On a different note


Just like many music lovers who regularly attend Philadelphia Orchestra concerts, Daniel Matsukawa has the same seat for each show at Verizon Hall. And it’s a choice seat, indeed.

"I’m dead center — it’s the best seat in the house!" he enthuses. "I’m surrounded by sound, with a perfect view of the conductor."

No wonder. His seat is right on the stage of the concert hall. As principal bassoon player for the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Bella Vista musician sits in the woodwind section. The instrument he plays is long and cylindrical, made of maple wood, and weighing 15 pounds. Except for the contra-bassoon, it’s the lowest-sounding woodwind instrument.

"It can be very lyrical in the tenor range, and that’s what I like best about it," says Matsukawa, whose bassoon was made in Germany in the l930s. He bought it from a retiring musician after a long search for just the right one. "All bassoons are very different from each other. Each one is like an adventure."

It’s also quite a trip to be the principal bassoon player in a world-class orchestra. At 34, Matsukawa is one of the two youngest principal players in the orchestra. And his role as principal carries special responsibilities.

For instance, in any orchestral piece, Matsukawa plays all the solo parts written for his instrument. "Many composers have written beautiful solo lines for the bassoon," he says.

He assigns the other bassoon parts to his three colleagues in the bassoon section. Then, too, the musician plays the first bassoon part for all the orchestra’s recordings. And he’s required to attend all auditions for the woodwind instruments, which include flutes, oboes, clarinets and French horns as well as bassoons.

In l999, it was Matsukawa’s turn to endure a rigorous audition process that involved four rounds of tryouts.

For the first three, each candidate played behind a screen and could not see his listeners, who included music director Wolfgang Sawallisch and an audition committee of 11 orchestra musicians.

After each round, the candidate list was narrowed until only two finalists remained. Then came the high-stakes "final finals," as they’re called. This time, the screen was removed, and Matsukawa was facing the audition committee.

After each finalist played, Matsukawa was called back into the room and offered the coveted position of principal bassoon. Sawallisch shook his hand and told him it was a unanimous decision. "My heart stopped for a few beats," he recalls. "This was a dream come true."

The bassoon once seemed an unlikely choice for a youngster who played guitar and was the lead singer in a rock group in his early teens.

Born in Argentina to Japanese parents, Matsukawa grew up in New York City. No one in the family was a musician, but young Matsukawa enjoyed singing and playing the guitar.

Then came the day he heard a bassoon solo while listening to a radio concert. "I fell in love with the sound," says Matsukawa. "I ran to my parents and said, ‘I want to play the bassoon!’"

They were surprised, but they encouraged him. At school, he told the band teacher of his interest. "He almost had a heart attack," says Matsukawa. "Most students don’t request the bassoon. Everyone wants to play the sax." The first year, the then-13-year-old student taught himself from a "tune-a-day" book. In high school, he started private lessons and played in the youth symphony orchestra.

By his senior year, Matsukawa’s talent was evident, and he won a competition that allowed him to play a solo at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony.

After high school, Matsukawa attended Juilliard for two years, and then moved to Philadelphia so that he could attend the Curtis Institute of Music, which accepts only one bassoon student each year.

He began his professional career as principal bassoonist with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Then came stints as principal with three other symphony orchestras, in Virginia, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

While he was in Washington with the National Symphony Orchestra, Matsukawa learned of an opening with the Philadelphia Orchestra due to the retirement of Bernard Garfield, principal bassoon for 43 years. After his successful audition, the musician took his seat in the orchestra in September 2000.

He arrived just in time for the orchestra’s final season at the venerable hall at the Academy of Music. Then came the excitement of moving to Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center in December 2001.

"The acoustics are great," Matsukawa reports. "It gives a very clear, very warm sound."

Producing that sound requires hours of practice. The musicians attend rehearsals Tuesdays through Thursdays, with a double rehearsal on Wednesday and a complete run-through on Thursdays.

The orchestra performs three concerts each week, plus concerts on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day. Seven or eight times a year, the group also gives a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall. After the season, the musicians go on tour and then play in summer music festivals at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and in Saratoga, N.Y.

At home in Bella Vista, Matsukawa practices daily in a small studio upstairs. This is where he keeps hundreds of CDs and musical scores. It’s also his "reed room." Woodwind musicians make their own reeds, the mouthpiece for the instrument.

Also in this studio, Matsukawa listens to CDs of the works the orchestra will be playing. As an opera buff, he often listens to opera, too. "Sometimes listening to the singers helps my playing, because it’s the most natural way of making music," he says.

His career also includes teaching in Temple University’s music department and teaching chamber music at his alma mater, Curtis. Then, too, Matsukawa gives solo recitals. In January, he performed as soloist with a string trio at the Philadelphia Art Museum. And this past Sunday, he played a solo with Independence Sinfonia in Abington.

This summer, Matsukawa will perform in two music festivals in Japan. Much closer to home, he’s already booked for a solo at the Fleisher Art Memorial, 719 Catharine St., on April 4, 2004.

The bassoonist is not the only musician at home. His wife, Hiroko Matsukawa, is a violinist with the Opera Company of Philadelphia orchestra. And soon, there will be a new member of the family; they are expecting their first child on Valentine’s Day.

Their busy life doesn’t leave too much time for relaxing, but when they wind down, they enjoy dining out at their favorite restaurants or simply strolling around town.

They also enjoy the fact that their neighborhood attracts other musicians. In fact, their next-door neighbors, David Yang and Danielle Pierson, are both free-lance musicians, and right down the street is singer and guitarist Skip Denenberg.

But his second home, of course, is Verizon Hall. It’s his third season with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the thrill hasn’t diminished at all.

"The music-making is remarkable because my colleagues are such outstanding musicians," Matsukawa says. "Every day I feel so lucky and blessed to be part of this incredible orchestra."