Interview: Fernando Traba

Bassoonist Fernando Traba grew up in Mexico City, is himself the son of a bassoonist, and now splits his time between music performance and teaching in Mexico and the United States (Sarasota, Florida). He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to this project, especially when it comes to listing the most important bassoonists and bassoon teachers in Mexico during the 20th and 21st centuries, and I'd like to thank him for his invaluable help.

Jeff Lyman: Tell me a little bit about your background: where you are from, when and why you started playing the bassoon, where you went to school, your teachers, etc.

Fernando Traba: I was born in Mexico City. My mother is a native Mexican (her own mother spoke no Spanish; only Otomi language) and my father was a bassoon player who was born in Spain and came to Mexico in 1939 as a refugee from the Spanish Civil war. There is a story that I tell people who ask me how I started to play the Bassoon: when I was 2 years old, my dad went on tour with the National Symphony of Mexico to Europe. While in Germany he went to the Heckel Factory with the money to buy a Heckel bassoon for his two year old son. At the time (early 1960's) the Heckel factory had a dealer in Mexico City (Casa de Música Veerkamp) and so they told him he would have to buy it through them. Well, my father was not happy with that answer (since the price in Mexico was so much more expensive) and so he went to a music store in Wiesbaden and bought the only bassoon they had: a Huller bassoon. Ever since I can remember, he used to keep this bassoon in a closet and, every year on my birthday, he would bring it down and open it for me to see. "Someday you'll play this bassoon", he used to say. I can still remember the light green velvet of the case's interior and the light brown finish of the instrument. I was in awe of its beauty. When I was 8 or 9 years old I remember asking if I could play the instrument. "No, you are still too young", he replied. Finally when I was 11 years old he agreed to let me begin. My dad totally brainwashed me, but I am happy that he did!

In Mexico there is no music training in the regular school system as there is in the Middle and High Schools of the United States. For those who seek to become professional musicians there is no other choice but to enroll in either the National Conservatory or any of the other music schools in Mexico City. Kids who want to become musicians actually have to attend 2 different schools daily from Middle school until they go to college....many times the schools are far from each other. Luckily, I never had to do that since my father was my only music teacher until I left Mexico City to go to college. I have to say that there is an advantage to the "French" system of music teaching that is used in most of Latin America, where the students first learn to read music (with solfeggio) and then they learn an instrument. My father began teaching me solfeggio when I was 6 years old. By the time I started playing the bassoon, it was just a matter of matching the fingering to the note. I've come across so many students that are beginning to play the bassoon as well as read music simultaneously, and I have to say, it makes a very difficult beginning experience for some of them.

When I was 16 years old I met a young American bassoonist by the name of Neil McDonald. He was a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music and had come to replace Michael O'Donovan as Principal Bassoon of the National Symphony in Mexico City. I asked him if he would give me some lessons. He agreed and that was the beginning of my life change. At this point I had just won my first professional job in the UNAM Philharmonic playing contrabassoon. My father was thrilled since I would be able to retire at 46 with full government benefits! Then Neil showed me that there was a lot more to be learned and he basically helped me to come to the States and study bassoon with George Goslee at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I finished my Bachelor and Master degrees at Cleveland but it took me 8 years to do it. In 1982 there was a huge devaluation of the Mexican currency. Although I had a full tuition scholarship to study at CIM, I still could no longer afford to live in the States; I had no choice but to return to Mexico. During the following three years, I worked as Principal Bassoon of the UNAM Philharmonic and the National Symphony of Mexico while saving money to return to Cleveland. In 1985 George Goslee accepted me back into his studio and we picked up where we had left off three years earlier. George Goslee was a natural player and a very kind human being. Many times I was the last student of his day and he used to spend extra time with me just talking about the bassoon, music or his very particular way of finishing his reeds, which he did mostly with files. After I finished in Cleveland I auditioned and was accepted at The Juilliard school for an "Advanced Certificate" which was basically a one year program with all the playing credits of the doctoral program. I studied with Judith LeClair and Stephen Maxim. Both of them were great players and quite different from George Goslee in their approach to the bassoon. Before the year was over, I was part of a woodwind quintet that was hired to play principal chairs in the Nova Philharmonia Portuguesa, a chamber orchestra, in Lisbon, Portugal. After a few months, there was an opening for Principal Bassoon in the National Opera Orchestra in Lisbon and I got the job. During that year and a half playing in the beautiful Teatro de San Carlos in Lisbon, I heard of a new orchestra being formed in Spain. It was the Orchestra of the Principality of Asturias in the northern city of Oviedo. I have a few relatives in Spain and the opportunity to work in the country where my father was born held a huge appeal for me. I remember having to fly to Amsterdam to audition, since they would only allow Spanish Nationals to audition in Spain. I won the Principal job and stayed for a couple of years until a friend of mine came to Asturias to visit and told me about an opening for Principal Bassoon in an orchestra in Sarasota, Florida...I came and I stayed. That was over 15 years ago. It was here in Sarasota where I would meet the person I consider my most important influence: his name was Charles Robert Reinert. He was a retired professor from The Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York where he taught both bassoon and voice. Bob unfortunately passed away last July, but he opened my mind in so many ways, especially in regard to sound and sound production. He had a very particular sound concept, as he was himself a great singer (baritone).

JL: I'm hoping to create a document for the web site listing the important bassoonists and bassoon professors in Mexico starting from the present day and going back as far as I can, hopefully back to the time of the formation of the major music schools and the major symphonies. Can you list any names that I should include in such a list?

FT: Well, to begin with the youngest generation, there are the names of Rodolfo Mota Bautista who is finishing studying in Montreal with Stéphane Lévesque and already has a position teaching in Mexico. Also Manuel Hernandez Fierro is the Assistant Principal Bassoon of the UNAM Philharmonic and the bassoon teacher at the National Music School in Mexico City. He studied in New York with Harold Goltzer. There is a Bulgarian born bassoonist who came to Mexico in the 1980's and became a teaching force in Mexico City. His name was Lazar Stoychev and he unfortunately passed away a few years ago. American Wendy Holdaway has been the Principal Bassoonist in the National Symphony of Mexico since the early 1980's and has taught a few students as well. Of course we should not forget the famous Dutch Bassoonist Louis Salomons who came to Mexico in 1949 via Cuba thanks to the conductor Erich Kleiber. He was one of the best bassoonists at the time anywhere and unfortunately passed away in a car accident while visiting his native Holland in 1970. Before all these people, the main bassoon teacher at the National Conservatory was a Spaniard by the name of Joaquin Palencia, who came in the same ship with my father in 1939. He became the teacher at the conservatory after Alfredo Bonilla retired. Bonilla was the Principal Bassoon of the National Symphony of Mexico from 1932 to 1948 when Carlos Chávez was its conductor and right before the arrival of Louis Salomons. When Joaquin Palencia retired from the conservatory, his job was taken first by Sergio Renteria Castillo (Principal of the Opera Orchestra) and more recently by Juan Bosco Correro, who plays contrabassoon in the Mexico City Philharmonic.

JL: Do you remember the names of the other members of the bassoon section  when your father played with the National Symphony, maybe from an old program?

FT: My dad played principal Bassoon in the Opera Orchestra (Orquesta del Teatro de Bellas Artes) since the 1950's and would be first call sub at the National Symphony Orchestra before that time. I can tell you that for many years the second bassoonist at the Opera Orchestra was a Cuban man by the name of Antonio Orozco.

JL: Did your father ever tell you about working with some of the most important Mexican composers of his day, such as Chávez, Revueltas, Huízar, etc.? I'm trying to determine whether or not Chávez wrote his Soli for any particular player, especially Soli 3 (for orchestra with trumpet, viola, bassoon and timpani solo/soli sections in the orchestra). That piece lists bassoon as a solo instrument in the title, but it's actually got several incredibly difficult sections for two bassoons and contrabassoon. Perhaps Chávez worked with Alfredo Bonilla or Joaquin Palencia, but Soli 3 was written later, in the 1960's, so maybe some of the works were written for or in collaboration with Bonilla or Palencia and others with Louis Salomons. Any thoughts?

FT: I am pretty sure that the Chavez' soli were written with Louis Salomons in mind. In fact, when I was a student in Cleveland, the library had an LP -I believe it was a "Odyssey" label- of the first recording of the Soli with Chavez conducting and Louis Salomons playing the bassoon. To me it was a rare treat since I had always heard about his legend but was never able to hear him live. It might be one of the few recordings available where his playing comes out beautifully.

Regarding my father working with Mexican was a whole different ball game back then. He knew Huizar, since he worked as the librarian as well as Horn player in the National Symphony. He also knew Chavez (through playing in the national Symphony) and Revueltas. At that time, very few musicians had the means to go ahead and commission a work and unfortunately my father was not one of them.

JL: I've found your name in many notices about recordings and concerts of new music in Mexico, and you sent me a few pieces for this project. Tell me about your work with composers and what music you are really excited about these days.

FT: Well, I've taken part in the recording (some of them first recordings) of several pieces, like the Sonatina for Clarinet and Bassoon (1931) by Candelario Huízar (1883-1970), Pentamusica for wind quintet (1963) by Manuel Enríquez (1926-1994) and Cinco Danzas Breves also for wind quintet (1994) by Mario Lavista (b. 1943). The new generation of composers are keeping the Mexican tradition alive. There are great works by Samuel Zyman (who teaches at Juilliard), Javier Torres Maldonado (a most promising young composer who studied composition in Milan and has been teaching composition in Italy since 2003), Arturo Márquez, Jorge Cordoba, Joaquín Gutiérrez Heras, Gabriela Ortiz, Ana Lara, Eugenio Toussaint and the list goes on and on.

JL: One of the composers you listed above was unfamiliar to me: Javier Torres Maldonado. Do you know if he has written any chamber or solo music for bassoon?

FT: I heard of him in my last trip to Mexico. He was born in 1968 and left Mexico to study abroad. He has now become a composition professor in a couple of conservatories in Italy. His music is mostly experimental. He has a couple of chamber works that include the bassoon: Quinteto (1994), for flute, oboe, clar., bssn., hr. (5') Edizioni Suvini Zerboni of Milan, S. 11726 Z., published in 2000 and Ximoua (1997) for voice and wind quintet on texts of Nezahualcoyotl (9/10’). Edizioni Suvini Zerboni of Milan, S. 11740 Z., published in 2000.



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