Globe-trotting bassoonist joins Symphony in the Valley |

Globe-trotting bassoonist joins Symphony in the Valley

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Ross Kribbs/Special to The Aspen TimesBassoonist Gregory Cukrov performs Friday and Saturday with Symphony in the Valley.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Thousands of classical musicians have spent time in Aspen on their way to careers as professional players. Of them, Gregory Cukrov is almost certainly the only one who didn’t pick up an instrument while in Aspen, didn’t even attend an Aspen Music Festival concert.

Cukrov – pronounced TSU-crawf – lived in Aspen for a year in 1954, when his father was the superintendent of the Aspen schools. Gregory was four at the time – too young for lessons at the Aspen Music School, too unruly to attend concerts, and too busy being a little boy in the mountains to have any interest in studying music. The family moved on to Telluride, where the family lived from 1955-61 – before ski lifts were installed. And while he essentially came of age there – now 60, Cukrov says his most indelible childhood memories took place in Telluride – he didn’t develop a fondness for music there. Cukrov’s piano-playing mother, who taught music in the Telluride schools, tried to get him started on violin, then piano, But he resisted, out of laziness, and from being distracted by his friends, mainly the offspring of the mine owners.

Not till his final year of high school, in Alamosa, did Cukrov find any reason to warm up to classical music. And even then, it wasn’t the music itself, but a philosophy of life, imparted by a theater teacher, that pushed toward music.

“We had a teacher who, before the performance, gave us all a pep talk,” recalled Cukrov, a bassoonist who is featured as the guest soloist for the Symphony in the Valley concerts Friday in Glenwood Springs and Saturday, Oct. 23 in Rifle. “He said, ‘When you go to college, if you have any crazy ideas, follow them through. Because it’s the last time you’ll be able to do it.'”

With that wisdom ringing in his ears, Cukrov trotted off to Alamosa’s Adams State College (instead of going to school in Washington, D.C. to study diplomacy, the other possibility he had considered). When the Utah Symphony came through town, Cukrov was struck by the music, and focused on a particular instrument.

“I was fascinated. I decided I wanted to play oboe,” he said.

But a professor had a different piece of advice, meant to temper Cukrov’s narrow obsession. Cukrov was told to approach the music department with an open mind, asking which instrument they recommended. As it happened, the instructor he spoke to was a bassoonist, and recommended the bassoon.

“I said, Great. Because I had no idea what the instrument was,” he said. (The professor might have handed the naive Cukrov a bassoon and passed it off as an oboe. Though the instruments don’t look alike, both are double-reed members of the woodwind family.)

Cukrov has become expert enough on the bassoon to take on Hummel’s Grand Concerto for Bassoon. The piece, composed in 1805, is the focal point of this weekend’s Hooked on Classical concerts. The way Cukrov describes it, it is a technical monster, marked by extraordinarily long passages in the first movement, and a range of notes that test the upper and lower limits of the bassoon in the second movement.

“It’s a fantastic piece, an audience pleaser,” Cukrov said. He compares the third movement of the concerto to the French notion of the bonhomme: “Someone who enjoys life, doesn’t take things to seriously, mocks everything. Light and frivolous, and also a bit militaristic, but with a lot of tongue in cheek.”

Bassoonists do not take the piece lightly, however.

“It’s got to be the one piece I never wanted to play,” Cukrov said. “It’s too difficult.”

• • • •

In his very first performance experience, Cukrov also thought he was out of his league. A few months after beginning bassoon lessons, Cukrov’s teacher told him he would be playing in a performance of the Smetana opera, “The Bartered Bride.”

“I looked at him like he was a little meshugenah,” Cukrov said. “I’ve barely started out, and you want me to play in an opera?”

It was the beginning of a pattern, of people seeing musical talent that Cukrov had no idea he possessed. One teacher, the second bassoonist with the Denver Symphony, suggested he apply to Juilliard. Instead he applied to the less expensive Manhattan School of Music, where he was accepted, and quickly placed in the first-bassoon section, in the company of the better and more experienced players.

“One teacher told me, ‘Gregory, you know you’re probably the most talented bassoonist we’ve had come through this school. And the laziest.’ I knew I was lazy, but I had no idea I had that kind of talent. I was just trying to learn the notes, one after the other, to play along with the other musicians. I didn’t realize I was learning to play the instrument,” Cukrov said of his early training. “Without me realizing it, they were grooming me for a career.”

After school, he headed to Mississippi to become first bassoonist of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra. Summers were spent at a festival near Pittsburgh. But after seven years, Cukrov said he “realized he had to get out” – a feeling owed in part to the orchestra manager’s repeated threat that anyone who left the orchestra would be replaced by someone better and cheaper. When a friend urged him to go to Europe, Cukrov went, and sent a letter back to Mississippi saying he wouldn’t be returning. The first review of the Jackson Symphony following his departure focused on Cukrov’s absence from the group.

Cukrov settled first in Antwerp, where he learned Dutch and French. The house he lived in was run by a music teacher who rented rooms to musicians from all over the world; this became Cukrov’s network of European players. When his landlady died, in the early ’90s, he moved to Paris. Cukrov has been a member of a wind quintet, a principal bassoonist in the Symphony Orchestra of St. Quentin-en-Yvelines, and a soloist making appearances from Turkey to France. For the last decade, Cukrov has been a professor at the Stage de Musique at Les Karellis, in the French Alps, a summer music camp he describes as “dirt cheap,” with no auditions, welcoming players from kids to seniors.

“We get to deal with that whole gamut of kids,” he said. “It’s a lot of energy, extremely rewarding.”

Cukrov’s travels have occasionally brought him to Colorado; his sister lives in Grand Junction. He has appeared as a soloist with the Grand Junction Symphony, and last year he was a substitute orchestra player with Symphony in the Valley. But his appearances in the States are not many. “I don’t like the mentality. I’m much more European in my thoughts, my feelings. I like to go to the butcher and order some meat and know what I’m getting,” said Cukrov, who is about to move to Vancouver, B.C.

Still, performing with a volunteer orchestra like Symphony in the Valley seems to outweigh his coolness for the U.S. He likens it to his playing experiences in India.

“They’re the type of people who play for the love of the music, and you can feel it,” he said of Symphony in the Valley, whose concerts this weekend, conducted by Carlos Elias, include Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” Overture and Haydn’s London Symphony. “They may not play perfectly, but they’re there because they want to be there, and they work as a community to make things, and it really is a pleasure. The performances are so enthusiastic. They try to do things.”

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