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Karen Geoghegan - Classical Star
John Robert Brown
Bassoonist Karen Geoghegan is about to rush off to a rehearsal. A student at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM), this morning she has an ensemble on her timetable. Nothing unusual about that, you might say, but I'm surprised when the 20-year-old reveals that this particular RAM ensemble consists of nine bassoons. The unusual nonet is preparing for an appearance in the E4 Udderbelly Festival, at the Southbank Centre in London. Taking place within a huge overturned purple cow, the eight-week festival will feature comedy, live music (no, not moo'd music), theatre, circus acts - and the RAM Bassoon Ensemble.
Scottish-born Geoghegan has a laugh in her voice that dares me to ask what piece her bevy of bassoons is practising to play beneath the inverted cow. I put the question, to be told that the musicians are working on an arrangement of ABBA songs, plus an arrangement (for nine bassoons - can you imagine?) of Vidor's Toccata.
One rarely sees or hears an assembly of nine bassoons, and certainly never ever beneath an overturned purple cow. And even solo bassoon recitals themselves are relatively unusual, whatever the surroundings. Geoghegan would be the first person to agree: "I have to admit I've never seen a bassoon concerto played live in concert, or even a professional bassoon recital, come to think of it - which is shocking," says Geoghegan, with disarming candour. "They just don't occur often."
The hope is that she may have some influence in changing this dearth of solo bassoonery, for Geoghegan (rhymes with Reagan) was one of three finalists on the recent BBC Two television programme Classical Star. Although she didn't win the competition, her prominence - and her beautiful playing - seem both to have given the bassoon a boost in popularity and to have given the lie to the idea that the solo bassoon repertoire is small. "There is a repertoire," she insists. "Pages and pages of it." And the notion that bassoon records won't ever sell has been proved to be completely false by her success, and her regular plays on Classic FM.
For the show, contestants were followed by cameras twenty-four hours a day. They each underwent an intensive programme of teaching, practice and master classes from top artists and industry specialists, all aimed at 'developing the contestants' all-round performance skills and abilities'. Geoghegan found this to be a mixed experience. "We didn't really know what to expect," she says. "The programme got a lot of bad reviews, but there's no denying that it changed my life. Fewer people would have known about me had it not been for that show."
Geoghegan emphasises that any bad notices that Classical Star received were general. They had nothing at all to do with the bassoon. "The criticism was in terms of some of the things that the television producers were making us do," she says. "They were trying to create the BBC Young Musician of the Year programme in a new way, but not quite being able to achieve it. The bad press was not directed at individual players, just towards the show in general."
She believes the long-running Young Musician of the Year programme to be a great show, yet also understands that something different had to be attempted. "That's what they were trying to do with Classical Star," she says. "We needed to give classical music another slant, to show it to people who might not be so aware of it. There was nothing wrong with the programme, which was a great way to introduce people to classical music. I wouldn't describe it as dumbing down."
Now, her life has changed. "After the TV show there were occasions when people in the street would recognise me - but now that the hype of the show has died down I don't get recognised on a regular basis. Obviously it's nice at concerts when people come up to say that they've come to the concert purely to see you. When they ask for your autograph at the end, it's really lovely.
"All the pieces we were doing on the TV were good standard repertoire. The prize for the show was a three-record recording contract with Universal Classics and Jazz (UCJ). I didn't win, but the recording contract was the prize that the winner ultimately won. There was no prize for the runner-up. For the final of Classical Star we each performed a concerto. I performed the Hummel. That's when I was approached, because the Chandos record company has a reputation for recording Hummel works. It then emerged that Chandos would like a CD of bassoon concertos. We decided to include the Summertime arrangement, which I'd also played as my encore in the Classical Star final."
Three RAM students made it into the top five. "The Academy was hugely supportive," says Geoghegan. "The main thing for me now is to complete my degree. Apart from that, there's another concerto disc for Chandos lined up for next year. I hope to record the Mozart concerto. And I'm doing a prom in the summer, on Wednesday 5th August, playing the Mozart Bassoon Concerto with the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. I did a CD with the BBC Philharmonic last summer.
"I listen to recordings of the great bassoonists, such as William Waterhouse and Gwydion Brooke. There's no denying that they were fantastic. Striving to achieve what they achieved is the ultimate goal. There are only a few names that come up when you ask people to name famous bassoonists. To remember those players, and try to achieve what they did, is important. The only way of really hearing the few bassoon soloists today is on CD, people like Milan Turkovich and Klaus Thunemann. However, there's an international double reed conference being held in Birmingham this summer. Many of the big names from the bassoon and oboe world will be giving recitals and performing concertos. And I'm giving a short recital in the conference, which is a great honour amongst these fantastic bassoonists. The bassoon needs to be promoted; this conference is an excellent way to do it."
Although she has yet to hear a bassoon concerto performance, Geoghegan enjoys going to London orchestral concerts. "I love to hear the different principal players, like Rachel Gough (LSO), Robin O'Neil (Philharmonia) and Daniel Jemison (RPO). At the Academy my teacher is John Orford. He is the principal bassoonist in the London Sinfonietta. His passion lies in contemporary works. He's always trying to get me to try new contemporary pieces. Because they often involve extended technique, they are great to study. That's something that you're expected to be able to do if you want to be employable - harmonics, flutter tongue or playing incredibly high. The Rite of Spring is a perfect example. Thirty years ago, that opening bassoon solo was regarded as ridiculously high, as being impossible. Now, bassoons are made so that they can go well above that note. It's changed so much."
Her instrument is a Fox 201 bassoon. "I caused a bit of controversy because it's not a Heckel," she confesses, mentioning the make that nearly everyone regards as the best in the world. "But I love my Fox, which can do everything that I need it to do at the moment." Her performance on Classical Star, and her playing on her CD, both testify to her superb intonation and beautiful tone, both having attracted much praise. One veteran bassoonist I know speaks admiringly of the way that Geoghegan makes the process of playing - dealing with that complexity of giant rods and long levers that constitute the bassoon mechanism with which he has wrestled for a lifetime - sound so smooth and effortless, so liquid. As yet, she doesn't make her own reeds. "I make reeds to practice on, but I buy my reeds for performances. Reed-making is not my forte."
Interestingly, Geoghegan maintains that she suffers from nerves more when she's in an orchestra than when she is appearing as a soloist. "I tend to get very nervous in the hour or so before a solo performance," she says, "Once I've started playing I'm fine. It's important to feel some nerves. They help to make a performance exciting."
There is a rumour that behind the scenes there was resistance to the idea of placing a bassoonist in the competition because 'you can't sell bassoon records'. Clearly, that was wrong. Good for Karen Geoghegan. And good for the bassoon.
First published in Classsical Music magazine, June 2009. Used by permission. Reproduction forbidden without permission.