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Interview with bassoonist, Philip Tarlton

October 30, 2019
bassoonist, Philip Tarlton

Bassoonist, Philip Tarlton, has had an acclaimed career as a soloist, chamber music player and as a long-standing member of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Having played in famous venues all around the world, he talks to us about life as a musician and about the book he has co-written about bassoon reed adjustment.

How did you first become introduced to the bassoon?
When I was a child, I had pneumonia and our local doctor suggested that I take up a wind instrument to strengthen my breathing. My dad bought a second-hand clarinet for me from a work colleague and playing it was extremely beneficial to my health. However, when I was about 12 there was a popular TV programme called The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the introductory music was, “The Funeral March of the Marionettes,”  by Gounod, played on bassoons. I fell in love with the sound and asked my music teacher at school if he could get hold of a bassoon for me. He did and I took to it like a duck to water!

Were you given an opportunity to go to music college?
My older brother played the violin and was a student at The Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) and it was arranged that my younger brother (who played double bass), and I auditioned for the Junior Department. We were accepted and my dad used to take us every Saturday morning for the next few years. It was then I knew I wanted to be a professional bassoonist and having auditioned became a full- time student, along with my older brother, at the Royal Manchester College. 

close up of bassoon

Photograph: ©Sophie Oliver

How did you then break into the profession after that?
Having left college, I freelanced in and around Manchester, playing with the Halle Orchestra, Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and Manchester Mozart Players etc. Also, at that time, the Manchester Camerata was formed, originally as a string orchestra, and I was asked to join them when they added wind players to form a chamber orchestra. I enjoyed it enormously and was eventually asked to perform the Mozart bassoon concerto with them which was broadcast by the BBC. They then took the programme on tour and I was fortunate enough to perform it another four or five times.

Is it possible for a woodwind player to make a career as a soloist, or do they need to include orchestral playing to supplement their income?
Unlike string instruments, there isn’t enough quantity or quality of repertoire to make a career as a soloist, therefore, orchestral playing is a must. 

So, players like William Waterhouse and Archie Camden would also have relied on orchestral playing?
Yes, they were both orchestral players in their day. William Waterhouse also taught at the Royal Manchester College of Music (I was one of his students) and performed with the Melos Ensemble. He would occasionally do recitals with his wife Elizabeth, accompanying him on the piano.

bassoon London Philharmonic Orchestra

photo credit: LPO

What was it like being an orchestral player?
In the London Philharmonic Orchestra, it could be both very exciting and very boring, depending on the quality of the conductor and of course, the music. When the orchestra was in the hands of Kurt Mazur, who was quite a task master to say the least, it could be very frightening. He was very feared and demanded the very best of the orchestra, but in my view he was a great musician and a great conductor and I felt very privileged to have been involved in some wonderful performances.

Did you feel pressurised?
Yes, indeed… but I worked hard and made sure that I was on top of what I had to do. Having a good reed was of paramount importance and that was, I suppose, the biggest worry. For instance, I did a tour of America with Kurt Mazur which involved thirteen performances of Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony which starts with a very low and very quiet bassoon solo. I had to make sure that the reed I had would enable me to play it. When you know you’ve got 13 concerts coming up like that on a tour it can be unnerving!

How many rehearsals did you have before a concert and would you be paid extra for the rehearsals or was that part of an overall deal?
I think things have changed to some extent over the years, but you are normally paid for the rehearsals and performance as a package. We would play concerts when there would be just one or two rehearsals, and occasionally just one rehearsal and a concert – it would all depend on who had booked the orchestra. But with the bigger names in conducting, like Kurt Mazur or Klaus Tennstedt, if we did a Mahler symphony at the Royal Festival Hall, for example, we would do 5 or 6 rehearsals. Several would be at our rehearsal hall, which at that time was the Henry Wood Hall in Borough, and then at least two rehearsals at the Royal Festival Hall or the venue in which it was to be performed. If we took the concert on tour, we would rehearse in the afternoon and then the concert that evening. Basically, you were paid for your time.

As an orchestral player did you travel abroad a lot and what were the difficulties in travelling as part of a large orchestra?
It usually meant getting up very early and getting to an airport. Quite often you would arrive in a country in the morning, then in the afternoon you would rehearse and in the evening you would play the concert! Many orchestras around the world, particularly the American orchestras, would not rehearse on the day they travelled and certainly not perform a concert! British orchestras at that time were rather in the hands of the accountants! I remember doing a concert with Klaus Tennstedt at the Musikverein in Vienna and had to get up at 5.30am to get to the airport for a very early flight. We then had to do an afternoon’s rehearsal and finally an 8 o’clock performance. So, after having been up for 15 hours or more we had to perform at our best in one of the most famous venues in the world, to a very discriminating audience and press.

What about travelling with the instruments – obviously a bassoon is much larger than a piccolo?
We were very lucky in that respect and our instruments were put in specially made boxes after the last rehearsal before the tour then taken away by a dedicated team and would be ready and waiting for us at the concert hall. Often, cellists would keep their instruments with them on the plane because they were extremely valuable and they would pay to have the instrument in the seat next to them!

What about recordings?
When I first joined the orchestra, we frequently recorded symphonies and concertos with famous soloists and in recording studios such as Abbey Road, which of course was a nice addition to our income. Film sessions were more lucrative, but one fee per session with no royalties. When we did the music to the first Lord of the Rings, as with all film sessions, you knew how many sessions you were going to do, usually about 15 sessions per film. The first Lord of the Rings film went on to make something like $900 million! As each subsequent Lord of the Rings film came along, the fee went up marginally, by about £120 per session, but the number of sessions was usually about the same. 

Kurt Mazur

Kurt Mazur

Who was your favourite conductor to work with?
I think it has to be Kurt Mazur. He could be a monster, extremely demanding and could be absolutely awful to people, but it wasn’t a personal thing, he wanted the very best for the music. Consequently, the performances were fantastic, with a great atmosphere. He was totally committed to the music, but sometimes at the expense of personal feelings. However, it was a privilege to have played for him.

Going on to the bassoon now, you mentioned earlier about the reed, so just how important is the reed and crook to a bassoonist?
The crook is important because it is the connecting part from the reed to the instrument – the Germans call it the ‘soul’ of the instrument. You can have a very good bassoon with a poor crook and you will have problems. You can have a mediocre bassoon with a good crook and you are in business.

With regard to the reed, without it being adjusted in the right way, it will determine how easily and expressively you are able to play.

bassoon reed

Photograph: ©Sophie Oliver

Are you saying that reeds have to be tailored to the individual?
Not so much to the individual but to the crook and instrument. Reeds come in many shapes and sizes and have to be adjusted accordingly.

How long would you expect the reed to last?
Again, it differs from reed to reed. You can get two or three reeds made from pieces of cane  from the same plant and each one will be slightly different. Some will be softer and others harder. Harder cane usually makes a longer lasting reed. I have played on reeds that have been decades old, but they are no longer made in the ‘old school’ way which involved more time and skill. 

You have just assisted in writing a book with the eminent bassoonist, Mordechai Rechtman, The Bassoon Reed ‘My System’. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The book is about reed adjustment, not reed construction and explains how to adjust a reed to make it play effortlessly and respond instantly. This book is unique in that it shows a method of adjustment which means you can reproduce this response with any reed and gives reference points which you can return to, so that if you take the reed out of the box one day and it doesn’t respond in the same way as it did yesterday, you can then use this manual to go back to certain positions in the adjustment process and return to that adjustment which will produce the desired response.

What is the ideal response you are after?
The idea of this system is that the bassoon can be played as easily as a recorder or whistle. It should not require huge effort to go from one note to the next or from one register of the instrument to the next. If you play a low note on the piano and then play another one higher up the keyboard, you don’t suddenly have to press the key harder because you are going higher. Like the recorder, if you play a low note followed by a high note there should be no sudden need to apply huge amounts of effort and pressure. The bassoon can be played in this way throughout its three and a half octave range using this particular system which the author has proven over many decades. At 93 years old Modechai Rechtman still plays and with just as big a sound as he did when he was Principal Bassoon with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for 46 years! 

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career as a bassoonist?
The simple answer is if someone really wants to be a bassoonist, they will be a bassoonist! How successful they will be is another matter. It’s in the lap of the gods. Even if you have practised hard and play well, the opportunities aren’t necessarily going to be there. All I can say is, if you love music and you find that the bassoon is your ‘voice’, then that is what you will do, regardless!

The Bassoon Reed  ‘My System’ by Modechai Rechtman and co-written by Philip Tarlton is priced £14.95 and available through June Emerson Wind Music

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