Bassoonist LeClair Brings Back-Bench Favorite To Fore

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New York Philharmonic principal bassoonist acknowledges the applause after a solo performance in 2005.  (Photos by Chris Lee)
New York Philharmonic principal bassoon Judith LeClair takes a bow after a solo performance with colleagues in 2005.
(Photos by Chris Lee)
By Gail Wein

Usually, the bassoons are seated near the back of the orchestra, adding tone color along with an occasional wistful or jovial solo. But Judith LeClair, principal bassoonist with the New York Philharmonic since 1981, will be front and center at Avery Fisher Hall on Jan. 16, 17, 18 and 22, when she plays the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, with Andrey Boreyko conducting.

This marks the fifth time LeClair has performed the concerto with the NY Philharmonic, each time under a different conductor: Zubin Mehta (1983), Christopher Hogwood (1986), Andrew Davis (1992) and Colin Davis (2000).

Judith LeClair has appeared as soloist often with the Philharmonic.
LeClair on the Mozart concerto: “I think of it as a tenor singing.”

Who’s conducting, says LeClair, can make a big difference in the musical result.

“You can have a conductor who isn’t sensitive to the bassoon – I’m sure Boreyko is going to be fabulous – but you need him to get out of the way so the bassoon can shine and come through,” she says. “It’s balance-wise where they’re most helpful, and also the tempi have to move along.”

The conductor also needs to be in sync with the soloist with regard to the cadenzas. This time, LeClair is performing a brand-new cadenza, which she wrote with some help from her husband, the pianist Jonathan Feldman, and the pianist Jeffrey Kahane, with whom she plays chamber music. “There are cadenzas written by J. Walter Guetter in one of the editions, and I’ve played them before,” she explains, “but I wanted something flashier and new. I think it’s a fun cadenza for the first movement.”

As she celebrates her 32nd season, LeClair reflects on how playing with the venerable orchestra has changed over the decades. When she first started with the Philharmonic, she was one of the youngest musicians. “This has always been an excellent orchestra to play in,” she says, “but I have to say that it has become even more fun to play here than it used to be. When Lorin Maazel came, the morale of the orchestra went up greatly. And Alan [Gilbert] is really terrific with everybody in the orchestra. It’s great fun to play with my colleagues. It just keeps on getting richer and better.”

LeClair’s longevity in her post is not so unusual in the New York Philharmonic, where she is only the fourth person to hold the principal bassoon position over the past century.  Before LeClair, there was Manuel Zegler (1958-1981), William Polisi (1943-1958) and Benjamin Kohon (1907-1943). Polisi’s name is familiar to bassoonists around the world as the creator and manufacturer of the Polisi brand bassoon. The Polisi name also rings a bell in the music world because William’s son, Joseph (also a bassoonist), has been president of the Juilliard School since 1984.

It’s safe to say the concerto by Mozart is the only well-known work for bassoon and orchestra. One of the challenges of playing the “only” concerto in the repertoire is that it’s the one you play a lot. LeClair explains that the challenge is to not let it get stale and boring. “There’s so much in this piece, it’s a gem,” she says. “You have to make it sound brilliant. Technique has got to be perfect, it’s really got to be.”

It is believed that Mozart wrote as many as five bassoon concerti, but the score to the 1774 Bassoon Concerto is the only one that survives. “So 80 percent of his bassoon concerto output was lost,” laments LeClair. “We don’t know whether he finished them or they were lost, but it’s kind of heartbreaking because we depend on this piece, and we don’t know what else could have been.”

LeClair playing Weber's Bassoon Concerto with the NY Phil in 2005.
LeClair played Weber’s Bassoon Concerto with the NY Phil in 2005.

Of course, there are other pieces for bassoon and orchestra. In fact, the composer John Williams wrote a work for LeClair, Five Sacred Trees, which she premiered with the New York Philharmonic in 1995. LeClair acknowledges that the repertoire is growing.  “People are writing new works all the time,” she says. “There are some fantastic composers out there that I would love to have write concertos for the bassoon. For instance, I think [Esa-Pekka] Salonen’s music is wonderful.”

Though LeClair has played the Mozart concerto many times over the years, she still is preparing rigorously for this performance. “It’s like training for a marathon,” she says. “Orchestra work – we do that every day, and chamber music is wonderful, but performing a concerto is a whole other way of playing. You have to keep your technique and your physique completely in shape in order to play a concerto. You have to be completely in control of the instrument. For us, since we don’t do it that often, it’s kind of all-consuming for a while. And I find instead of just cramming, I like to get it in perfect shape early.”

Jonathan Feldman, Jeffrey Kahane
Jonathan Feldman (top) and
Jeffrey Kahane worked with
LeClair on her new cadenza.

One of the major facets of playing bassoon is the unique challenge of double reeds, which are delicate constructions of two very thin strips of bamboo, cut to a precise size and shape, bound together just so. “Reeds are time consuming, and it’s an obsession with us,” admits LeClair. Although they can be purchased, most professional players prefer to make their own, starting from scratch with just a piece of bamboo cane. Shortly after beginning work on the Mozart concerto, in August, LeClair she started working on reeds, setting one aside in September for the concerts four months hence.

“Here in the Philharmonic, we gouge our own cane, we profile, we do all the steps,” she says. “You get all the specifications that are right, and you know when you have a great reed.” It’s a fair amount of trial and error to make the perfect reed. “I’ll do a dozen at a time and that’ll be it for a while,” LeClair explains. “Out of a dozen I’ll get maybe two good ones. I do spend a few hours a week on it.”

The bassoon is a pretty complicated instrument, with a plethora of keys, pads and tone holes, plus the persnickety double reed. So much can go awry at any time, so why doesn’t this constant pressure make LeClair completely neurotic?

“I practice a lot. I love to play the bassoon. I spent my childhood practicing. When I was in middle school, I would go downstairs and play for three hours a day.”

Though most people may not think of the bassoon as a solo instrument, LeClair finds it marvelously expressive, and, in the right hands, incredibly imaginative. “In the slow movement of the Mozart, it’s like an opera aria,” she says. “I think of it as a tenor singing. I find the bassoon’s voice very much like a tenor. I think of that all the time when I play, when I try to be expressive.”

Gail Wein is a New York-based music journalist, media consultant, and recovering bassoonist. She is a contributor to Playbill, NPR, and The Washington Post among others. Her bassoon resume includes the St. Louis Philharmonic, Boone County Bassoon Band, and Glickman-Popkin Bassoon Camp.