Principal Bassoon Catherine Chen Steps into the Spotlight

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: Bassoon, MSO Musicians

Catherine Chen found that there was a problem with being assistant principal bassoon: She rarely got to play any of the pieces she really wanted to.

Chen, who has been the MSO’s principal bassoon for a year and a half, won a job as assistant principal in the Toronto Symphony straight out of college in 2015. But in a section of four people, the assistant principal usually didn’t play any major work written for three bassoons. “I loved Toronto,” she said. “But I wanted the experience of going through all the repertoire. I never would have gotten to play any Beethoven symphony, or Sibelius, because of the role I was in.”

But this week in Milwaukee, she is getting ready to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony for the first time in her life – a piece with many prominent bassoon moments. “I’m really excited to play it. It’s a blessing to be able to,” she said. She has prepared by listening to a lot of recordings and making a lot of reeds.  She likes to have two or three reeds ready on her stand during a concert, and will switch between them depending on the piece or the passage. “Older reeds are good for really soft playing,” she explained. “As a reed breaks in, it becomes more refined.”

This fall, Chen will be soloing with the MSO in Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto – but looming even larger in her mind is Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a main attraction on the MSO’s opening concerts in September. The piece famously opens with a very high, soft, treacherous bassoon solo, and “I’m already thinking about the reed I’ll need to find for that,” Chen said with a smile. The music “has to come out of nowhere – I want people to wonder, ‘what is that?’ And especially after intermission, the reed can’t be too dry; it has to be just moist enough.” She has played the part before in student orchestras, and said, “The hardest part is the first page. The rest of the way, it’s like a party.”

Born in Taipei, Chen moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, with her family when she was six and played the piano and cello as a child. But going into high school, she wanted to join the band because her older siblings had had a good social experience in that group. “The band director said, ‘You look like an oboe or bassoon player; you have the lips for it.’ And my sister said, ‘Don’t play the oboe. They’re neurotic.’ So I chose bassoon.”

But having made her choice, she fell in love with the instrument. And within that same year, she went to her first New York Philharmonic concert and decided she wanted to be a classical musician. She spent her high school years practicing two or three hours a day to make up for her late start, and earned admission to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

In Milwaukee, Chen is keeping busy with learning new repertoire. “I want to learn a new concerto every year,” she said. “I’m very ambitious, and it’s important to find different outlets, like recitals and chamber music, to improve myself.” One job for this summer is to write her own cadenzas to use in the Mozart concerto in the fall.

She is by far the youngest member of the MSO’s bassoon section, “but they’ve been so receptive, and they made sure I was comfortable,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had to be bossy.”

Assistant principal bassoon Rudi Heinrich agrees. “She wanted to be a good section member from the beginning,” he said. “She leads by building consensus, and she’s always super tactful. It’s never ‘You’re too flat’ or ‘You’re too sharp.’ It’s always, ‘Can we check this?’”

Chen lives downtown, where she enjoys reading, Netflix, being outside, trying new restaurants, and cooking. Her grandmother, who grew up in the Szechuan area of China, moved with the family to the United States and cooked every night when she was growing up, “so that reminds me of love.” But it also means she’s picky about what she’ll eat in Chinese restaurants. “I’ve learned to make dumplings like she did,” she said, “so now I never order them.”