Fred Phillips is principal bassoonist in the orchestra. More information about Fred as a performer may be found HERE. Fred joined me for a chat to talk about his interests, music related and otherwise.
Ok Fred, we’ll talk music in a moment. Let’s start off by talking cycling. Rumour has it that you used to ride about 10,000 kms per year. Where does this take you to?
Nowadays, I ride between 6 and 7000 – I’ve slowed down with age, but still spend the same amount of time on the bike. Living in south London, I go out towards Komoka and Delaware and ride out towards the west and south of London. In the summertime, I spend my summers in upstate New York and it’s just outstanding countryside for biking.
Any similarities between the focus needed for cycling and playing the bassoon, or are they purposefully as different pursuits as possible?
For me, they complement each other. The bassoon requires just such intense detailed concentration and the bicycle, especially if there’s no traffic around, allows your mind to wander. I need a bit of both.
No, I would like to, but because I spend my summers in another part of the world I don’t have the chance.
First memory of seeing an orchestra?
I can say my first vivid memory of seeing an orchestra was seeing Leonard Bernstein’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra – concerts with the New York Philharmonic broadcast on the TV back in the 60’s. They were great.
What do recall about these presentations that captured your imagination?
He had such a wonderfully charismatic way of presenting the music as a host of these concerts. One that sticks out in my memory was a concert with Andre Watts as piano soloist, at the time a very young African-American pianist who went on to have a marvelous career.
As a performer, can you elaborate on how one ‘wins’ a orchestra job through an audition?
You need to pay such attention to every minute detail in your playing. One thing I like about auditions is it forces me to focus on my playing in a detailed way that nothing else does. In the middle of the orchestra, you can have momentary lapses in your playing that might not make it into the audience. But when you do an audition you have two or three minutes to show what you can do and to hopefully eliminate any undesirable aspects in your playing . And of course you have to be the flavour that they want. Being absolutely the best person, and someone who appeals to them in an artistic sense. But like figure skating, you have to be the best person who appeal to the judges on that day. It’s an interesting puzzle to unravel and it causes me to focus quite myopically on various aspects of my playing and i think that’s very healthy.
And when one finally has success at winning an audition, isn’t it a fairly standard practice for a two-year tenure review.
Yes, two years is becoming standard these days. Orchestras are taking longer and longer to make these decisions. They’re looking for personality, and how adaptable you are. After a period of time, whether you are able to make the adjustments that are necessary to fit really really well within the ensemble. If you’re a real idiot, they probably won’t like you for that either, even if you play great!
How many years have you been a member of the orchestra?
20 years and 3 months. If i remember correctly, my first service was the 10th October 1995. I won the audition in October, but missed the first week because I hadn’t yet received my immigration papers.
So, how did you come to audition for a Canadian orchestra?
When a Canadian orchestra wants to hire a foreigner, it first has to have held an audition for Canadian residents. Orchestra London did that, and for whatever reason, they didn’t find an suitable candidate. So they held an international audition in September and I was the lucky winner!
Can you share one memorable artistic highlight in your career with the orchestra?
Alain Trudel’s very first concert as Music Director, which included Shostakovich’s 9th Symphony. There is one movement of the symphony which consists almost entirely of a bassoon cadenza – and it was the only time in my life that a conductor has come all the way back to the bassoon section to shake my hand.
Is it all for the performances, or are rehearsals somewhat satisfying too?
Rehearsals are sometimes more satisfying than performances because rehearsals with a good conductor are the times when the hard work and the important work of building an ensemble take place.
Looking back at 20 years of performing in London, what has changed, what has stayed the same?
When I first came to #WePlayOn/ Orchestra London it was an orchestra I had never heard and knew nothing about except that I was going to get paid. I was astonished when I arrived, at how good this orchestra was. That’s something that has been a constant throughout my two decades with the orchestra. That it’s always been an orchestra whose sum has been greater than its parts.
interview by Andrew Chung