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From Lake O. to CSO: Four bad reeds makes one good

A conversation with Chicago Symphony principal bassoonist Keith Buncke.

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Keith Buncke performing with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.
Keith Buncke performing with Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Keith Buncke made a big splash back in 2015, when he was appointed by Riccardo Muti as the principal bassoonist of the Chicago Symphony.  That was quite an honor for the 21-year-old musician, who grew up in Lake Oswego and played with the Portland Youth Philharmonic and the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra before matriculating to the Curtis Institute of Music. In the middle of his studies at Curtis at age 20, he competed against 90 other bassoonists to win the principal bassoonist position with the Atlanta Symphony. But one week after moving to Atlanta, he found out that the orchestra, which was in contract negotiations, was locked out. That led him to audition for the opening in Chicago and the rest is history.

I was in Chicago a few weeks ago and heard its illustrious orchestra perform with guest conductor Manfred Honeck, and I thought it would be cool to meet Buncke and pepper him with a few questions. The orchestra’s Communications and PR Director, Eileen Chambers, guided me into a subterranean section of Symphony Center, where I met with Buncke in one of the rooms reserved for guest artists.

Keith Buncke. Photo by James Bash.
Keith Buncke. Photo by James Bash.

Buncke, a tall fellow who sort of resembles the instrument that he plays, grew up in a household where both of his parents are medical doctors. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and flow.

Oregon ArtsWatch: In a video for the CSO, you tell about discovering the bassoon when you were eleven years old. Did you have music training before then?

Keith Buncke: Before starting on the bassoon, I played piano and took some cello lessons for a few years. I don’t recall being motivated to practice those instruments. Once I started on the bassoon, I just really wanted to practice. 

OAW: Making reeds for the bassoon is a complicated process. How many hours a week does it involve for you?

KB: I probably put in ten hours a week. It’s difficult to get just the right reed.  There’s variation in the cane. No matter how good you are at it, it ends up that some of them just are not good reeds. You have to make four reeds in order to get one good one.

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

OAW: I understand that the bassoon has alternate fingerings. Does that mean that you can make a last second decision on which fingering to use?  That seems kind of dangerous.

KB: Some notes can be played with more than one fingering. You can have a last second decision on which way to go, depending on the context. Alternate fingerings can be helpful, but it all comes back to the reed and practicing and being prepared.

OAW: What are some of your favorite symphonic pieces?

KB: It is usually whatever I am currently playing. But I love Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the symphonies of Shostakovich. Several of them have extended bassoon solos.  He wrote really well for the instrument.

OAW: How do you make a glissando on the bassoon?

KB: Glissandos are tricky. You can do glissandos on certain notes where there are open tone holes. You can slide off or back on. You can control it, but it is not done often. You can also bend the pitch with your embouchure. That doesn’t get you from note to note as much. 

OAW: What are some pieces that you would like to play?

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Portland Columbia Symphony Realm of Nature Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

KB: I’m looking forward to playing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms in December. I enjoy going back to the classics, like Mozart’s piano concertos – they have a nice chamber music quality and fun bassoon parts. 

OAW: What is it like to work for Muti? Does he tell you directly, I want this or that kind of sound?

KB: He is really good at communicating things in the moment. Even a little facial expression that is directed your way – you get the picture. He is quite efficient in rehearsal technique. Muti is super intense – 100 percent focused. It can feel like a mental sprint. Other conductors talk more and spend more time rehearsing. 

OAW: I once heard of a bassoonist who was trying to grow the cane for his reeds. Have you tried to do that? 

KB: No, I live downtown, close to Symphony Center. Even if you tried to grow the cane, you have to dry and process it. 

OAW: I understand that you are teaching bassoon at DePaul University?

KB: Yes, I have three students there.

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Portland Opera The Snowy Day Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon

OAW: And you do some chamber music?

KB: I love chamber music and play with the International Chamber Artists.

Check out Keith Buncke’s playlist of Chicago Symphony Orchestra favorite right here.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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