Milwaukee Symphony's Van Handel records 'flirtatious' bassoon music – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Catherine Van Handel is bringing sexy back to the bassoon.
In the liner notes for her new CD, scheduled for release Jan. 31, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal bassoonist writes, “Each of the pieces I have chosen is sexy and fun — perhaps not always the immediate association with bassoon music — and each demonstrates the dance at the heart of the instrument, and just how lyrical and flirtatious it can be.”
In “Bassoon Soiree: From Latin America to Paris” (ACIS), Van Handel and pianist Eduard Laurel play music from the 19th century to the present by composers from Argentina, France, Mexico and Switzerland. Brand names — Debussy, Ravel and Astor Piazzolla — are joined by composers less familiar to typical American listeners. While this is not a jazz album, the warm tone and flowing sound of Van Handel’s double reed instrument could make this recording appealing to jazz listeners as well as classical ones.
Van Handel bookends her album with two different arrangements of Mexican composer Manuel Ponce’s song “Estrellita.” The opener, her own arrangement, has a romantic, singing quality (only the singer here is eight feet of wooden tube folded in half). The finale, arranged by Swiss pianist Gaspard Glaus, is closer to jazz, with a romping back half.
She heard Glaus’ arrangement on an album by cellist Lionel Cottet and pianist Jorge Viladoms, also titled “From Latin America to Paris.” It became one of the inspirations for putting together her own recording. She also chose works originally composed for saxophone (Paul Bonneau’s “Caprice en forme de valse for solo bassoon”), violin (Carlos Guastivino’s “Rosita Iglesias”) and bass voice (Ravel’s “Pièce en forme de habanera”).
“I wanted to show how much variety and range the bassoon actually has,” she said. “It’s not just an orchestral instrument; it can be really singing, and it can be soloistic.”
Her album’s longest track is the most personal: Rui dos Reis’ “Tanganera Astoriana,” a playful homage to Astor Piazzolla that partakes of Latin, classical and jazz styles. The composer is her stepfather; Van Handel premiered this work in 2015 in her graduation recital from the Curtis Institute of Music. “He hasn’t heard it yet,” Van Handel said. Her parents live in Switzerland. “I think he’s going to be really happy with this album.”
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Van Handel, who was born in Taiwan, joined the MSO in 2017. In a previous Journal Sentinel interview, she recounted the ordeal of her audition here. She realized the night before departure that she hadn’t booked her flight from Toronto, where she lived, but from a tiny airport two hours away. A delayed flight led to a missed connection; she didn’t arrive in Milwaukee until 11 p.m., and she was the first person scheduled to play the next morning at 9 a.m. “And I got sick,” she said, to knowing laughter from her colleagues. Between rounds, she simply wished for enough energy to play. A challenging aspect of auditioning is “when you hear every other bassoonist practicing the same excerpts in all the warmup rooms,” she said. 
From that inauspicious beginning, Van Handel has become part of the orchestra’s corps of young leaders. The MSO will feature her in its Feb. 3-4 concerts in David Ludwig’s bassoon concerto, “Pictures From the Floating World.” She has personal connections to this composition, too. The Philadelphia Orchestra commissioned it; that orchestra’s principal bassoonist is Daniel Matsukawa, who was Van Handel’s teacher and mentor at Curtis. Matsukawa wanted a lyrical concerto for the bassoon. What Ludwig gave him is like ” ‘La Mer’ by Debussy, but on steroids,” she said.
Composer David Ludwig, it turns out, was her music history teacher. She remembers him talking about how Debussy was influenced by sounds he heard at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair (the occasion when many Westerners first encountered Javanese gamelan music, for example).
Van Handel remembers being backstage at Curtis, waiting to perform in a recital. Ludwig also was backstage, working on his concerto.
“He turned to me and asked me to play an E above middle C,” Van Handel remembers. So she did.
She glanced at the music he was writing, noticing “a lot of sustained Es” on the page. So she suggested to the composer: “You should move everything up a third to a G. That’s the most resonant note on the instrument, and it’s the money note.” She remembers that Ludwig just smiled.
But a few months later, when she went to the premiere, she heard a lot of Gs in the music.
Van Handel will record “Pictures From the Floating World” with the MSO for future online streaming, working with Drew Schlegel, who also produced her new disc, and Jeremy Tusz, the MSO’s audio and video producer.
Five years ago, Van Handel would not have imagined she’d record an album. But the disruption of COVID-19, which curtailed MSO activities and delayed the public opening of the symphony’s new concert hall, made her aware of the fragility of the industry and set her thinking about how she wanted to progress as a musician.
“I didn’t want anything to take my work away from me,” she said.
In making her debut album, she was able to turn for advice to colleague Sonora Slocum, the MSO’s principal flutist, who released her own debut on the ACIS label in December 2021. Among the helpful pointers Slocum gave her, Van Handel said, was to set aside the last day of recording just for patches, to touch up spots.
During the onset of the pandemic, Van Handel also started her own reed business, handcrafting the reeds that bassoonists need to play their instruments. It’s a painstaking process that includes times when the reed must simply sit and age — the resting time is actually just as important as working on it, which also sounds like a metaphor for many things about a musician’s life.
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Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra performs David Ludwig’s “Pictures From the Floating World,” featuring bassoonist Catherine Van Handel, Takemitsu’s “Toward the Sea II,” featuring flutist Sonora Slocum and harpist Julia Coronelli, and other music at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3-4 at Bradley Symphony Center, 212 W. Wisconsin Ave. For tickets, visit or call (414) 291-7605.
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