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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Jun 7, 2017

SFS Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson on Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring

Stephen Paulson. (Photo credit left to right: Terrence McCarthy, Jeanette Yu)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring opens with what is perhaps the most famous bassoon solo in history. SFS Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson has lived with The Rite for over forty years as both a bassoonist and as conductor of Symphony Parnassus. He shares his thoughts on Stravinsky’s primal ballet, which celebrated its centenary recently, in 2013:

In my junior year of high school, I went to our local record store and picked up an LP of Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring. I also got scores for The Rite and Stravinsky’s Octet, which were great in their own right—they just looked impressive. I remember sitting on the floor of my living room with my head between the speakers listening to this thinking “This is what I want to do.”

Stephen Paulson with the SFS bassoon section (Photo credit: Stefan Cohen)

I first played The Rite in January 1971 when I was with the Pittsburgh Symphony. I remember afterward a friend and I went to hear [avant garde rocker] Captain Beefheart and Ry Cooder, who were also in town that night. Somehow we ended up backstage and met Captain Beefheart. Coming from the Symphony concert, I still had my bassoon with me and ended up playing an encore of The Rite solo—for Captain Beefheart.

At this point, I don’t like to deconstruct/reconstruct the solo. I usually start playing with it at home and if I hear something I like, it happens automatically. I also like to listen to recordings of the last time I played it, to hear if there’s something that I would like to incorporate this time around. It's a lovely diatonic tune, but I like to inflect it with a hint of the danger that is to come.

—Stephen Paulson


Susanna Mälkki leads the San Francisco Symphony in Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Scherzo fantastique, as well as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Garrick Ohlsson, June 9–11 at Davies Symphony Hall. 415-864-6000

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