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BASSOONIST’S LIFE IS A DEMANDING ONE

While a free-lance musician may be required to perform under a wide variety of circumstances, bassoonist David Savage’s most unusual assignment was playing for prison inmates in Mexico during a stint with the Mexican National Youth Orchestra.

“We performed in schools and hospitals and finally ended up on a circuit of federal penitentiaries--all low-security places, of course,” Savage said.

In San Diego, the 32-year-old bassoonist stitches together a patchwork quilt of less exotic gigs--musicians’ argot for any performing job--that runs the gamut of Starlight in the summer, church oratorios, studio recordings, some chamber music and an occasional performance in the pit with the San Diego Opera Orchestra. Last month Savage was called in to augment the San Diego Symphony’s bassoon section to perform Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” one of those giant post-Romantic scores that calls for four bassoons and two contrabassoons, or twice the orchestra’s usual bassoon section.

Because local studio recording is largely non-union work, Savage--like other local musicians--is understandably vague about segments of his free-lance work. “Studio playing includes everything from commercial jingles to elevator music. Once in while a church puts together a video, which the musicians call a ‘Jesus video.’ Nobody publicizes this work, because a lot of it is non-union activity. San Diego is a weak union town in contrast to Los Angeles,” said Savage.

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The voracious musical appetites of the Los Angeles recording and television studios have found in the San Diego music community a ready labor pool willing to work for less than union scale. Savage, however, maintains a kind of pragmatic agnosticism about this sort of work. “I’ll work for just about anything without knowing what it is for,” he said.

Because of the sheer size of the bassoon, not many youngsters start on the heavy, complex instrument. “I didn’t take up the bassoon until college. I started pretty early on flute, took up the oboe and saxophone in high school, and played for a while in a jazz band.” While a student at San Diego State University, Savage learned bassoon technique in a six-week crash course.

“A student production of ‘Oliver’ needed a bassoonist for performances six weeks away. I was able to concentrate on the exposed parts to make it at least credible.”

According to James Hoffman, longtime personnel manager for the San Diego Symphony, bassoon players are not always easy to come by. “I can remember a few years back when we had to import extra bassoon players from as far away as Tulsa,” Hoffman said.

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Savage’s conversion to the bassoon was both instantaneous and complete. After his undergraduate studies at SDSU he took the bassoon post with the youth orchestra in Mexico City, where he worked for two years.

“After performing in Germany in 1980 with the SDSU Partch Ensemble, I had the travel bug,” he said. “A wealthy politician in Mexico City had formed this orchestra to feature his son as its conductor. It turned out that most of the other principal players were either Hungarian or American, since the conductor had studied in Hungary and the U.S.”

According to Savage, imported instrumentalists are not unusual in Mexican orchestras. “All the orchestras in Mexico City contain mostly Europeans and Americans,” he said. “In our orchestra, only about one-third of the players were Latin American.”

After his return to San Diego, Savage decided that succeeding as a free-lance musician here would require an expansion of his musical abilities. He took enough voice lessons to land a place in the the San Diego Opera chorus. Twice in dress rehearsal, however, he was drafted into the opera orchestra.

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“For ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Gwendoline,’ the opera orchestra hired fewer bassoons than the score called for. Each time the conductor got to the orchestral dress rehearsal, he demanded the full complement of bassoons. (San Diego Opera music administrator) Karen Keltner knew I played bassoon, so she called me down into the pit right off the stage.”

The economics of free-lancing are not the sort that would make business administration students want to change their course of study. Over the last 12 months, Savage estimated that he earned around $12,000 from his bassoon playing, although he augmented that with teaching and some occasional construction work.

Three years ago, however, Savage purchased a new bassoon for $10,000, and he is now trying to figure out how to acquire a new reed-making machine that retails for $3,000. Like oboe players, bassoonists must constantly carve their own supply of reeds, and the better the equipment, the more reliable the reed is in performance.

“We’re not your typical consumer,” Savage said. “All of our major purchases have to do with music.”

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Savage’s wife, Francesca, is a violist, but he recommends marriage between musicians only if they’re up for it. “It can be a source of irritation, especially if you spend a lot of time together. You can have disagreements on more levels if you are both musicians,” he observed.

On the other hand, their collaboration has resulted in such things as a Brandenburg Concerto party they threw a few seasons back. After an elegant pot-luck dinner, their musician-guests took their places in the living room and played through all six of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.


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