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Faculty Spotlight: Paul Rafanelli, bassoon

Submitted by Joanne De Pue on February 23, 2024 - 1:42pm
Bassoonist Paul Rafanelli (Photo: Steve Korn).
Bassoonist Paul Rafanelli (Photo: Steve Korn).

When School of Music faculty bassoonist Paul Rafanelli performs Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major with the UW Symphony at Meany Hall on March 8, 2024, it will be with a sense of déjà vu—the Seattle Symphony bassoonist and UW artist-in-residence performed the same piece in the same location with the UW orchestra in March 1984—almost exactly 40 years ago—while a student at the UW. Leading up to his spotlight performance, the head of the UW bassoon studio graciously agreed to answer our questions about his past and current connections to the School of Music, important lessons learned, and what never changes at the UW Music Building. 

Q: How did you get started on the bassoon? 

I started late! I grew up going to a private school that didn’t have a music program, so when I went into public high school, I really wanted to play an instrument other than piano (which I had studied for years). I chose the bassoon sort of as a joke because I thought it was funny. That opinion changed as I realized that I had some natural talent for it, and started to learn how much range of expression the instrument was capable of. I started buying bassoon recordings (pretty esoteric for a 13-year-old) and really learning what the instrument could do. 

Q: Was your solo with the orchestra because you had won the Concerto Competition?

A: In those days, I don’t remember there being a real concerto competition. When I was a student at UW the Brechemin Scholarship was the top award, and the most prestigious at the School of Music. A concerto/solo performance with the orchestra was part of the package when one won the Brechemin Scholarship. That is how I came to play it with the UW Symphony, by winning the scholarship in my senior year. 

Q: What do you most love about this concerto? 

A: So many wonderful things. It is “young” Mozart—he was 17 when he wrote it—and it has that youthful sense of freshness and fun to it. The first movement feels like we’re going to a party!  And it is deceptive in its difficulty. It sounds simple, but if you’ve ever heard someone struggle with any piece by Mozart (pianists, singers, string players—anyone), we realize how difficult it is to make his music sound poised and natural. 

Q: What is your biggest challenge in preparing for the performance?

A: Well, as you know, I am a full-time member of the Seattle Symphony, and we don’t routinely play concerti. So the biggest issue for me to overcome is how to step into that role of “soloist” and take the lead. It’s a mind set that I have to learn to inhabit. We also don’t play from memory in the symphony, so that is something that I’m very focused on. Luckily this piece is so well known to me, after playing it and refining it for over 40 years, and preparing it for auditions, and teaching it for years, that I am pretty secure about the memorization part. I’m still a little nervous about the cadenzas—you’re really naked in those moments, so I want them to sound good! When I performed it in March 1984, I wrote my own cadenzas. This time I decided to use the cadenzas written by Bernard Garfield, long time principal bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra (now retired); his recording of the concerto was the first one I ever heard, so his sound, his interpretation, and those cadenzas are very much a part of my concept of the piece. 

Q: How has the School of Music and the Music Building changed since your days as a student here?

A: Wow, I think it is very much the same but there are small differences. One big difference is that when I was a student, all of the performance faculty were full-time professors. I know that is rare at all universities these days, so I’m not sorry about that. Also, the SOM did three staged operas per year. That was wonderful experience for the orchestra because opera playing is very different from symphony playing. And a lot of the opera repertoire is hard! So I got great experience there. 

Some of the studios and classrooms look identical to how they were in the 80’s. But there have been changes. When I was finishing my degree here, the building was very much in disrepair—much worse than it is now (I know there are plans for a major remodel in the works). Right after I left school, the practice rooms all got cleaned up and Brechemin Auditorium was completely re-done. I’m happy that the building is going to get some TLC in the near future. I have always loved the architecture of these Quad buildings, and I’m so proud to be back on campus again, and to be part of this school where I learned so much music. 

Q: What never changes here?

You can always count on the cherry blossoms—I sent a picture of the quad to an old colleague of mine from our time together here, and he said that view was his favorite of UW. 

Q: Who was the orchestra director back then? Were you the principal bassoonist? Did you study with Arthur Grossman? 

The orchestra conductor was Robert Feist, who knew a lot about opera and was actually a very reliable conductor. He is no longer with us, but he used to show up at Seattle Symphony concerts when I first started there, and it was interesting to reconnect. 

I shared principal bassoon responsibilities at UW with other students, but by the time I got to my senior year I played almost all principal. That was a great great thing about UW, that I had learned so much repertoire by the time I got to grad school. Yes Mr. Grossman was my teacher and he was very demanding! In the good way! 

Q: What is something you learned while a student here that you have imparted to your own students?

PREPARATION IS KEY. I think a lot of students don’t prepare methodically and try to throw things together at the last minute. I try to instill good practice habits. But of course, in the end it is up to the student to take my advice or not. I also think it’s important to be able to trouble shoot, to analyze exactly where the problems are and isolate them, so you can "teach yourself" when there are really hard passages, or hurdles in your playing that you need to fix. 

Q: Reedmaking: Enjoyable or not so much? 

It's a necessary evil. A lifelong struggle, but if you can make something that you can play on, that is the goal. It is such a huge part of our lives—reed making is part of the technique of playing the bassoon! I’m still learning. I hope that by the time I retire from the SSO I will have mastered reed making—HA!

Q: Any words of wisdom you’d like to share with aspiring musicians?  

Again, PREPARATION. Disciplined practice with the metronome. If you prepare well, doors will open to you. I have a little saying: there’s really no such thing as “luck”—luck happens when preparation meets opportunity!  

 Paul Rafanelli performs with the UW Symphony on Friday, March 8. Details and tickets are available here.

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