Seated: Victoria Olson, Brigid Babbish, Andrew Genemans
Standing: Chris Kantner, Ruth Bylsma, Judy Kemph
Harmonious Winds, From the 1970s to Today!
by Paul Austin
Not many orchestras have one section that has been in place for five decades and another for only five years. In this unique feature, GRSMA poses a few questions to the seasoned veterans of the GRS flute section and to the new members of the GRS bassoon section.
First, we'll check in with Chris Kantner and Victoria Olson to get their thoughts on Mozart, as Chris has performed the flute concertos often and Victoria is preparing for GRS performances of the bassoon concerto.
GRSMA: Mozart's wind concertos have become the first moments of most orchestral auditions. Any thoughts on why that is the case, and has this been your experience?
CHRIS: The Mozart G major flute concerto is required on most audition lists. Being Mozart, it displays one’s fluency in the essential elements of our musical language. One of the main obstacles you have to overcome in actually performing the work is an overly self conscious approach that comes from playing it for auditions.
VICTORIA: Absolutely. I've played excerpts or entire movements of the Mozart in every audition I've taken! This is because the Mozart concerto is the most notable concerto of our somewhat limited bassoon repertoire, and the style of Mozart is incredibly difficult to achieve correctly. The style is a mixture of delicate (in this case, youthful) fast movements and operatic slow movements, and can easily be overthought, over-romanticized, or over-accented.
GRSMA: Chris, how many times have you performed the Mozart flute concertos with the GRS?
CHRIS: I have played it on two concert cycles and two runout performances with the GRS, amounting to about seven performances. Oh, and I remember playing the 3rd movement at the Naumburg Competition, after not having slept for two nights; now that takes me back. Beside the flute concertos, I’ve played the Mozart flute and harp concerto on two GRS cycles, first with Maria Royce Hesse in 1994, and then about four years ago with GRSMA harpist Beth Colpean. For the performances with Beth, the cadenzas were written for us by GRSMA oboist and composer Alexander Miller.
GRSMA: Victoria, will this be your first performance of the Mozart bassoon concerto? What do you look forward to in your upcoming performance with the GRS in April?
VICTORIA: I have performed Mozart's bassoon concerto once before, with the Longmont Symphony in Colorado. For the GRS, I really look forward to the cadenzas as it is an opportunity for me to surprise the listeners!
GRSMA: What is your favorite moment of the Mozart concerto?
VICTORIA: I truly love the second movement. It has a lovely singing quality and it is by far my favorite movement to play.
CHRIS: For me, the most fun concerto to perform is the flute and harp, just because it’s so pretty. Mozart matches the qualities of the two instruments so beautifully. A close second the D major flute concerto with its infectious spirit (if only we can wrestle it away from those possessive oboists who play it too, but in C major!).
Next, GRSMA speaks with Ruth Bylsma and Brigid Babbish, who both grew up in different parts of Michigan.
GRSMA: Tell us something about your hometown and growing up there.
RUTH: I was born in Grand Rapids and have lived here my entire life. Some people might view that as a negative (lack of adventure), but I love it here. I have so much history in Grand Rapids, and it has been very special to be able to play in a professional orchestra in my hometown! Not many musicians get the opportunity to do that. I have been around for half of the orchestra's 90 year history. The growth I've witnessed is amazing.
BRIGID: I feel lucky to have grown up so close to Detroit because of all the wonderful arts and cultural institutions in the area. Musically, I was able to work with and learn from some amazing artists beginning at an early age, and as I get older I am realizing how that isn’t always so common. But, besides the arts, you can’t be from the Detroit area without knowing someone who works or worked for the auto industry. So I guess knowing and talking about the auto industry all the time was pretty normal for me while I was growing up. I didn’t realize that this was pretty specific to Detroit until I moved out of state and found out that people weren’t so interested in the auto industry!
GRSMA: It's interesting that Interlochen was part of the musical training for both of you. Was your experience in scenic northern Michigan inspiring?
RUTH: My first experience at Interlochen was the summer after I graduated from high school. I was very excited to be placed in the orchestra on the basis of my application. After the live audition, I was made principal flute in the World Youth Orchestra. We played lots of big symphonies: Beethoven's 5th, Tchaikovsky's 4th, and Mahler's 2nd Resurrection, to name a few. I also got to perform Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with Van Cliburn. The experience at Interlochen definitely inspired me to pursue a performance degree. I went back two summers later and played in their University Orchestra (led by GRS Music Director Theo Alcantara). I have many fond memories of Interlochen (in spite of the food we were served!).
BRIGID: I count my summers at Interlochen to be among the best summers of my life. I spent two summers as an All State camper, which was a shorter program and available for only Michigan residents. Then I was lucky enough to be chosen as an Emerson Scholar which allowed me to attend the full summer camp before I started my senior year of high school. At Interlochen I felt like I could truly be myself, and it was an absolute gift to have been able to go there and create with so many talented artists. Several of my closest friends even now are people I met at camp. But, to tell you the truth, I have all these warm and fuzzy memories from camp now -- when I was actually there I was probably exhausted and stressed out a lot of the time. It’s easy to forget those 6am wake up calls a decade later!
GRSMA: Are there any other places in Michigan where you enjoy visiting and would recommend?
RUTH: My husband and I own a cottage on a lake about 45 minutes from our home. We love spending time there in the summer. We did fall in love with the Upper Peninsula when our son attended Northern Michigan University in Marquette. We also spend some time in Detroit to visit our daughter and her family. As you can see, our travels tend to involve visiting family.
BRIGID: Since moving back to Michigan to play in the Grand Rapids Symphony, I have had a lot of fun exploring Michigan as an adult. I recently completed hiking 42 miles of the North Country Trail at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in the UP, and it was fantastic. I would definitely recommend visiting up there, even if you don’t want to hike 42 miles!
GRSMA: Brigid, we understand that you are quite the world traveler. Tell us a bit about our travels beyond Michigan.
BRIGID: I’m completely addicted to traveling, and I am so fortunate to have been able to travel a lot thanks to classical music. Music has just been a wonderful way to travel deeper and make closer and creative connections with people from all over the world. I also have been able to sneak in some trips that aren’t directly music related once in a while. One particularly memorable experience was a few years ago when I had the opportunity to finally visit and meet my childhood pen pal at her home outside of Kampala, Uganda!
Finally, GRSMA asks Judy Kemph and Andrew Genemans about the fine art of juggling woodwind instruments.
GRSMA: How were you drawn to the piccolo and contrabassoon, the highest and lowest instruments of the GRS wind section?
JUDY: I chose the flute because my Mom had one from her high school years, and since I walked to school, I figured it would be easy to carry. She showed me how to get a sound with the head joint, and how to put it together and play some notes. Soon I was intrigued when I heard there was something called a piccolo which was even smaller and higher, and enchanted when I actually saw one in a window. The store was closed, but my heart leapt through the glass. I was incomplete until I could get my hands, breath and mind engaged with this compact new voice. Later, after I learned how best not to embarrass my introverted self, and actually blend my sound into the harmonic fabric of the ensemble, it was ecstasy (although I did not know that word at the time).
ANDREW: I was drawn to the contrabassoon because of two big things. The first is that it was incredibly unique, which was a huge draw for me as a student. The second is how much I adored the sound of it. The low, dark, leathery quality really appealed to me and made me want to see how I could express myself through that instrument.
GRSMA: It is interesting that you both held the piccolo and contrabassoon fellowships at Aspen's summer music program. Tell us about your experiences there.
JUDY: The Aspen fellowship was exhilarating, intense, challenging, and so rewarding personally. Playing with professional musicians from all over, and learning every day, felt like I was getting another degree at a university.
ANDREW: I was the contrabassoon fellow from 2015-2017, and they were really fantastic times in my life. Colorado is so beautiful! The festival is eight weeks long, so it really pushed me to be better focused for such an intense (and long) period of time. I was able to perform some of my favorite pieces there, including Shostakovich's 8th Symphony, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, and Mahler's 6th Symphony. My teachers were very generous with their time and knowledge. One of my teachers, Per Hannevold, organizes the Aspen Bassoon Band, where the entire studio gets together and plays outdoors in downtown Aspen. It was such a hoot!
GRSMA: As you have to switch quickly between instruments during a concert, what steps do you take to play at your best on both?
JUDY: Warming up varies and is specific to suit the needs of the day. On days when there is no orchestra service, I have the luxury of doing more general warming up and maintenance (or rest, as needed). On orchestra days, the focus is on flexibility and preservation. In other words, don't use up the sensitivity or endurance. An interesting instrument fact is that just one drop of condensation finding its way to a tone hole on a piccolo may result in wrong notes happening, so swabbing often is recommended. In addition, keeping the piccolo at an even and warm temperature helps the intonation, so I will often cover it with a small soft blanket on my lap.
ANDREW: I have found that time management is my friend when preparing on both instruments. I have to make two different kinds of reeds between the two instruments, so I have to be very careful to leave enough time to get everything ready and in shape. This, and making sure that I practice the contrabassoon with as much vigor as the bassoon. Just because it is low and cumbersome does not mean that I can slack off! Also, coffee is and will always be the answer.
GRSMA: For your instrument, what is your favorite orchestral piece? Any memorable performances of it?
JUDY: There are too many wonderful pieces to name. Some pleasing piccolo parts can be heard in works by Rossini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and John Philip Sousa.
ANDREW: For the contrabassoon, I adore getting to perform works by Gustav Mahler. I have performed his symphony 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8, with the 6th Symphony Tragic being my favorite contrabassoon part. I was able to perform that work while I was at the Aspen Music Festival with Robert Spano conducting, and it was an incredibly moving experience. Runner up is the Symphony 3, which the GRS just performed last season, and I look forward to performing Symphony 2 Resurrection with the GRS later in 2020 as well!
One of these musicians included a statement that serves as an excellent conclusion to this article.
There is such a wealth of shared memories when a section has performed together for more than four decades. This streamlines communication and creates a harmony beyond sound. But we all are grateful to participate in this orchestra which is one of history's pinnacles of human achievement, an ensemble of brothers and sisters with the same goal. We all are here now. Combining our sounds transcends age and gender.
It was a pleasure to interview these six wonderful GRSMA musicians and discover a bit about their lives. Watch for them in upcoming concerts as they truly are masters of their instruments.