CSO Mixtape: Arundo Donax Me Why

[blockquote author=”Jordan London, CSO Bassoon”]

Arundo Donax Me Why (it’s a reed pun): a bunch of music, almost entirely featuring reed instruments, that’s stuck with me as a country boy who ended up playing about the most arcane, un-country instrument in the orchestra, bookended by two ripper concertos for it. 

I had to work against my circumstances to become a classical musician, so this is the sort of stuff that motivated and hooked me.


Portrait of Jordan London outdoors holding a bassoon
Jordan London, CSO Bassoon (Image: Sylvia Wang)

Jordan London graduated from the Canberra School of Music in 2013, studying under Richard McIntyre. Based in Canberra, Jordan works with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra on bassoon and contra bassoon as well as the Band of the Royal Military College.

In addition to performing in other orchestras and in musical pits, Jordan tutors privately and at various schools around Canberra, including the ANU Open School of Music and Music for Canberra.


Bassoon Concerto

Johannes Klumpp, Matthias Rácz, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra

The Françaix bassoon concerto is the quintessential example of the wit, erudition, and stylishness that Françaix does so well. It begins with harsh, Expressionist chords in a parody of a certain other bassoon concerto (more on that later), but then snaps into cool, faux-Spanish kitsch with a catchy tune as the strings mimic a ticking metronome. This earwormy concerto consolidates a range of 20th Century styles, with particular influence from Ravel, Stravinsky, and Poulenc, but even with that heady cocktail it maintains a snappy, bantering mien that always reminds me of glittering and saucy dialogue in an Old Hollywood film. Racz’s tight, spirited sound works very well for this verbose concerto, and this is currently my favourite recording.

Sonata for Clarinet and Piano

James Levine, Karl Leister

Clarinet might have been an instrument I played on a compromise, but it left its mark on me. I played this in high school, and it was the first music I played myself that I really loved. This gorgeous sonata uses the clarinet so well that it feels like a clarinettist wrote it, particularly the sublime middle section of the first movement and the frenetic, cheeky third movement. The music is very French, and although Leister was very German in sound (very dark, somewhat stoic, versus the elegant and edged French woodwind style), like all masterpieces the sonata supports myriad interpretations, and this is the recording I keep going back to.

Summer Music, op. 31

Les Vents Français, Philharmonia Orchestra

Just in time for summer, this piece for wind quintet is an intersection of American Romanticism and the Neoclassical movement. Barber uses the winds to evoke blistering heat, the delirious trilling of cicadas, and long afternoons: he may have been describing the American landscape, but it applies just as well to our own. The Barber is considered one of the jewels of the wind quintet oeuvre, and this elegant and dry French recording (featuring French bassoon) conveys it very well.

Building the Crate

Gavin Greenaway, Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell, Nick Ingham

Let’s face it: Chicken Run is one of the best movies ever made. The soundtrack is part of a reason why; written in the quintessential English style with folksong melodies and effulgent brass, this track is a fabulous core sample and I’m confident it’s the only thing on any CSO Mixtape featuring a kazoo choir.

Antonín DVOŘÁK
Carnival Overture, op. 92, B. 169

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Kubelik

Sparkling, jubilant, and slightly raucous, this piece is pure Dvořák and it was the first thing I ever played with an orchestra, up in Newcastle, exactly one day after I’d got my first bassoon. The ecstatic and frenetic character of the music was very much how I felt at the time, and every time I hear this piece I’m in that hall again gleefully butchering the second bassoon part. Beyond my personal affections, it’s a lovely and lively piece with terrific writing for just about everything in the orchestra, and like so much Dvořák, listening to it feels like going to a favourite restaurant: everything is so tasty.

Maurice RAVEL
Le tombeau de Couperin (arr. Z. Kocsis)

Hungarian National Philharmonic, Zoltán Kocsis

Ravel’s orchestral woodwind writing is just about the best there is, and this piece is his love letter to the woodwind section. This suite, a French Romantic reflection on Baroque form, is cherished by wind players and almost a holy relic for oboists (including reformed ones like me) and it’s one of the most gorgeous things to come out of France in the past couple of centuries. Originally six movements, Ravel orchestrated four of them, and Kocsis – the conductor of this recording and a Ravel scholar – orchestrated the other two, but due to time constraints I’ve just included Ravel’s original set (the other movements are certainly worth hearing though). This is a top recording of an amazing piece!

Jacques IBERT

David McGill, Peter Serkin

This tiny piece for bassoon and piano named after a red wine is the most literal example of a musical “vignette” out there, and there’s not much to say about it except that it’s lovely. McGill plays it here on German bassoon, but he makes sure to give it the vocalistic French vibrato to set it off. This one’s for you, Rick!

Selections from All-Night Vigil, op. 37 “Vespers” 
Gladsome Light; Nunc dimittis; Blessed Be the Lord; The Veneration of the Cross

USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, Valery Polyansky, Victor Rumyantsev

Rachmaninoff’s piano music is very famous, but to me, some of his strongest work is here in this Russian Orthodox sacred choral music: all a capella, no orchestra here. Nothing conveys awe quite like the music of this tradition, and Rach’s daring and original choral writing distils this effect, with dense, numinous sonorities, particularly in the male voices. Some of this effect is owed to Rach writing some of the lowest notes for the bass singers in the entire choral repertoire, and it’s worth hearing these pieces just for that (listen for the A1 at the end of the Nunc dimittis). Rachmaninoff was famously taken up on this scoring decision, but simply replied “I know the voices of my countrymen”.

Gustav HOLST
First Suite In E Flat

The staff band of the Norwegian Armed Forces

A wind band staple, this suite’s exciting and sonorous middle movement is easily its best, and is my platonic example of English music. This Norwegian military band recording realises the nostalgic and lilting English character very well without getting too saccharine, although you can tell the solo cornet player takes three sugars in his tea.

Bassoon Concerto

Rie Koyama, Sebastian Tewinkel, Southwest German Chamber Orchestra

The Jolivet is French and Neoclassical just like the Françaix, but is completely unlike it. Jolivet’s bassoon concerto is increasingly lauded as the great bassoon concerto of its century, and serves as a gothic character study of the instrument. It begins like the worst hangover of your life, with harsh chords (parodied by the Françaix!) and the bassoon yells and spits in the Recitando section like a ranting and obsessive voice, then backflips into the snide and insanely acrobatic Allegro gioviale, where it spends most of the movement teasing the orchestra. At the end of the movement, it finally complies with the orchestra, but then reprises the Recitando in the middle of the main theme – the free-jazz-style melody is interspersed with snarls and shouts, and the bassoon screams its top F at the close.

The Largo cantabile is a haunting lyrical section, but the plaintive mood becomes grim, and the Fugato kicks off into a neoclassical danse macabre, with witchy solo violin and the bassoon spreading its (bat) wings with Koyama masterfully producing her blackest, filthiest sound in the low register, growling and barking at the orchestra. The music gains speed and power, but ends with a grotesque harp flourish and a major turn; blinding dawn sunlight after a rough night.


Briefly introduce yourself – tell us your name, your instrument, where you’re living and how you’re connected to the CSO.

I’m Jordan, I live out in Belco, and I’ve been playing bassoon and contrabassoon with CSO since 2013. I’m the one in the back row a foot taller than everyone else.

How did you come to be a musician?

Good luck and my own initiative, really. I come from a rural area in New South Wales and a physical-work kind of family, so classical music just wasn’t on the radar. In Year 7, we were listening to some cinematic music in class, and I went ballistic when I heard the oboe (not the bassoon: more on that later). I was desperate to learn oboe, but we were in the country and money was tight, so there was nobody to teach me and no affordable instruments. I agreed to clarinet instead, because it was cheaper, it was “like an oboe” (it’s not) and because there was someone in town who could teach it.

After dutifully doing my AMus on clarinet, I got an oboe for Christmas; I was 15, it was a horrible oboe, it was mine, and it was glorious. Two years later, I was dropping hints to my dad about buying me a cor anglais which I described as “like oboe but bigger and it sounds really sad,” so my dad got exactly what I described: a bassoon. I had nobody to teach me, so I just played it the same way I played oboe (high enthusiasm, low skill). In Canberra for a high school band eisteddfod, in what was probably the luckiest happening of my life, I met Richard McIntyre, bassoon legend and CSO’s principal until just last year, and he earned my eternal gratitude by taking me on at uni and making a true musician out of me.

Name three careers you could see yourself in if you weren’t a musician (and tell us why).

An English teacher, because I like books, love poetry, and kids are funny.

An educational or otherwise technical writer, because I love doing it (and I already do it for fun).

My third choice would be professional Dota 2 player, which is a video game with an international scene worth tens of millions of dollars, and I’m pretty good at it.

How would you be enjoying this music in ideal conditions? How is it best enjoyed in iso?

I have the same answer to both: on a long drive with good speakers. I can’t drive past Lake George without a windows-down-max-volume La Mer third movement (it helps the fantasy if there’s some water in the lake), but I find the Snowy Mountains (sans actual snow) are the best place for musical drives and I’m always happy when I get an excuse to drive down that way.

What’s the hardest part about being a musician?

The hardest thing about being a bassoonist is reeds (you’d wouldn’t know, because we never talk about it). The hardest thing about being a musician more generally is, I think, the infinitely aspirational quality of so much of music playing: you’ll never be completely in tune, this passage will never sound as delicate as the composer wanted, this doesn’t sound Baroque enough, et cetera. It means you’re never bored or complacent, though, so in that respect the hardest thing is sort of the best thing. You can always do better; there’s no ceiling.

Name three places in Canberra that hold some significance for you.

Fenner Hall, although I believe it’s now called something else. I was a Fenner boy and I spent many hundreds of hours in the north tower practice room (I’m sure everybody who lived on the top floor at that time knows the Mozart bassoon concerto, with my cadenza, off by heart to this day).

Llewellyn Hall. Cheesy answer, but it’s an honest one: I first walked onto that stage as a scared, spotty country kid and played bassoon horribly, and now I walk onto it so many years and so many concerts later and try not to do the same thing. Really though, I love that hall – both as a performer and as a listener; I’ve probably felt every human feeling there is in that hall. We’re lucky to have it.

Palace Electric Cinemas, because they show weird films!

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read recently?

I’m re-re-reading Camille Paglia’s Free Men Free Women, but for new material I’ve just recently read an Irish-language play named Cré na Cille (it means something like Graveyard Dirt). Irish as a language has an unmatched facility for insult, and the characters in Cré (who fortunately all hate each other) make extensive and virtuosic use of it. We’re talking about a language that has a word for “dirty” that specifically means somebody is dirty because they’re too stupid to clean themselves.

If you were a piece of fruit, which would you be and why?

I’d have to go with the noble lemon. They like winter, they have that sweet-sour dichotomy thing happening, and they pair well with alcohol. I also assume they don’t like oranges, and frankly I don’t either. I feel like I should say I thought more about this question than any of the other ones.

Do you think any of the pieces you’ve chosen are under-rated? Why?

Not to soapbox, but the bassoon repertoire definitely is! Bassoon is a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call it glamorous (partly because of the faces you have to pull to play it), and beyond the Mozart and Vivaldi concertos it doesn’t get much of a look-in, even after composers like Ravel, Berlioz and Stravinsky revolutionised the purpose and potential of it and set the stage for terrific 20th Century concertos like the Jolivet and Francaix, which show off the immense character range, agility, and charisma of the instrument. We still haven’t had a celebrity bassoonist, so maybe that’s what’s needed to get this stuff off the ground. Hopefully Yuja Wang will get bored of piano and try bassoon.

What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

Invest in Zoom circa 2019.


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