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Stephen Paulson: At Home Among The Reeds, Channeling a Lifetime of Experience

January 20, 2016

Paulson,-Stephen-0809-(1).jpgWhen Stephen Paulson, the principal bassoonist of the SFS since 1977, plays the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, he is channeling a lifetime of experience.  “My parents had an old 78 of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto,” he says, “and it was one of my favorite pieces in those days.” (In fact, he still has that record.)  The young Paulson did not set out to become a bassoonist – in fact, he wasn’t even sure what the instrument looked like.  But when he was in seventh grade, his band director offered a bassoon to any clarinetist who could read the bass clef. 

Let’s all pause a moment and acknowledge the sly wisdom of that teacher, who made a large, ungainly, difficult instrument into a kind of prize to be won.  Paulson, who had studied piano and therefore knew the bass clef, was duly awarded the instrument.  “When he opened the case and put it together,” he now recalls, “I said ‘So that's what one of those looks like!’ I thought you had to stand on a ladder to play it.”

 So began a lifelong fascination with the bassoon, and therefore, with the Mozart concerto, which he says “stands at the heart of our solo repertoire.” He also found himself drawn to a series of symphonic works that give the double-reed instrument a prominent role.  Curiously, they all came from the same part of the world: he lists the Tchaikovsky Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 as favorites, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and the Shostakovich Symphonies 4, 7 and 9.  “I think the Russians love us!” he says.  Then there’s Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring begins with a famous bassoon solo, and whose music was indirectly responsible for Paulson meeting Gretchen Klein, his wife.  “We met backstage at Davies Hall.  She is a member of the SFS Chorus, and we were rehearsing for a Stravinsky program at Carnegie Hall.”

Still, the Mozart Bassoon Concerto occupies a special place in Paulson’s life.  He’s even composed his own cadenzas (the moments in a concerto where the orchestra stops and the soloist gets to enjoy the spotlight – in Mozart’s day they were often improvised); he changes these slightly every time he performs the piece.   

Paulson didn’t stop at composing cadenzas for a single concerto.  He has written a bassoon concerto of his own, and in 2011 had the opportunity to perform it – at the conductor’s podium.  (Fellow SFS bassoonist Steven Dibner was the soloist.)  He began conducting Symphony Parnassus, San Francisco’s community orchestra, in 1998.  Despite being largely self-taught as a conductor, he won an audition for the job.  A few years later, he began studying with the late George Cleve, longtime music director of the San Jose Symphony and founder of the Bay Area’s Midsummer Mozart Festival. 

Stephen-Paulson-and-son-Greg-Paulson-jam-together-by-Kim-Huynh.jpgPaulson also found himself learning about a very different corner of the music world when his son, Greg, began playing in the death metal band Arkaik.  Like many of his SFS colleagues, Paulson had some familiarity with the larger world of heavy metal through the orchestra’s 1999 album with Metallica called S & M.  But “when my son Greg started introducing me to more of the genre,” he says, “I was impressed with how carefully their music is written and rehearsed.  I think there is great potential in mixing a metal band with amplified orchestral instruments.”   

Stephn-Paulson,-Gretchen-Klein-by-Kim-Huynh.jpg

He and his son’s band are planning a collaboration, but they’ll have to work around a daunting schedule: Paulson is not only the principal bassoonist of the SFS (with all the hours of shaping and shaving reeds that comes with it), and the music director of Symphony Parnassus; he is also a veteran professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  In what passes for “spare time,” he enjoys cooking (a pastime he shares with many of his SFS colleagues), and hiking the Marin County trails with his family. 

If you go:

Masaaki Suzuki conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto featuring SFS principal bassoon Stephen Paulson, with Haydn’s Symphony No. 95, Stravinsky’s Concerto in D major, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, 8 pm Feb 5 and 6. Davies Symphony Hall (415)864-6000 sfsymphony.org

Profiled in our Meet the SFS Musicians series, Paulson shares his love for music, his family, and San Francisco.