audience.  In the case of writing about Frank Marcus, obviously my audience is predominantly bassoonists based in North America.  But of course, Frank is well-known outside of Canada and the US too.  So now my audience has widened to the bassoonists of the world.  But there, I have touched on something by using the phrase “well-known.”

I wonder, are there any bassoonists who have not at least heard of Frank Marcus and the magic he can work on a bassoon?

So now I sit with the question, “How should I write for an international audience of bassoonists most of whom already know Frank quite well, while describing him to the few who do not?”  It is a daunting enterprise for sure.  So, I’ll tell the story of first meeting Frank and try to segue (gracefully?) to the present after about 35 years of professional association and friendship.

I first heard about Frank Marcus from one of my teachers, Norman Herzberg, in the mid 1980s when I was living in Los Angeles.  Herzberg was incredibly enthusiastic about Frank’s work, describing it in the most glowing terms.  At the time, I was playing on Heckel 13049 which was only a few months old.  I was very happy with this instrument and was practicing like a maniac because of how inspiring it was to play.  As with any new, fresh-out-of-the-box bassoon, it had some idiosyncrasies that I had to get used to.  Eventually I played it long enough that I was getting used to them, and long enough that I had made a list of all the things that had to be changed to make it better suit my hands.  Based on Herzberg’s enthusiasm, I phoned Frank in Toronto and made a week-long appointment with him.

At this point in time, Frank was in a business partnership with Benson Bell, working in their shop on Richmond Street in downtown Toronto, a short walk from Roy Thompson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  My partner then was Brad Wharton (1960-1986) who was also a bassoonist.  We made twin appointments with Frank and Ben and planned to have a bit of vacation in Toronto, a city that neither of us had ever visited.  As the week progressed, I remember finding the work Frank and Ben were doing and the conversations with the both of them to be incredibly interesting and stimulating.  Suffice to say that on that trip Brad and I ended up not seeing very much of Toronto.

Frank Marcus at his workbench in Wasaga Beach, Ontario

Frank Marcus holding a one-of-a-kind low A bell made by Benson Bell for a Levin-Ross Eichentopf A-415

On the last day of the work week, my bassoon was finally completely reassembled and ready to try. It was just before noon and Frank and Ben suggested Brad and I stay in the shop and get reacquainted with our bassoons while they grabbed lunch.  Frank stayed a few extra minutes just to make sure they were in fact ready to be played.  I remember that disorienting feeling of playing a bassoon that I did know, but at the same time did not know.  My disorientation was further compounded by not having played any bassoon for nearly a week.  Frank left after just a few minutes saying in his trade-mark deadpan, “Oh good.”  I must have looked at him quizzically, because he explained that he was always a little anxious when a customer first played their instrument after a lot of work because he worried that he might have accidentally done something to render it unplayable.  Approx. 35 years later, this exchange still amuses me because in all this time he has of course never had an accident like this with my instrument and because, every time I have left Frank’s shop, it has been with my bassoon playing about 100 times better than when I arrived.

So, now I must tackle the interesting subject of Frank’s incredible expertise.  Long before he came to the attention of Herzberg, Frank had journeyed to the US to study with the famed Hans Moennig who repaired woodwind instruments in Philadelphia.  Although Frank’s time with Moennig was brief, he made the most of it by watching and listening to the master with extreme care.  Because he arrived at Moennig’s shop already with a fair bit of experience, he was in a good position to absorb through observation rather than having to have Moennig actually explain to him how to do everything.

As Frank tells it, he learned his craft three ways:  observing Moennig, figuring things out on his own, and fixing his own mistakes.  In the years that I have been observing Frank work on my bassoons and listening to him talk about working on other bassoons, I suggest that an additional source of his expertise comes from his openness and ability to listen keenly to his customers.  The listening I refer to is both that of his customers’ bassoon playing and their verbalizing of their experience of their instrument.

There are of course a lot of repair technicians out there to choose from.  Most players have had occasion to consult with more than one.  If you’ve ever had the experience of a repair technician telling you that how you want a key to feel is “wrong” or that the new pad height they just set is “correct” even though the pitch and tone sound awful to you, then you also know the relief it is to encounter someone like Frank who listens to what you say and does his very best to realize your request.

 

Low-F and -F# keys that Frank enlarged on my new Heckel.

In this regard, Frank reminds me of Ralf Reiter, co-owner of the Heckel firm in Germany.  In 2015, I traveled to Wiesbaden to pick up a brand-new customized bassoon from the famous maker.  I arranged to stay for a week knowing that the instrument would probably need a fair bit of adjusting because Heckel had agreed to customize it in the extreme.  Reiter and his chief technician Dominik were extremely patient and respectful and worked diligently and creatively to make sure that I was completely happy by the time I left their workshop.  Frank is like this too.  When you first take your bassoon for a test run, Frank listens even more acutely than when you first described what you wanted him to do.  It has happened more than once that Frank has heard something that at first eluded me because I was listening for something else.  Before you know it, your instrument is back in pieces and he is fixing something new.

Since I have mentioned Ralf Reiter, I hope my reader will permit this short digression.  When I first consulted with Reiter at the Heckel workshop in 2011, he was at first overwhelmed with the scope of my requests for the customization of a new Heckel bassoon.  I showed him drawings for several mechanisms and ergonomic improvements that I had conceived of and designed on my own.  At first, Reiter was not sure Heckel would build everything I asked for.  After taking some time to consider my designs, he did ultimately agree to most of my requests and later told me that one of the deciding factors for him was the knowledge that Frank Marcus was my repair technician.  Reiter said that he had seen enough of Mr. Marcus’ work over the years to trust that any customized bassoon Heckel might make for me would be well looked-after by Mr. Marcus.

One last factor that has served to place Frank at the forefront of bassoon repair technicians is that he used to play the bassoon.  Of course it is not unusual that a bassoon repair technician would play the bassoon presently or in the past, but Frank evidently played well enough to occasionally be engaged by the Toronto Symphony as a substitute.  Though it was long before I joined the TSO, it is hard for me to imagine that Frank’s playing was anything less than brilliant. Today, the sound that Frank looks for in a bassoon is one informed by his various experiences on the concert stage, that is, from real, practical experience as a performer.

Thirty-five years ago, I was a free-lance player in Los Angeles without much knowledge of what was entailed in setting up a bassoon properly.  Now I’m in the latter part of a long career as principal bassoonist of the TSO and have much more knowledge concerning how a bassoon should be set up.  I have acquired that knowledge mostly in Frank’s shops; first with Ben in Toronto, and later with Shane Wieler in Brampton.  These days, I continue to learn from Frank at his shop in Wasaga Beach, though work on my bassoon has been halted by the Covid-19 quarantine.

My gratitude toward Frank is unbounded.  Most of us have had the experience of trying a great bassoon that is not in good playing condition.  You can feel that the instrument has potential, but the experience of playing it is somehow distracting from the music itself.  Once Frank has worked some of his magic, you can have the opposite feeling – the feeling that the bassoon itself is fading away leaving only the music and what you want to do with it.

Thanks for everything Frank!

Michael Sweeney

Toronto, 30 August 2020

Frank testing a student’s bassoon (photo by Nadina Mackie Jackson 2019)

Frank Marcus (Centre) with Suavek Krysmalski (Barcelona Symphony Orchestra) (L) and Michael Sweeney (R) photo by Eliska Hrivnak 2019

Read more about Michael Sweeney

Photo by Sian Richards