Bassoon - love at first sound

Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's principal bassoonist celebrates birthday

Richard Paley plays on a modern bassoon (photo credit: SHAI SKIFF)
Richard Paley plays on a modern bassoon
(photo credit: SHAI SKIFF)
He moved to Israel from Boston, MA in 1978 to work at the Israel Chamber Orchestra. What Richard Paley did not know back then was that the job came together with the aliyah – which he reveals with a sense of humor in the exclusive interview for the Magazine.
Paley is a pioneer of baroque and classical music performances on period instruments in Israel. He is the founding member of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Israel Contemporary Players. The composer Joseph Bardanashvili wrote his piece “Artition” especially for Paley.
Paley fell in love with the bassoon at age six, and still finds pleasure in playing and teaching this elite instrument, even during the COVID-19 period. He is the premier teacher at the Buchman-Mehta Academy of Music at Tel Aviv University and three leading Israeli conservatories.
Having just reached his milestone 65th birthday in October, he reflects on his life and career.
Before we begin talking about music, I want to ask what your first memory is from when you moved here in 1978.
The wonderful smell of airplane fuel and the orange blossoms from the trees. It made me feel at home immediately as I was leaving the old Ben-Gurion Airport.
This is an unusual combination. I suspect that was not the reason why you moved here. Raised and educated in Boston, you might have been playing at the Boston Philharmonic as well. Why did you choose Israel?
I didn’t. I had been to Israel before with my family. I spent my bar mitzvah summer in Israel, but it was not on my radar to move here. Initially, before I even finished my studies, I got a job in Bogota and I was ready to go there. But my teacher told me that very famous Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai had just made aliyah, and there was an opportunity to work with him in Tel Aviv. So I went to New York to audition for the Israel Chamber Orchestra when I was 21 years old. I got the job and came to Israel. Barshai was indeed a genius. I learned a lot from him, but as a person he was a dictator. For a young nicely brought up American boy, my first professional experience was a cultural shock to me.
Regarding aliyah, the manager of the orchestra told me: when you go to the embassy, you will get a visa (I expected a work visa), and they will give you a ticket to Israel. What they gave me was an A1 visa, which was for a potential oleh hadash. The orchestra got my salary from the Absorption Ministry.
So basically you made aliyah without specifically deciding to.
Without knowing! When I arrived at Ben-Gurion, at the passport control they looked at my visa and told me to go upstairs. I still did not understand what was going on. I entered a huge hall, two Aeroflot planes had just landed, so there I was with around 400 Russians. After five hours, I finally got to the desk and a woman began to speak to me in Russian. I told her I don’t speak Russian. I also didn’t speak any Hebrew. I told her I am American. She asked me in horrible English, “Do you know where you are? You are making aliyah.”
And when did you consciously decide to stay here?
I put the decision off for at least five years. I was enjoying living here, but I did not finish the process until the government forced me to. Otherwise I would have to leave the country. But I was fortunate, I made aliyah before the Internet and cable TV, before the Sony Walkman. People were still going to concert halls to listen to music and when walking on the street they would recognize you as a musician.
Can we say that music defines your life?
Absolutely. I wake up every morning grateful that I have this gift, I don’t have to go to an office, I can play music and I can teach it. It is a gift.
Was anyone else in your family a musician?
My grandmother was a pianist and singer in the Jewish Opera in Cincinnati. And my aunt studied piano and composition. She was at Harvard in the same music class with Leonard Bernstein. But my parents had nothing to do with music. I have loved music since I was a child.
Why did you choose such an elite instrument? Why bassoon?
When I was six years old in public school, I took music classes and I learned to play the recorder. One day the teacher brought different instruments to the class, among them was a bassoon and the sound of bassoon immediately touched my heart.
Love at first sound?
Yes, and it has been on my mind ever since then. At age 10, I convinced my mother, who did not even know what instrument it was, that I wanted to play bassoon. She thought I would be too small to play it and I would give up after two weeks, but 55 years later I am still playing it. The bassoon is a special instrument – unusual and not well understood. But the audience loves to hear the bassoon in the orchestra. We hear the music differently; we give rhythm and harmony in the orchestra.
How would you describe the sound of bassoon when you fell in love with it as a six-year-old?
Frank Zappa always said if he did not play guitar, he would play bassoon, because he loved the medieval quality of this instrument. I always felt this way, that it had an old soul. I felt it then and I still feel it today. Besides, the bassoon of all instruments is the closest to a human voice.
Which composer “feels” bassoon the best?
Of course, I love playing Bach, and he used bassoon all the time. But the three composers who really wrote for bassoon were: Mozart, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. Mozart was crazy about the bassoon! He wrote four bassoon concertos (three of them are lost). Also in his operas and piano concertos there are amazing bassoon parts; there is piano, bassoon and then orchestra. In soprano parts in his opera, there is a bassoon playing along with the soprano. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies also have incredible moments of bassoon.
Richard Paley gives a MasterClass on the historical approach to playing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto
Not every musician has music written for him or her. Composer Joseph Bardanashvili wrote “Artiton” especially for you. How did it feel to have the piece composed for you?
Quite flattering. I got to sit with the composer and discuss what works and what does not work on my instrument. “Artiton” is a portmanteau of art and iton (in Hebrew: a newspaper). It was written for me for my 20th anniversary with the Israeli Contemporary Players. I started this contemporary music ensemble with a few other musicians 30 years ago. We decided to move from the Van Leer Institute, where I was also playing back then and to start our own group. We were all members of the Jerusalem Symphony, but we also wanted to play contemporary music.
Were you ever tempted to compose?
No. It is not in my abilities, not my skills.
I have played thousands of concerts with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. I think I will be remembered more as a teacher, someone who supports contemporary music in this country, but also who changed the way people thought about music in this country.
What do you mean by that?
Besides contemporary music, I was always interested in baroque music, I was trying to increase interest in baroque music here and to find the original sound of Bach or Vivaldi. So 35 years ago with some other players I decided to start the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra to promote baroque music and try to play on these (at the time) unusual instruments. At that time, no one in Israel was doing it.
How did you come up with this idea?
My basic love for finding the essence of music. Music is a living museum, in a way. The same way you go to museums to look at Monet, you come to concerts to listen to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But with paintings we can actually see them, with music we cannot hear it, unless we know the technology they used at the time. I was always fascinated with the idea of which sounds Bach heard when he was composing.
It was always interesting to me that musicians who play for many years in the orchestra, (like you), must know the repertoire by heart; to have it imprinted. But each conductor has a different interpretation of the same music piece. Is it difficult sometimes?
At this point of my career there are many conductors who are conducting these pieces for the first time, and I have played them thousands of times. So there is often a small battle of wills. Who is going to win? But I always have good relations with conductors.
You are always smiling, I could not imagine otherwise. You smile when you enter the stage, and when a concert ends. Are you the same as a teacher?
I know, I must change it; people will take me more seriously [smiles]. Yes, I teach with humor. With a student you must be honest, sometimes egotistical; the student must understand that you know what you are talking about. But I see my students every week, (now 18 of them) and I give them my energy, so I must do it with a smile.
I teach at Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, at Tel Aviv University, Givatayim Conservatory, Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory and Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music. I teach in too many places, but I cannot say no when someone wants to learn. Even a 10-year-old child. I am trying to revitalize my instrument.
Is it like a mission?
It is like a mission. I think teaching will be my legacy. Performing comes and goes, the sound is fleeting, but teaching can change lives. I don’t look at the clock when I teach, because I teach until I feel that my students learned something.
I must ask you about the bizarre times in which we are living. How did corona change your life?
At the beginning there was an incredible sense of loss. My life centers (besides teaching) around performances. Every week preparing a new program, going up on stage and performing. The energy, the pacing of the life is: preparing, practicing and performing. When the virus hit, I was suddenly at home every night. I never knew how it was to be at home every night. But slowly I started to enjoy the new experience, to watch some TV, some movies; to have dinner with my wife on a regular basis.
How did online teaching change your relations with students?
It is exhausting, much more difficult to teach online. When teaching music, we focus on fine details of sound. I set up my speakers to listen to my students, but it is not the same. I also cannot really see how they position their mouth, how it affects their movement, their fingers.
Do you think this is a lost time for them?
For some, yes. When I teach, normally I want my sound to envelop the young player. So in regular lessons, I play and show them how to get to that sound. This is impossible online. We cannot play at the same time. But I am impressed with my students that they also wanted to continue studying during the summer. In general, they don’t give up when orchestras are being shut down. Corona may be with us for another year. Who knows when we will be able to have 100 people on stage again? Right now we try to keep to 45 people on the stage when we record.
Do you keep a distance of two meters between musicians?
Of course, we are trying. Now, every violinist playson a separate stand [usually two musicians share one stand]. Many instrumentalists who do not use their mouths to play wear masks. This is the new reality.
Were the concerts only for online broadcasting and recording, or also with live audiences?
At the beginning of September we performed for the first time after the break, in front of a very small audience, maybe 50 people. It felt good to be in front of an audience, but also it was weird and strange. The audience was so small; the concert was without a break, so people would not move around together. There was a feeling of loneliness. There was also an audience online. But the energy was different than usual.
I think we will have to take this much more seriously now. We can’t take our audience for granted. I think people are dying for art again, but they learned that they can live without it, too. Without the live art. I am afraid that they will not come back again.
As a person who goes to concerts, I promise you people will come back!
I hope so, but this is what comes to my head.
Hopefully the pandemic will be over one day. What will you keep in your life experience from this time?
The thought of not playing Mahler’s symphony ever again is painful to me. Not to have that experience again, I find it strange, bizarre. It is also hard for me to imagine retiring (I just turned 65, I am two years away from my retirement), but for the first time in my life, I think that maybe it will not be so bad. It took me a few months to realize that I don’t have to perform every evening and I can still do music.
I feel guilty saying it, but I understood that I can live without performing, something I could have never imagined before. I have slowed down in the past few months; I think I will enjoy spending evenings in my home. I am also fortunate to have a garden, where I love working.
Recently, we had an amazing experience; my daughter got married in our garden. Due to corona, it was a smaller wedding but everyone enjoyed it. It was very special!
Mazal tov, and happy birthday to you!