Daniel Smith - Bassoon Virtuoso
Readers will recall that Robert Farnon has dedicated his final work – the Bassoon Concerto "Romancing the Phoenix" - to Daniel Smith, the eminent American virtuoso on the instrument. Recently Daniel gave this exclusive interview to ‘Journal Into Melody’, in which he talked about his career and meeting Robert Farnon.
interviewed by David Ades
DAVID: Daniel, let's start with how your career in music began.
DANIEL: I grew up in a family where there was not any musical background. The reason for my taking up music makes for a rather funny story. I grew up in the Bronx, and when I was sixteen years old, happened to see a show on TV which reunited the original Benny Goodman trio in a New Year's eve special. Seeing Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson was a magical moment which changed my life forever. I knew absolutely nothing about music or instruments and watching them perform left me staring at the screen with these amazing sounds coming from them, and especially Benny Goodman.
Shortly after seeing this show, I l went to a music studio where my cousin was studying drums and told the owner that I wanted to take trumpet lessons. He asked me why I wanted to play the trumpet and I told him that I had seen someone on TV play the trumpet and that I really liked the sound of it. 'What was this person's name' he asked me? 'Benny Goodman' I said. ' And what did his trumpet look like' he further inquired? I said it was long and black. He then of course told me that it was a clarinet. That's how naive I was! So it was actually Benny Goodman who inspired me to want to be a musician.
Prior to this I was studying to be an artist and went to a special Arts High School in Manhattan as well as the Arts Student's League. I had always had this artistic bent in me since I was a small child. No one in my immediate family or any of my relatives had such a trait, so I guess it just came sort of out of nowhere. As the saying goes, 'I did not choose it, it chose me'.
My first lessons were on the clarinet with a somewhat inept teacher. I then switched to Bill Sheiner, whose teaching fame was that he taught Stan Getz and other famous artists. I then took up the saxophone with him after the clarinet and also added on flute. Eventually I entered the Manhattan School of Music as a clarinet major and midway through, switched to being a flute major and eventually got my degree from them on flute.
DAVID: Where does the bassoon come in?
DANIEL: These were the later years of the Vietnam War and of course I had to do whatever I could to avoid getting caught up in this- or else run to Canada. Being now of draft age, I chose the best way out by signing up to perform with the West Point Band to fulfil my draft obligation. I auditioned for them on flute and was appointed solo piccolo and flute in what is called 'Special Services' and with the rank of SP5 for a three year tour of duty. Meanwhile, my wife had given birth to my daughter while I was in the service and I was nervous about making a living after I returned to civilian life. I thought it would be prudent to learn a double reed instrument to compliment my already proven skills on saxophone, clarinet and flute. This so I could then have the ability to be a 'doubler' and be able to perform in Broadway show bands and studio work. So this is how I got involved with the bassoon and at this point, had nothing to do with the idea of being a bassoon soloist, just to help make a living.
DAVID: So you were always employed as a musician one way or the other?
DANIEL: More or less. My parents had hopes of my being an accountant or a dentist like a cousin of mine. My father especially fought tooth and nail that I should not be a musician and I had absolutely no support or understanding from them. It was very traumatic and a very difficult period in my life, but obviously there was something within me that held firm and somehow held onto my desire to be a musician. I always envied anyone who came from a family where there was understanding and support. Recently, before his death, Robert Farnon told me of the joy he had coming from such a family where music was an important part of everyone's life.
DAVID: It made you all the more determined to become a musician.
DANIEL: Yes, you are correct. My father had worked in the Post Office and I watched the sort of life he had, and by the time of his retirement, he was a very closed person full of fears about life. His advice to me was to never take risks. So I knew instinctively that this was not for me, a safe and secure life where no risks were involved. Music became my calling, and as I said before, I did not chose it, it chose me.
My later background in music is so different from that of a conservatory trained classical bassoonist, although I did study eventually with some of the best players and teachers, including the principal players from the NY Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Boston Symphony and even from Toscannini's NBC symphony. In later years I performed in the bassoon sections as an extra or substitute with the NY Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and several other leading ensembles with some of these very same teachers. However, along the way, I also did many things in music that a strictly classically trained bassoonist would never experience and certainly not which you would associate with someone known as a solo classical or jazz bassoonist. For instance, I played saxophone and flute with Latin bands in New York at clubs where we would be in very dangerous neighbourhoods. These 'gigs' would go to two or three in the morning and I witnessed riots, knife fights, beatings, attempts on my own life, etc... nasty stuff but part and parcel of my musical experiences.
DAVID: There are not many bassoon players around; is this why you took up the instrument as you knew there would be plenty of work?
DANIEL: Yes, exactly and we sort of covered this earlier. But this had nothing to do with my eventually becoming a soloist on the instrument. At first, it was purely pragmatic, to make a living so I could support my family. As the years went by, and for various reasons, it evolved into a strong desire to become a soloist and also to plunge into areas of music where the bassoon had never gone before- crossover, ragtime, popular music, and of course jazz. And along the way to record a lot of musical gems written for the instrument, especially the complete 37 bassoon concertos of Antonio Vivaldi.
DAVID: Tell us of your time on Broadway.
DANIEL: I can answer this in a 'broad way' in fact. I was at one point doing so many different things in music and on so many different instruments, that I would almost say I was going through multiple musical lives. I played in Broadway show bands, off-Broadway show bands, Latin bands, resort show bands (where I played lead alto for big headliners such as Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence, Billy Eckstine, Billy Daniels, Buddy Greco, Carmen Macrae, etc.) ...I was a very good sax player on all the saxes as well as the other woodwinds. I played with such bands as Billy May, Les Elgart, and even one summer with Guy Lombardo where I had to execute that outrageous wide vibrato to fit in with his sax section. Then a Latin band phase where I played with or opposite on the bandstand with the likes of Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente, Xavier Cugat, Machito and others. A lot of this sort of stuff was overlapping such as where I would perform as principal flute with an orchestra north of New York city, jump into my car, and drive to Manhattan where I would dash into a night club to perform that same night with a Latin band on saxophone.
As my bassoon playing started to improve, I kept on taking lessons with those teachers I referred to earlier and was granted a scholarship to Tanglewood. I also spent four seasons on scholarship with the National Orchestral Association under Leon Barzin. And then started to perform on bassoon and contra-bassoon with a lot of orchestras and ensembles. So as you can see, I wound up for a variety of reasons doing a lot of different things in music, including and excluding the bassoon.
DAVID: So most of your work was in New York in the early days?
DANIEL: Yes, I did not go to California or Hollywood, just around New York. Somewhere along the way, I was starting to get this desire to become a solo bassoonist and started to perform concertos with various orchestras. I also had the good fortune of performing for ten years as principal bassoonist and as soloist many times during summers in Rome, Italy with the Rome Festival Orchestra. And then I started to plunge in with making my early recordings- mostly concertos with string ensembles on a variety of labels. My biggest break then came when on a trip to London with my wife; we were at a friend's home in Richmond where the subject of my recordings and musical career came up. This couple were close friends with Jose Luis Garcia, leader of the English Chamber Orchestra, and they asked me if I would like to record with them. I thought I was dreaming but she was obviously serious. She picked up the phone and rang Garcia. We spoke for a while and he instructed me to send him some of those recordings I had already made so the powers that be at the ECO could hear them and judge if I was up to recording with them. They liked what they heard and before I knew it, I was sitting in a chair at Rosslyn Hill Chapel in Hampstead with the ECO and recording an album of mixed bassoon concertos. I also at that time made an album of English Music for Bassoon and Piano with Roger Vignoles, so my foot was now in the door with recording in this country.
At the suggestion of the producer of these two albums, Brian Culverhouse, I took the masters to ASV which had recently started up thanks to the leadership of Jack Boyce. I got to know Jack very well and he was keen on my doing further albums for ASV. When I mentioned to him that Antonio Vivaldi had written 37 concertos for bassoon and nobody had ever recorded them all, he said to me 'why don't you do them for us?' I thought he was kidding but he was quite serious about this. It was a huge undertaking, and over a period of six years, half accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra and the other half with the Zagreb Soloists, we eventually completed the entire series which went on to win several awards, including the MRA award as 'Best Concerto of the Year', The Penguin Guide *** rating, and four times on Fanfare magazine's 'Want List'. Along the way there were other albums including crossover music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, music for bassoon and string quartet, others involving ragtime and so forth.
DAVID: How did you become aware of Robert Farnon?
DANIEL: In November of 2004, the phone rang at my flat in London. It was someone by the name of David O'Rourke who was phoning me from New Jersey. David indicated he was glad to have finally located me and asked if I knew who Robert Farnon was. I said I had heard of Robert Farnon and asked why he was phoning me. David told me that there was a network of people trying to hunt me down on both sides of the ocean. Apparently, Robert Farnon wanted to write a concerto for bassoon which involved jazz improvising and my name kept coming up as other bassoonists were approached about this project. He had fallen in love with the sound of the instrument and now knew I could perform both the virtuostic concerto parts as well as improvise where needed in the piece. But he only knew of my first name ...'Daniel' and could not locate me. Eventually through a broad network of people, they found me via my UK manager.
David O'Rourke and I had a wonderful conversation about this project and left me with Robert Farnon's Guernsey phone number. He said that I should phone him and that Robert Farnon would likely be contacting me shortly as well. Within ten minutes the phone rang again and this time it was the voice of Robert Farnon that I now heard. I will never forget his deep booming and friendly voice with his cheerful introduction...' Hello Danny', how are you?' There was an immediate connection between us and as I later found out, many others had experienced the same sort of thing over the years.
Robert and I had a long conversation that day and went over the concept of the bassoon concerto. In the next weeks, we had many further conversations on the phone and I then flew to Guernsey a few weeks later in December to visit with him and go over the piece, this after having earlier sent him samples of my recordings to listen to. He was full of praise for my playing and was very open about any ideas I might have for the concerto. On his music stand was the first page of the bassoon concerto score.... that was all he had at this point. I asked him how long before the full concerto would be finished and he said that he would have the whole piece ready no later than the beginning March of 2005, just two months later! I arranged with him to fax me the bassoon parts in New York where my wife and I would be from December through February of 2005. Within a very short time, the faxes started to arrive courtesy of his copyist and by mid February, I had the entire solo bassoon part in my hands. I could not believe the speed at which this all happened. I practised and learned the solo part in New York and in February returned to the UK and then flew to Guernsey to actually play it for Robert Farnon. At this point, he was recuperating from a leg operation and receiving therapy at a nursing home in Guernsey. We spent a wonderful day together going over the concerto and sharing lots of laughs and stories. He was so excited about this music and said it was the best thing he ever wrote and that it's premieres would be huge successes. His wish was to be able to conduct it himself, to have the UK premiere at the Proms, to have Andre Previn involved in Oslo, Canadian orchestras involved, and much more. He wanted to devote his energies to having all this accomplished as soon as his Third Symphony was premiered in Edinburgh later that month. And as we all sadly now know, he was not to be alive much longer after that day.
DAVID: Could you describe the work to us?
DANIEL: I will try to some degree. I actually never saw the score until that second trip to Guernsey in February, about a month before he passed on. I had at that time with me the solo bassoon part, but did not understand where everything fitted in or how the piece was constructed. When he showed me the completed score, I knew almost instantly that I was looking at something very special and unusual. Robert told me that all his life he wanted to compose something that had no restraints on it and which would include everything he could muster up from a lifetime of composing and arranging. As with his Third Symphony, his last two pieces including the bassoon concerto were not bound by any commissions, deadlines, financial obligations, or anything else, just to fully express himself as a composer. And as I mentioned before, he told me it was the best piece of music he ever wrote and was very excited about seeing it brought to life.
In the actual score, you can see passages where the bassoon plays the role of a lead saxophone with three bassoons underneath in the scoring, just as in a saxophone section. There is also a lot of percussion used and in many sections, the winds of the symphony act as a sort of wind band within the full orchestra- Farnon described this as ' a big band within a full symphony orchestra'. Naturally there are gorgeous moments in the second and lyrical movement as per what everyone knows of the music of Robert Farnon. And then as we arrive at the third and final movement of the concerto, Robert made full use of some of my suggestions where he pulls out all stops. At one point, the full symphony orchestra and 'big band' fade back and the bassoon opens up with a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums in an up tempo blues (which Farnon composed himself) allowing for unlimited choruses to be played and at the moment of choosing of the soloist, the conductor then brings in the orchestra, starting with percussion first and then adding on instruments. And then after a few more spots which also have improvisation involved, a really startling ending which simply flies all over the place and ends on a bang. It is hard to describe and hopefully we will see all this incredible music brought to life in the near future when everyone can hear what Robert Farnon achieved in his final work.
DAVID: Robert called it 'Romancing the Phoenix'. Do you know why?
DANIEL: Sort of. I asked him but don't remember his exact words. Robert apparently had the concept of the phoenix as an elusive legendary bird that rises up again and again in unexpected ways. I suggested 'Flight of the Phoenix' which he liked even better but after checking this name out on the Internet, he discovered that this title was the same as a recent movie and so he went back to his original title idea. The concerto, without any doubt, is a one of a kind piece, and I am sure that when it is heard, it will have quite an impact in the musical world.
DAVID: So is it with a jazz band and also a symphony orchestra? Roughly how many instruments are involved?
DANIEL: It is with a full symphony orchestra, and once again as Robert Farnon described it, ' a big band within a full symphony orchestra'. When I finally saw the score, I was a bit confused as I thought he meant a big band including a saxophone section, but apparently what he had in mind was a big wind band using the resources of the wind players of the symphony being involved in passages that stand out from the full symphony in various passages.
DAVID: Isn't it costly to stage with so many musicians?
DANIEL: Not really because it involves a symphony orchestra which already has the wind players within it. The only instruments to be added would be a piano, bass and drums for the jazz rhythm section.
DAVID: Have you any idea where the premiere might take place?
DANIEL: At this point we are following up on various possibilities. As already said, Robert's wish was to see it premiered at the Proms and wanted to work towards this goal and other premieres, not knowing of course that his recent illness would become worse. He was so upbeat and so excited about this music and looking to hearing it performed. In any event, I am sure that in the coming months we will know a lot more about premieres. Unfortunately, we will never know what doors he would have opened but there are other people now working on this. I am sure there will be a big demand to have it premiered in various venues and countries.
DAVID: You have the honour of having his very last work.
DANIEL: Yes, he was very generous about it for many reasons, not only that he wrote it for me but that he arranged for it to be printed by Warner/Chappell and with a dedication to ' The American virtuoso Daniel Smith'. He also had the opportunity for one movement to be premiered with the BBC Concert Orchestra but turned it down because they would use their own bassoonist (he would have had to write out any improvised solos of course) and he would not allow this to happen until I did the actual premiere. Which was very kind of him.
When I last met him at the nursing home in Guernsey, and also prior in some phone conversations, Robert had asked me if I could bend notes on the bassoon like the clarinet does at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue. I said I was not sure but would play for him when we next met and show him what I can do. So when we did meet, I told him I had an idea about this query. I played Duke Ellington's ' In A Sentimental Mood' . Several measures into the piece, the melody swoops down to an Ab, which I seriously bent as per Johnny Hodges would have done. 'That's it!' he exclaimed with a big smile on his face. I think he wanted to go back to the piece and incorporate this effect in the music but of course we will never know what he had in mind.
DAVID: Will other bassoon players be able to play this piece do you think, or is it a bit too technical?
DANIEL: Probably not. A highly skilled virtuoso bassoon player could execute the melodic material but would not be able to improvise in those places which require this unusual skill. And for the handful of jazz players on the instrument, I would have serious doubts they could execute the written parts which are quite difficult.
I would like also to bring up the subject of unusual and different music which can be performed on the bassoon and also jazz. Ragtime if executed with the right feeling can sound very natural on the instrument, as does a large amount of 'crossover' material including transcriptions of music normally performed on other instruments as well as orchestral pieces. As for playing jazz on the bassoon.....several years ago, Steve Grey composed a work for me entitled 'Jazz Suite' which I had the honour of performing with the Welsh Chamber Orchestra. The piece contained improvisational spots and which forced me to plunge in and get serious about playing real jazz on the instrument. I was already a virtuoso so to speak but all of my technical skills were of no help whatsoever in learning how to play jazz in a serious way. I had to methodically learn to play extended chords and scales from top to bottom on the instrument and in all keys. This included many scales and chords which do not appear in classical music. And then to place all ideas exactly where the underlying chords are heard and of course to 'hear' musical ideas many measures before you execute them. This took me about four years to accomplish and along the way my arms became very sore and stiff from the effort. But then suddenly the ideas flowed and the soreness stopped... everything just flowed! All the musical ideas made sense and I can now perform a full two hour jazz concert without using any music and with a repertoire of nearly one hundred jazz pieces to pick from including bebop, swing, Latin, blues, ballads, etc.
Finally, the bassoon must be amplified when performing jazz, otherwise it would not be heard above a rhythm section, let along a full symphony orchestra. I have a special microphone attached to my crook/bocal which makes this possible. When Robert Farnon found this out, he was much relieved knowing that his music would be clearly heard above the orchestra in his bassoon concerto. And as for developing a jazz style on the instrument, there are no real role models from the past to learn from such as Armstrong, Gillespie or Davis on trumpet or Parker, Getz or Rollins on saxophone. It is all pioneering stuff and I am very pleased to be involved in such ground breaking efforts and of course with the bassoon concerto of Robert Farnon as a fitting memorial to his memory and talent.
Daniel Smith was speaking to David Ades on Tuesday 24 May, 2005. The Editor thanks Adam Endacott for transcribing the recorded interview for 'Journal Into Melody'.
Daniel Smith through his management would be most pleased to hear from any conductors, festivals or venues interested in being involved in performances of the Robert Farnon bassoon concerto. Contact information concerning his USA and UK managers can be made via his website at www.danielsmithbassoon.com
This interview appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ September 2005.