ARTICLES (Music & Musicians International)
Published in ‘Music & Musicians International’ July 1991



Like many people, I was ignorant of the bassoon and its repertoire. Well, almost - for me it was a large instrument with the daintiness of a small missile launcher, played by my extremely swotty cousin as a cunning means of infiltrating the school orchestra which had a groaning surfeit of clarinets, flutes and violins. It played the low bits in German folk-songs. And so Daniel Smith was the man to put me right. A tall, distinguished-looking American, he is largely responsible for the growth in popularity of the bassoon as a solo instrument. His driving purpose is to show off the instrument, in all its fullness and diversity, with work ranging from a project for ASV, recording all Vivaldi's bassoon concerti (more later) to contemporary, ragtime and jazz. His breadth of inspiration can be heard on a disc released recently-'Bassoon Bon-Bons' which brings together a Chopin Etude, Rachmininov's "Vocalise" and the "Golliwog's Cake-Walk" of Debussy among others.

I asked Mr. Smith about the bassoon repertoire. "While some major composers such as Brahms didn't write any solo works for bassoon, Mozart wrote a very famous bassoon concerto. Then there are the 37 concerti of Vivaldi, Weber wrote two interesting concertos, Hummel wrote one, Strauss wrote his duet concertino for bassoon and clarinet, and so forth. If you add several lesser composers, you'd probably come up with at least fifty or so concertos. Plus a lot of sonatas and other pieces".

We turned to Vivaldi, quite naturally in the setting of Daniel Smith's airy flat decorated with many prints of Venice. His recordings of the 37 concerti with the English Chamber Orchestra has been a long-range project that is now half way finished-with one album per year till the entire series is done. The project greatly animates him: "These concertos have lots of character and are very sensitive, and considering the harmonic palette is limited, very inventive. The slow movements are ethereal and the outer movements of these fast-slow-fast patterns are very exciting, they can give you goosebumps!"

"Vivaldi lived and worked at 'La Pieta', an orphanage for teenage girls in Venice, and was maestro of the orchestra, composing for these pupils. Apart from the violin, his most ample output was for the bassoon. Nobody understands why. He must have had an unusually talented young woman there: this music is difficult to execute, full of all types of 'breathtaking hurdles' as one reviewer put it. The instrument used was also an earlier Baroque model, and as it is, even today the bassoon is the least developed of the woodwinds. In other words, mechanically it's more awkward to play than any of the others. Having played them all, I am well aware of this."

How did his musical life begin? "I actually started on the bassoon very late in life. I was 24 years old, which is unusually late to start anything. A rather odd sequence of events had led me to getting involved with music in the first place. I started the clarinet at age 16, knew nothing about music, and if you asked me what a clef was, I wouldn't have known what to say, I was totally ignorant. So one New Year's Eve, when they reunited the Benny Goodman trio on television. I saw him play and to me it was pure magic". He went to a local music studio where his cousin was studying drums and asked them if he could take lessons on the instrument Benny Goodman played - the trumpet! Suspicious, the teacher asked him to describe this 'trumpet' and when told that it was 'long and black, sent the young Smith off to be taught the clarinet. This sequence of events, he feels, was 'fate'.

Daniel Smith's earliest influences were jazz musicians, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, and Charlie Parker especially. "I felt the emotion and excitement of what they were doing coming through. What I'm saying is, it doesn't matter what instrument you're playing or what idiom you're playing in, what is important is the feeling, the communication".

From his beginnings with the clarinet, saxophone and then flute lessons followed in quick succession. Having entered a conservatory as a clarinet major, he switched to become a flute major, gaining this degree from the Manhattan School of Music in NY. He then went on to join the West Point Band as a special serviceman where he played solo piccolo and flute. During his last year in the army, he began to study the bassoon.

"The motivation had nothing to do with what I'm doing now-it was a very pragmatic thing - How can I make a living when I get out of the army? - this was my thinking at that time. I thought that if I played another reed instrument, and especially a double reed, there would be more opportunities-showbands, studio work, etc.".

"As the years went by, I became very fond of the instrument. I loved the sound it produced and the challenge of playing it-it is so difficult compared to other woodwinds. Many people also find it appealing when they hear it for the first time."

"An interviewer asked me recently to describe how I sound. I said, 'I can't! I have absolutely no idea'. When playing, I get lost in what I'm doing - I'm out of myself. When I finish, I can sort of evaluate if I did what I intended to do, but other than that, this is the only way I can describe it".

"Although I've had extensive formal training with many famous teachers in the States, members of the NY Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, etc, at some point I just went my own way in regard to developing a style. Consequently, people either like it very much or are dubious. Not so much listeners - audiences are enthusiastic at my concerts and recitals and my recordings sell very well. But apparently, I have stepped a little aside from the 'correct' way of playing, although not intentionally, just simply by doing what I do."

The advice he received from one teacher encouraged him to stick out and be different. "There are a lot of very good bassoon players around, and they all play well - everybody knows the orchestral repertoire - that's a given. What you have to do is somehow make yourself special so that the audience in front of you can feel something is happening. Not just the correct notes coming out, they've got to be almost lifted out of their seats! I always try to capture the essence of what I'm playing, whether a sonata, a crossover selection, a traditional English piece, ragtime, or a virtuoso bravura piece."

What are Daniel Smith's plans for the future? His solo career continues to flourish, with many engagements in his diary. Over the past three years he has been working with pianist Jonathan Still, and the duo has been taking shape with over 20 recitals in the past two years. He feels fortunate in having found in Jonathan a responsive musician who picks up the slightest nuance from his partner. As a dedicated Anglophile too, he anticipates spending more time in this country. This past year two more recordings were released: the third volume of Vivaldi concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra on ASV, and also a five concerto volume including works by J.C.Bach, Hertel, Graupner, Vivaldi, and an 18th Century dance suite by Henry Hargrave - also with the ECO and on ASV.

He also points out that most importantly is not 'what' he plays, but 'how' he plays it. "My recent recitals sound very different now from what I would have played a year ago."

He enjoys the opportunity to speak to the audience, to communicate information about the musical selections, and to break any barrier between performer and listener. The growth in the instrument's popularity excites him. "It's going to come into its own soon. If it's played well and effectively, it can be very appealing. There are a lot of fine bassoon players around, so eventually it will catch on and people will accept it as an important solo instrument to go and hear."

Daniel Smith seems to relish the freedom of being a solo artist and a member or a rare breed. "It is vital to convey the inner 'life' of the music over everything else. Arthur Rubenstein claimed that he never played a perfect performance, and hoped that he never would. There would be nothing left to aim for. In any event, it really does not matter what instrument you play, it's what you can convey through the music that is important and meaningful, everything else is just the technique of executing it. I'm always changing the way I play - the use of vibrato, dynamics, phrasing,'s limitless what you can do. Discipline has its place, but when you are trying to convey a musical message, why not be flexible?"

- Ruth Preston






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