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All About The Beautiful Bassoon, From Clowning To Crooning

Jessica Griffin
Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bassoon Daniel Matsukawa

Hollywood may have typecast the bassoon as comedic star, but Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bassoon Daniel Matsukawa fills us in on the instrument’s great lyrical expressiveness. He is soloist in this week's Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert broadcast, playing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto back in 2017.

I was a lead guitarist and a lead screamer for a punk band, and so when I heard the bassoon, I fell in love with the sound. I immediately asked my parents if I could play the bassoon. I really don’t think they knew what a bassoon was, but they were so happy. They’re like, anything is better than that stuff you’re playing that’s peeling the paint off the walls.—Daniel Matsukawa

In the mid twentieth century, the bassoon became linked with bouncy comedies and cartoons. But back in  1774, when he wrote his bassoon concerto, Mozart knew that the bassoon could sing like a diva. 

Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Bassoon Daniel Masukawa says not every instrument has a Mozart concerto in their repertoire, and  it's a tremendous honor that the great composer chose to write one for the bassoon.  What's more, he says, "It’s such a beautiful and  joyful piece."

When he was growing up, Matsukawa sang in boys choir and then in a punk rock band.  When he fell in love with the bassoon after hearing it on the radio, singing became the way he approached playing.  "I would try to emulate that through my bassoon. It’s the most natural way to make music."

Made of maple wood and standing over four feet tall, the bassoon is actually eight to 10 feet of tubing folded in half; its large size belies its versatility. "People think of it as a low instrument and not so virtuosic," says Matsukawa. " I think people are surprised once they can hear that a bassoon can do many things."

But Mozart knew, writing into his concerto both lyrical melodies and acrobatic passages. Matsukawa grins.  "I would love people to remember that singing aspect more than the humpty dumpty character." 

Among other composers with concertos for bassoon: Vivaldi, Bach, Hummel, Weber, and Philadelphia’s own David Ludwig, whose concerto Matsukawa premiered in 2013.

Daniel Matsukawa, The Philadelphia Orchestra's Principal Bassoon, talks about his instrument, illustrating its range and versatility.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.