erkki suomalainenThis is the fourteenth interview in our series Weaving the Web of Finnish Orchestral Bassoonists. The series introduces some of the orchestral bassoonists from all over Finland. Each guest will get the same set of questions.

Guest #14 is Erkki Suomalainen, solo contrabassoonist of the Helsinki Philharmonic since around 2000.

Did you play an instrument before you started playing bassoon?

I started with violin, downshifted a fifth to viola, then further on to bassoon and contrabassoon. How low can you go - if this continues, guess I’ll become a manager or a conductor.

Who introduced you to music?

My father was a pianist, so there was always music in the house. I guess my parents thought that it would be good for a child to learn to play an instrument. They were quite right!

When did you start to play the bassoon, and where did you get the idea from?

I was 15 and wanted to find an instrument as far from the violin as I could come up with. From the contrabassoonist’s point of view now, I could not have ended up much further from the violins, could I? The senior high I was about to start at that moment offered tuition and availability of instruments on any orchestral instrument one wanted to learn, so my choices were wide open. An odd stroke of fortune, I guess.

Who was your first teacher?

The ‘father’ of the Finnish bassoon playing, Emanuel Elola. The school had just started the instrumental teaching programme and they had a deal with Sibelius-Academy. I was very lucky to have a good teacher from the very beginning. After Elola retired from the Sibelius-Academy, I studied with Pekka Katajamäki.

When did you start to think about becoming a professional bassoonist?

I suppose that thought was lurking in my head from the very beginning, but certainly just subconsciously. I didn’t choose the bassoon, haha...

When you started to play, who was your favourite bassoonist?

Hard to give one name. First of all, the access to recordings then was very different from today. At some point I was eagerly listening to the numerous recordings which Elola had made for YLE (the Finnish Broadcasting Company). My late auntie was working at the classical music division of YLE and she’d often leave the back door open - I dare to tell it now:) Pekka Katajamäki was also quite productive in that field back then. The renowned international names of the era were Milan Turković and Klaus Thunemann. I also remember developing a keen liking towards the Vivaldi concertos recorded by Maurice Allard.

What is currently your favourite recording of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto?

Oh, I am just simply not a one-and-only type of person, sorry, can’t tell...

If someone had to describe your sound in one or two words, what would they be? (you can cheat and ask someone for help with this one!)


If you were limited to only one piece to play for the rest of your life, (solo piece for bassoon, or bassoon and piano) what would you choose?

I have mentioned a few times earlier that should I ever think of stopping to play the bassoon, the very last piece to play would certainly be Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion. And that would most likely make me change my mind. The arrangement I am familiar with is a trio though, oboe, bassoon and piano.

Who taught you how to make reeds?

My two most important teachers in reed-making have been trial and error. I certainly also learned a great deal of reed-making from both of my bassoon teachers. My first experience in reed-making was with Harri Ahmas, after a bit less than a year with the bassoon. After the first year with teachers’ reeds I mostly played on my own reeds - that was Elola’s strategy - always feeling a bit bad if I had to ask for a reed. Curiosity and intuition are important as well. How to pass on intuition - for instance - is a complex issue, but there are ways. The basis of it all however, is a clear methodical approach; at least in my mind.

What reed shape do you use?

I have a few of my own. One that I have used a long time is probably somewhere between Rieger 1a and Rieger 2. Another later solution is a rather wide bottle-shape, a bit to the direction of what Elola used to use.

What is your favourite reed-thread colour?

I am very conservative when it comes to the real important issues; red, that is.

What do you listen to (if anything) while you are making reeds?

Mostly nothing really. From time to time pieces that I need to learn, but I actually prefer to follow the music while listening to those. And that would already be a bit too much multi-tasking asked from a contrabassoonist?

What is your greatest extravagance spent on making reeds?

I used to think it is the winding machine, but I’m not so sure about that anymore.

What is your favourite reed-making tool?

A medium size half-round diamond file. I use it for finishing the reeds. It’s great. It’s the best. Made the reeds great again!

If you had to describe the world’s best bassoon reed, what would it be like?

One that you instantly forget.

If you could change anything about the world of classical music, what would it be?

Let ever more children be in touch with classical music <3

What is the best advice you have gotten, and where from?

‘Forgive and forget’ - forgot where I learned that from please forgive me..
‘There is almost always something more important’ - don’t know the origin of this one either, but it works.
‘I might be totally wrong too...’ - learned from experience.
‘Brain before speech, not the other way round’ - this must be from mum...

If you weren’t playing bassoon, what do you think you might be doing instead?

Hm, difficult to say. I have an interest towards all sorts of things, hard to guess what would have popped out first if there wasn’t the bassoon. I like cooking, gardening, traveling, languages, building things...

What is the hardest part of your job in the orchestra?

I suppose every job in the orchestra has it’s own peculiarities. For second bassoon maybe the leverage between the bass side of the strings and the rest of the woodwind colleagues.

Can you describe something an orchestra colleague should never say to a bassoonist?

‘Your reeds suck’ - but that already shows a complete ignorance of our trade and can thus be immediately ignored. ‘You are fired!’, said by the manager, maybe...

What is your favourite orchestral excerpt?

Uuh.. I am really not that one-of-kind person. There’s a spot in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella that always gets a trail of goosebumps down the spine, but that’s not even one of the excerpts of the book; bassoon does play there though. A similar experience from a certain turn of the two oboes in the slow movement of Sibelius’s 4th, where bassoon does not even play - just tingle...

What is your favourite memory from a concert that you played in?

There must be several. Usually it comes down to some sort of shared flow experience. Some of those have been when coaching youth orchestras; when you experience the immense wave of enthusiasm of the first-timers or the mind-boggling development during the process. And certainly, unspoken collaboration between colleagues leaves me with great delight.

What is the nicest thing another bassoonist has ever done for you?

I remember a few very good meals...

Every bassoonist seems to have a passionate hobby, what is yours?

I could name quite a few which sadly all suffer from lack of time to invest on them. Doing renovations and building things, I guess, partly out of necessity though. But for a musician; isn’t it a truly rewarding feeling when you wake up in the morning, go check what you made the day before - and it’s still standing there! Most of the time at least.

Thanks Erkki!

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