“Save the Bassoon” is the cry from musicians in the Netherlands. That is also the name of their project, which aims to revive the instrument’s popularity and inspire more young people to learn it.
The bassoon, also known as fagot, is a woodwind classical music instrument, known for its deep but warm tenor and bass voice. The bassoon’s relatives in the double reed family are the oboe and the contrabassoon.
The campaign, initiated last January by the Holland Festival, is based on long years of worrisome observation that fewer children are taking up certain instruments. Currently conservatories and professional orchestras are not getting enough applicants, and, as a result, a vast repertoire of Western classical and contemporary music may not be able to be performed anymore.
Although the project has no hard data, based on the number of applications for music lessons and at conservatories, the project founders see a general trend of fewer children learning any instruments at all, as Jochem Valkenburg, music and music theater program manager of the Holland Festival, wrote in an email.
“Even if they choose to play an instrument, it is often violin, piano, or flute—instruments that have stars like Janine Jansen, Sarah Chang, and Lang Lang attached to them. There is no such star for the bassoon or the trombone,” he said.
That is why the Holland Festival invited the Dutch virtuoso bassoonist Bram van Sambeek to be the spokesman for the campaign.
Sambeek is the first bassoonist in the Netherlands to receive the highest Dutch cultural award, the Dutch Music Prize in 2009. He is now teaching the bassoon at conservatories in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
Among the partners of “Save the Bassoon” are the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, a classical music concert hall based in Amsterdam, and the royal conservatory Koninklijk Conservatorium, based in The Hague.
The efforts to save the bassoon echo as far away as in the United Kingdom, where the principal bassoonist of Manchester Camerata, Laurence Perkins, has organized the world’s first International Bassoon Day on Oct. 11. The day will launch a two-month project to introduce the instrument into the British school system.
“The bassoon is one of the most versatile and characterful instruments in the orchestra, yet young people are not being given the chance to find that out,” said Perkins in an interview for the Classical Music magazine in the United Kingdom.
“This is beginning to have an impact on U.K. orchestras as music colleges no longer have the applicants to study bassoon in sufficient numbers,” he said.
The annual convention of the British Double Reed Society (BDRS) was cancelled this year for the same reason: inadequate number of applications for master classes.
Bassoonists in High Demand
But even if the bassoon attracts fewer young players, Keith Sweger, President of the International Double Reed Society (IDRS) and professor of bassoon at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, does not believe that the bassoon is in danger of disappearing.
“I have traveled around the world in recent years to perform and present and have been very impressed with the high quality of bassoon playing and strong interest in the playing and teaching of the bassoon. … I feel that the level of playing in the bassoon world is as strong as it has ever been.”
In working with several student competitions sponsored by the IDRS, he is encouraged by what he’s heard. He’s “confident that the future of the bassoon is bright.”
“I am certain that neither the bassoon nor any other instrument will disappear from the symphony orchestra in the near future because the significance of the symphony orchestra specifically and of music generally transcends momentary trends,” he said.
Still, Sweger admits that audience development is a significant danger to the symphony orchestra, which needs to be addressed.
Margaret Cookhorn, who plays contrabassoon with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England and is a member of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, shares Sweger’s optimism.
She does, however, confirm that orchestras are in competition with each other, trying to attract the best players. Elite bassoonists are in short supply.
But this shortage, she thinks, is one more reason for young people to choose this instrument, which she has loved since she started playing it at the age of 14.
“What I like about the bassoon is playing the bass line. I’ve never been interested in playing the melody. … If someone was thinking about taking it up, I would tell them that they would always be in demand.”