Meet the Musician – Ursula Leveaux

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Ursula is Principal Basoon at AAM and took up the role in 2011.

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I’m not entirely sure why I chose the bassoon, but I was eight years old when I announced, with certainty, that was the instrument I was going to play. My first bassoon was taller than I was at the time! What has become clear to me since then is that the reason I love to play music is as much about the connection and contact it brings, to other musicians and to the listeners, as it is the music itself.

The thing I’ve come to appreciate about the bassoon is that it is, by its very nature, a collaborative instrument; in the orchestra it frequently adds colour and texture to other instruments as often, if not more, than it is a solo voice. The bassoon has a huge array of possible colours and characters; from the traditional clown to its woody middle timbres and then to its expressive, singing, upper registers. I love them all!

I’ve always been very fond of baroque music. A Vivaldi concerto is wonderful to play, in the way the bassoon is allowed to be so characterful, virtuosic and also totally operatic in some of the ravishing slow movements. I’m also a big fan of French Baroque music, especially Rameau; he often writes the most extraordinary lines for the bassoons, like no other composer really.

Above all, I absolutely love playing bass lines. There is nothing quite like being part of the bass group in a Bach Passion or a Handel concerto grosso or even just accompanying an oboe in a Telemann or Handel Sonata. I basically took up the Baroque bassoon to have more opportunities to play bass lines!

Inevitably, playing one early bassoon has led to others. I do also play Classical bassoon which is a very different experience and I love discovering the music of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven from the perspective of period instruments. As someone who continues to do quite a bit of modern instrument playing, I like the term HIP (Historically Informed Performance) as it suggests that the understanding of the historical context of the music is as important as the instrument that the music is played on. Having said that, I do feel that my work on baroque and classical instruments certainly informs my modern playing too.

My two main instruments, Baroque and Classical, are made by a Dutch maker called Peter de Koningh, whom I met when lived and studied in Holland. I also have another Baroque bassoon, made by a French maker called Olivier Cottet. This instrument is a semitone lower, pitch A=392,  often known as French Baroque pitch. The extra semitone makes the instrument that much bigger and it feels quite different to play – particularly for someone like myself whose hands aren’t all that big! But I do enjoy its different ‘ voice’ – we used that pitch to record the J.S. Bach Orchestral Suites a few years ago and  in May this year for the programme of French music titled La Turquie which was very exciting!

I became the Principal Bassoon of the Academy of Ancient Music in 2011 and still can’t believe my luck in being part of such an amazing group of wonderful musicians. There have been so many highlights over these last years that it would be impossible to list them all here but playing a Bach Passion at Kings College Cambridge and rediscovering the Messiah with Richard Egarr immediately come to mind, as well as a really fun trip to Australia a few years ago. Most recently, I enjoyed playing The Seasons by Haydn with Laurence Cummings – it is has a really fun, if demanding, bassoon part!

Ursula Leveaux

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