MSO bassoonist says instrument spoke to her

November 13, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

By the time she was about 9 years old, Karen Smith Manar had decided she wanted a career as a musician.

She started playing bassoon in middle school. It became obvious, she said, that it was the instrument that spoke to her musically, the instrument that was "in her soul."

"That sound, that range of notes, that mellowness, the role the bassoon plays in the orchestra - that was where I should be," she said. "That was the instrument I could speak best through."

The Trenton, N.J., girl came to Maryland to earn her bachelor and master's degrees in performance at Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.


She was a summer living-history volunteer at Fort McHenry National Monument. She played in the historic band, dressed as a soldier - male of course - of the War of 1812.

When her tenure was up, Hugh Manar, the supervisory ranger at the park, asked her out. Soon after that, Barry Tuckwell called from the Netherlands and asked her to play with the Maryland Symphony, and Hugh came to the concert in Hagerstown.

He says he fell in love with her listening to "Scheherazade."

Karen Smith became the MSO's principal bassoonist in 1990. She became Hugh Manar's wife in 1991.

The Manars and their son, Travis, who will turn 14 next week, live in Harford County, Md.

The bassoon through which Manar speaks is an artist-model instrument with sterling silver keys. It was made in 1958 by the Josef Puchner factory in Germany. Her family scraped together the $1,000 needed to buy it when she was in high school, and it wasn't until she got to Peabody that she realized how lucky and blessed she was to stumble onto this lovely, wonderful instrument from a very young age. She said she takes "very, very good care of it."

And it takes very, very good care of her.

How long have you been playing the bassoon? When did you start? Why?

I started clarinet, probably about age 5. I did OK playing clarinet and I was winning auditions at the child level, all-state and that sort of thing, region bands and orchestras. It was pretty obvious that I was competitive. It also became obvious that there were way too many clarinetists and so few chairs. So it occurred to me, as I stood there waiting for my auditions, that there were many fewer oboe players and that would be the place to be.

When I went to middle school I told the band director I wanted to switch, and they didn't own an oboe.

"But I have this other instrument that's kind of like an oboe," (he said). "So if you want to switch, you can play this instrument." And he handed me a bassoon.

How long have you played with the MSO?

Since 1990. (MSO founding conductor) Barry Tuckwell called me needing a principal bassoon to substitute for "Scheherazade" at the last minute. (I had two days notice before the first rehearsal.)

I did play that concert, and it went, thankfully, well. And then he held an audition after a reasonable time to advertise it and I won the audition.

Do you play with other musical ensembles?

(I'm) principal bassoon with the Annapolis Symphony.

(I) own Mount Vernon Chamber Players - a chamber ensemble I started when I was at the Peabody. ... We have done, over the years, many different types of programming. We also did a lot of commercial work - weddings (and) we've done a lot of lecture/recital work.

We also did a lot of living history, specializing in Colonial American music. Those were the kind of things we did in costume on period instruments.

How do you prepare for a concert? How much time do you spend preparing for each performance?

We sign our contracts around March of each year - so I know what I'm playing during the season. In the summer, I collect recordings, get my excerpts, which are the parts I used for study when I was at Peabody or at various concerts that would have my markings on them. Then I know where the solos are. And I just start to get my materials ready for study in the summer. And that also tells me what kinds of reeds I need to make for which concerts.

The music - the parts we're actually going to play - comes to us about a month in advance (of each concert). The first thing I'll do is start to study the part and listen to the recording. Then the next stage would be to practice the parts.

Then the final stage - I usually start about two weeks ahead of the first rehearsal. I will actually play along with the recording so that I can get my pacing, get my breathing marked and start to memorize who's playing all my phrases. Am I with the flute here? Am I with an oboe there? Do I make that entrance with the strings? Am I part of the horn chorale? Everything I play, I have to know who I'm with and who I'm listening for and how I should blend or alter my attacks and decays.

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