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A Musical Life: Scott Oakes

Scott Oakes is principal bassoonist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. He also serves as Senior Systems Administrator at Juniper Payments LLC, a banking services provider.

“If you’re looking toward the middle or the back of the middle of the orchestra, you’ll see a bassoon. The bassoon is the lowest voice of the woodwind choir, so you’ll hear us often playing things that really sound like a bassline. A lot of the orchestral music of Brahms or Beethoven, you’ll hear us playing a lot of little melodic lines and then, every now and then, a short little melodic solo.

The bassoon is a large instrument. The total length of the tube is around 10 feet. It doesn’t look quite that big because of the construction of the board doubled over on itself. But it’s quite a large thing. Usually, it’s only for young students who have large hands because its size and all the keys. It gets somewhat complicated.

I suppose it’s sort of like Harry Potter where the instrument chooses you.”

Oakes will perform the Wichita Symphony Orchestra on September 23 and 24 on a program that includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite and Hummel’s Bassoon Concerto. Oakes offered some further reflection that final piece, which follows below:

How might a performer approach a piece of music that is unfamiliar to the audience? How does a performer attempt to bring life to an artist or a work mostly forgotten over the decades? In about a week, I'm hoping to address this question in my bassoon concerto performance with the Wichita Symphony. 

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is far from a household name, even among musicians and classical music enthusiasts. In his time he was a famous piano virtuoso, associated with all the big names: a student of Mozart, a friendly rival to Beethoven, a court composer succeeding Haydn, and the nemesis of Robert Schumann.

When approaching a familiar piece of music, or a piece by a familiar composer, there is a certain set of expectations. A performer might chose to emulate another artist, or on the other hand she might do something original, usually based on an established stylistic norm we associate with a given composer.

Looking at a piece from a less familiar composer presents some additional challenge, but also additional opportunity - a bit more of a clean slate.

Hummel lived with and studied under Mozart while Mozart was writing his mature Piano Concertos. To me, the writing in this bassoon concerto looks more idiomatic for the piano than for the bassoon. For this reason I try to take the opportunity to focus on some elements that are somewhat pianistic. For example being aware of the harmonic structure of arpeggios and quick wide leaps; or being conscious of compound melodies - the kind of playing that piano virtuosos do with apparent ease.

Hummel wrote beautiful choral music, including a number of Masses and Cantatas. The Masses written in Vienna feature oboes and bassoons. The writing underscores and enhances the Latin Mass text, as if it were a personal statement of his faith. I see the result as a universal and timeless expression that could speak to anyone. The vocal style of this wind playing seems called for in the bassoon concerto as well.

As described by a well-known bassoonist, putting it all together is a little like trying to figure out what a dinosaur looked like when it was alive. Putting the harmonic and rhythmic bones together, using them to support the melodic flesh and skin, and finally animating it. Whether that animal, this bassoon concerto in my case, is "correct" may or may not be answerable, but whether it is meaningful or enjoyable will be a question for our audience next week.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.