Interview with Jane Gower – touring soon with Concerto Copenhagen

As a specialist in historical bassoon, Jane Gower performs extensively throughout Europe, the United States and Australia. She has a growing collection of original instruments on which she also performs. Jane tours Australia with Concerto Copenhagen and Genevieve Lacey in June and July.

What is the difference between historical and modern bassoon?

“Historical bassoon” could mean any predecessor of the “modern” bassoon; that is, the bassoon we find in all modern symphony orchestras, which in itself paradoxically has remained basically unchanged for the past century! I own and play over 20 historical bassoons, and by that I mean either originals or faithful copies ranging from 1600 until 1910, from Germany, Italy, France, Austria and England. For the purposes of this tour let us take my “baroque bassoon”, a copy of an instrument built around 1700 in the Nuremberg workshop of J.C.Denner. As opposed to the modern bassoon which has about 30 keys, this instrument only has 4. All the “in-between” notes (or the chromatic black notes on the piano) need to be achieved by the use of clever fingering patterns, and each note has its own colour and sound quality.

We have often tended to regard the development of instrument building, particularly of wind instruments, in a Darwinian light, whereby there should be a constant line of progress between primitive and technically advanced. Why would one choose deliberately to play on a bassoon which has only 4 keys rather than the latest model? Wouldn’t that be like choosing a 10 year old computer with 2 gigabytes of memory rather than the newest with 400? Wouldn’t one want to play smoothly, with a homogenous sound and technical perfection? However, each of my bassoons presents a tonal world unto itself, as it is so closely aligned with the specific music of the times. The composers never regarded the intrinsic characteristics of the instruments as faults needing correcting, but rather as qualities waiting to be exploited. The best composers, certainly amongst them Telemann and Vivaldi, knew the bassoon of the period inside-out and exploited its colours and idiosyncrasies to strengthen the expressive and dramatic nature of their music.?

What led you specialise in historical bassoon? And does specialising limit you in any way?

I studied modern bassoon at the School of Music in Canberra, and already during my studies was becoming frustrated with the limitations of the instrument. It just didn’t seem to be loud enough, soft enough, agile enough, subtle enough to express what I had in mind. And the repertoire was quite feeble. I was lucky enough during that time to play with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and there encountered two inspired musicians, Richard Tognetti and Paul Dyer, who planted the “historical” seeds in my head. Since then a wealth of new repertoire, new musical languages, cultures and experiences have opened up. I realised that playing certain types of repertoire on the modern bassoon was a bit like trying to speak French without having any idea of the pronunciation. One might be understood, but all the nuances and indeed the essence is lost. So now I speak 20 different languages, some with more fluency than others, on each of my bassoons. This can hardly be limiting!

Sometimes I do wonder if I spent all my time on one bassoon, the way a symphony principal would do, I’d have attained more specific expertise and technical brilliance. However, in the way that a knowledge of foreign languages only refines and assists one’s use of one’s mother tongue, I choose to see the same influences in my playing.

What was the first record you ever bought?

I’d hate to be predictable, but I’m pretty sure like most 70s’ kids it was ABBA The Album. I still love their music; it is highly intelligent, original and brilliantly crafted.

Which living artist do you admire most and why?

Too hard! I tend to get over-involved in whatever exhibition/concert/book I’m in, and think it’s the best thing ever (unless I detest it utterly). So let me just say that I recently read Candy and God of Speed by Luke Davies, and loved them both. He has what seems an easy and beautiful talent to convey that treacherous territory between brilliance, genius, obsession, addiction and insanity, which fascinates me.

You’ve toured all over the world. What is your favourite touring destination?

Australia. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve always been devastatingly homesick.

What can audiences expect from the Concerto Copenhagen tour?

Anything but dull, correct, bookish baroque playing. Nor is it “wild, exciting, flamboyant” in the way some of the Italian orchestras are billed. Concerto Copenhagen is a real chamber ensemble, like one great lung whose common breath is animated in this case by Lars Ulrik in the centre. For me the orchestra’s main attribute is its unique way of phrasing as one organism. That and the genuine, completely unstaged pleasure of playing together.

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About Musica Viva Australia

Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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