Canadian composer Marjan Mozetich’s evocative Concerto for Bassoon and Strings with Marimba was written for bassoonist Michael Sweeney. He speaks about his role in shepherding this work from conception to the stage.

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Michael Sweeney
© Jag Gundu

Can you introduce yourself, and talk about your current musical role?

I have served as principal bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the last 34 years. As a principal player, the major bassoon solos and passages from our repertoire are largely my responsibility. It is up to me to prepare for any musical direction a conductor might give me in the course of rehearsals. If the conductor instead gives me a free license, then I must be prepared to play in a way to capture the imagination of our listeners. One of the joys of having played in the TSO for so long is that I often get to play for conductors who know and trust me.

What goes into preparing for Mozetich’s Bassoon Concerto?

Playing Marjan Mozetich’s wonderful Concerto for Bassoon is like any concerto appearance in that it is up to me to carry the weight of the work with the assistance of our guest conductor Maxim Emelyanychev and my excellent colleagues in the TSO. Beyond playing my own part, I must have a good understanding of the orchestral material and the work as a whole to assist the conductor and players in coming to a full appreciation of it in a very short amount of time. Two rehearsals in as many days is normal, so the level of intensity and concentration is rather high.

What impression did the work make on you the first time you performed it?

I premiered and recorded the Mozetich Concerto in 2003 with Mayumi Seiler’s Via Salzburg ensemble. The ensemble’s commitment to the success of that premiere was deeply moving and inspiring for me. The premiere was given at Glenn Gould Studio in the CBC Toronto building. The concerto has a very quiet ending signalling a kind of arrival home after a long and marvellous journey. After a moment of silence, while the audience took it all in, I could hear one voice in the audience very quietly exclaim, “Woooooooooow!” I think the audience was bowled over by the sheer beauty of the work.

Concerto for Bassoon and Strings with Marimba: II. Adagio performed by Michael Sweeney and the Via Salzburg Chamber Orchestra led by Mayumi Seiler.

Do you have a favourite passage?

My favourite portion of the work might possibly be the slow middle movement which is marked Adagio. In preparation for composing his Bassoon Concerto, Mozetich asked me a lot of questions about how the bassoon has been used by other composers in both concertos and the standard orchestral repertoire. I pointed out that the low range of the instrument is mostly used in orchestral music playing softly. This planted the idea of a relatively loud and expressive moment in the middle of this slow movement. I find this section of the Adagio devastatingly beautiful in the way that it slowly crawls from the high range of the bassoon all the way to the very lowest notes. For me, the emotion Mozetich captures is similar to the despair one feels near the beginning of the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony. It’s a kind of musical descent to the underworld or into a state of sadness without hope. Though Tchaikovsky’s symphony ends in despair, Mozetich searches for resolution in his concerto.

What images or thoughts come into your head when performing this piece?

Based on early conversations between Mozetich and myself, the enduring images for me are of the sublime and terrible beauty and violence of the natural world. I see beautiful things like a sunrise and violent things like waves crashing against rocks. I also love how the outer sections of the concerto reflect a kind of abstract beauty that is almost detached from reality, and how the middle section contrasts with those sections using a much more personal approach. It’s like the difference between looking at a painting of a landscape with no one in it and a portrait of someone you love.

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Michael Sweeney
© Allan Cabral

What was the experience of Mozetich’s compositional process like for you?

Once Mozetich and I agreed that he would compose a concerto for me to play, one facet of our agreement was that he would mail me copies of his manuscript frequently, and I would input them into a music-processing computer program (like a word-processing program). This allowed me to practise the solo part while listening to the program play the accompaniment at Mozetich’s preferred tempos. An unanticipated pleasure was experiencing the slow unfolding of the piece as Mozetich worked to bring it to life.

What do you think the audience’s experience will be of a performance of Mozetich’s Bassoon Concerto?

Sometimes, our audience members think that recently composed music all falls into one category which they either like or don’t care for. Mozetich’s music, in general, resides in an area of recent music sometimes referred to as “post-modern” or even “post-minimal.” The first term can be taken in different ways – the way I perceive it is that Mozetich’s music looks both to the past and to the future at the same time.

Of all the concertos I introduced Mozetich to when we first started working together, he was most taken with several of Antonio Vivaldi’s 30+ bassoon concertos. I hear a great deal of Vivaldi in Mozetich’s Bassoon Concerto including sounds that Vivaldi would recognize, but of course, many sounds that would confound him. Our performance of Mozetich’s Bassoon Concerto will present an opportunity for our audience to hear a work showing the tremendous variety among recently composed works. The audience at the premiere was bowled over and it’s my fervent hope that our audiences for these TSO performances will have a similar experience.

Michael Sweeney performs Marjan Mozetich’s Concerto for Bassoon and Strings with Marimba with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall, 29th November to 3rd December 2023.

This article was sponsored by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.