Arlen Fast, Bassoon & Contrabassoon

The New York Philharmonic

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Arlen Fast

Arlen Fast joined the Philharmonic in 1996 as Bassoonist and Contrabassoonist after serving 17 seasons as second bassoonist for the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera. Mr. Fast earned his music degree at Wichita State University in Kansas, where he was second bassoonist of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. While on the West Coast, he studied with Norman Herzberg, who himself had studied with the New York Philharmonic’s former second bassoonist, Simon Kovar. He is an alumnus of the Music Academy of the West, now a partner in the New York Philharmonic Global Academy. Mr. Fast has performed on tours with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic.

Active in chamber music as well as teaching, Mr. Fast has appeared with the New York Philharmonic's Ensembles at Merkin Concert Hall, the Orchestra's collaboration with the 92nd Street Y Chamber series, the Making Music series at Weill Recital Hall, Music from Copland House, Sunriver Music Festival, Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego, and the Summerfest Chamber Music Festival in La Jolla, California. He has given numerous master classes and lectures, including at Juilliard and U.C.L.A., and was twice the featured guest artist at the Contrabassoon Festival in Park City, Utah.

A pioneer in instrument design, Mr. Fast has invented a new system of register keys for the contrabassoon, the most significant design change for this instrument since the 1870s. This new system greatly improves the performance and significantly extends the practical range of the instrument. His collaboration wtih the Fox Bassoon Company has produced a new, improved instrument, one of which he presently plays in the Philharmonic.

He is married to Anne Ediger, an applied linguist and author who is a professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

“I extensively overhauled the contrabassoon because I couldn’t make the instrument produce the quality of playing I knew in my head that I wanted. Now it is a wonderful instrument, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to play.”

Q&A with Arlen Fast

THE FACTS: Born in Newton, Kansas. Bachelor’s in music performance from Wichita State University. Prior to the Philharmonic: 17 seasons with the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Opera. At the Philharmonic: Joined in 1996.

WHEN DID YOU BEGIN STUDYING THE BASSOON? In high school. The bassoon was such an intriguing instrument, both in its appearance and its tone. The contrabassoon was even more intriguing and few people seemed to know much about it. It was also a big challenge — it was a very recalcitrant instrument.

WHO WAS YOUR MOST IMPORTANT INFLUENCE? Norman Herzberg, my bassoon teacher in Los Angeles. He never stopped being a student of the bassoon.

WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT ASPECT OF YOUR JOB? Every instrument has its challenges, but the bassoon and contrabassoon have different acoustical layouts, and the technique of one doesn’t support the other.

YOU HAVE EXTENSIVELY OVERHAULED THE CONTRABASSOON. WHY? I couldn’t make the instrument produce the quality of playing I knew in my head that I wanted. Poor articulations, unstable notes, and uneven tone color were constant problems; other “contra” players also struggled with these problems. With the new register key system I now have, it is a wonderful instrument, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to play.

IN 2007 YOU TOOK A SIX-MONTH SABBATICAL. WHAT DID YOU DO DURING THAT TIME? I spent two months in the acoustics lab of the physics department at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, doing a research project on the acoustics of the contrabassoon. One part was devoted to understanding the behavior of the sound waves of the new register key system versus the old one. The other was an impedance test study, which had never been done before on the contrabassoon. Both of these projects are ongoing.


MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS WITH THE ORCHESTRA: It’s been one long highlight reel — what do you pick? But there are moments that stand out, like the Pyongyang concert in 2008; playing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in 2000 at Vienna’s Musikverein, where it was premiered in 1912; Verdi’s Requiem with Riccardo Muti in 2002; and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 with Semyon Bychkov in 2013.

MOST INSPIRING COMPOSER: Bach. The first piece of music I fell in love with was Bach’s Musical Offering.

WHAT ARE YOU ESPECIALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS SEASON? Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in March 2017. I love playing it.

WHAT ARE YOU LISTENING TO RIGHT NOW? Violinist Julia Fischer’s album Sarasate

WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR FREE TIME? Right now most of my free time is absorbed by ongoing projects with the contrabassoon and with improvements and developments for reed-making machines and tools.

As of November 2016

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