MSO Principal Bassoon Catherine Van Handel Closes Out Water Festival

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2022.23 Season, Bassoon, MSO Musicians

David Ludwig’s bassoon concerto Pictures from the Floating World was not written for Catherine Van Handel. But she had an influence on it anyway.

Van Handel, the Milwaukee Symphony’s principal bassoonist, will perform the piece this weekend on the final program of the symphony’s three-week Water Festival. The piece was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2013 for Daniel Matsukawa, the orchestra’s principal bassoonist – who was Van Handel’s teacher at the time, when she was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Ludwig was also on the Curtis faculty, and “when you’re a composer and you’re around great instrumentalists, you always have questions for them,” he said. “I saw Catherine one day and I said, ‘What’s the sweet spot on your instrument, the notes that really sing? And she said the G above middle C was in the middle of the lyrical, vocal range. And that comment helped shape the concerto.”

From the time the piece premiered, Van Handel added it to her bucket list. When she joined the MSO as principal bassoon in 2017, she requested to play it, but the more mainstream Mozart concerto had to come first. A few years later, she introduced Music Director Ken-David Masur to the piece, and the theme fit perfectly with the Water Festival that he was planning for this season.

“I feel like it really features the best parts of my playing,” Van Handel said. “There are so many great things the bassoon can do, and the concerto really captures those.” She described it as “La Mer on steroids,” referring to the famous Debussy tone poem about the sea that will be featured on the same program. Although the piece was written for her former teacher, “I’m definitely going to make it my own,” she said.

Matsukawa had asked Ludwig for a lyrical piece, “which made me think of something flowing, which made me think of water, and Debussy wrote about nature and water,” the composer said. “In the bigger picture, the flow of the piece is related to the human voice. We’re almost singing ourselves through our lives.”

Many bassoonists have performed the piece with many orchestras in the decade since the premiere, and “it’s taken on a life of its own and developed its own performance practice,” Ludwig said. “The people who play it learn from each other, things like fingerings and breathing.”

Van Handel will have an extra chance to influence the performance tradition of Pictures from the Floating World, since this weekend’s performance will be the first professional recording of the piece. “I’m very excited to hear her interpretation because she’s a great musician,” Ludwig said. “Having an ambassador like Catherine is probably the best thing that could happen for this piece.”

Coincidentally, Van Handel’s solo turn with the MSO comes hard on the heels of her first solo album, Bassoon Soirée: From Latin America to Paris, featuring a wide range of pieces from Europe and Latin America. The enforced down time of the pandemic was the impetus to move ahead with the project, and now “I’m really proud that I had the courage and the discipline to see it through,” she said.

Another new facet of Van Handel’s career this season is teaching; she joined the UW-Milwaukee music faculty last fall as adjunct professor of bassoon. “Teaching has always been the missing piece for me,” she said. “I want to share my love for the instrument and give back to the next generation of students.”

UW-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts and the MSO have not historically had the kind of close relationship that Curtis, Van Handel’s alma mater, has with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But she thinks that there are opportunities for growth. One of her students has earned a spot on the MSO’s substitute list and will be playing on the same program when Van Handel solos. “I’m pumped about that,” she said. “I’m so proud of him. It’ll make it even more special.”

Van Handel got married last summer, and in January when the MSO had some time off, she and her husband visited Taiwan to see her family. Having moved to the United States when she was six, she has to work to remember her Chinese language skills on every return visit. But on coming back from this particular trip and playing in the orchestra for Tan Dun’s Water Concerto, on January 20-21 for the Water Festival’s “Percussion & Interludes” concert, she suddenly understood what the composer meant when he said that the sounds of the water resembled spoken Chinese.

“I’m glad we did that piece in this setting,” she said. “It makes me feel more included. I’m being represented through music.”