Evora: My Lucky Day
May 20, 2013
My Lucky Day
... So after an unusual breakfast (you can squeeze your own fresh orange juice), I leave my freezing cold hotel room. (Last week it was quite warm but now the temperature has dropped and the hotel already adjusted the HVAC system for summer so there’s no heat from the damned vents.).
I dodge morning traffic across a busy avenue and walk through the stone gate in the protective medieval walls into the old section of town. I stroll down a main road, and then, as is my custom, to a colorful side street (flower pots and laundry) Then, impulsively, I turn down a side street off the side street (maybe I’ll get lost, but who cares?) always trying to keep my sense of direction so I will arrive at the Praça do Giraldo, the cathedral and the Roman ruins on the hilltop up there, somewhere.
But then, hold the phone … stand by …wait just a minute … I stop dead in my tracks!
A unique and unmistakable sound fills the quiet morning air of the narrow stone lanes. Instantly I recognize that plaintive tone. A bassoon! No, not a recording. Someone is playing solo bassoon here in this neighborhood.
(I bet you didn’t know I play the bassoon. “Played” is the proper verb tense.)*
My memory banks explode with visions of events covering more than fifty years.
I must investigate and find the source of the music.
With the help of strangers on the street, I find the entrance to the Évora Music Academy. I head up the stairs to a studio, knock on the closed door and enter uninvited to find a professor, Eduardo Sirtori, and his young bassoon student. They are delighted with the interruption and welcome me to chat with them.
We talked about our love for the bassoon. We agreed that we are proud and fortunate to play this instrument. We discussed the challenges of the bassoon repertory (sonatas and concertos) and the importance of the bassoon to the woodwind choir of a symphony orchestra.
The bassoon plays at the lowest register of all the instruments and provides the harmonic foundation of the music. Composers love the bassoon and offer ample opportunity for recognition (solos in Scheherazade, for example, and of course, the opening passage of the Rite of Spring).
(Maybe you thought I was going to talk about Roman ruins?)
Eduardo and his student were attentive when I told them my story:
I learned to play the bassoon in high school in New York. I was pretty good. At graduation I won the Orchestra Award. My bassoon career ended when I went to university.
Ten years later, my wife, the late Alice Dawn, gave me the best gift ever. ** Alice rented a bassoon for me and the rest is history:
I took lessons from Lauren Goldstein, a Julliard School graduate.
I bought a bassoon.
I became a member of an amateur civic orchestra wherever I lived: the Brooklyn Philharmonic, the Main Line Symphony outside Philadelphia, the Lincoln-Sudbury Orchestra outside Boston, and finally, the Brookline Philharmonic near Boston. Then my “career” ended abruptly once again.
The most important facet of this career was that I returned to music. Eventually I returned to the piano. And that had an even greater dramatic effect.
(A few years ago I planned to write an essay about my life in music as a player and as a teacher: “Jan’s Opus.” But that’s for another day.)
So here’s the big question: “How in the world did I come to play the bassoon?”
This is what I told Eduardo that morning in Évora:
“From the time I was nine years old, I played the piano. In high school, I registered for the music program. I wanted to learn the clarinet.
“On the first day of class, the music teacher, Mr.Philip Kessler, was assigning instruments to the new students. I was seated in the rear of the room.
“Mr. Kessler called out to me, “You, in the back, show me your hands.” I complied. (In those years, high school students were compliant and respectful.)
“You have big hands,” Mr. Kessler observed. “You will play the bassoon.” … The what? … Of course, I had no idea that special moment was truly the beginning of a long and precious musical journey.
When he heard the story of my orientation in music class, Eduardo made a comment that shook me. For the second time that morning I stopped dead in my tracks, immobilized by my emotions and the flood of memories.
Revealing his own strongly held personal bias, and reacting to my story of that chance event long ago, Eduardo said to me, “Well, Jan, that was your lucky day!”
*Basson, fagot, الباسون , ֆագոտ , 巴鬆管 , בסון, ปี่ทุ้ม , фагот