Chicago Philharmonic Bassoonist Jim Berkenstock

Chi Phil Chats with Jim Berkenstock

Jim Berkenstock has had a very special role in The Chicago Philharmonic Society’s history. Besides serving as a principal bassoonist with the Chicago Philharmonic for decades (in addition to his 42-year post as principal bassoonist for the Lyric Opera Orchestra), he was also board president for ten years and a founding member of our orchestra. Read what Jim had to say about how he became a bassoonist, performing with his wife, Jean, and his beliefs about the innate nature of music.


Q: Where are you from?

A: Although I was born in Joliet, my family moved to the outskirts of Philadelphia when I was only three months old. I moved from that area at the end of the first grade, heading to Massachusetts. From there I went to Tennessee in the sixth grade where I completed high school and undergraduate school at Vanderbilt. I came back to this area to go to graduate school at Northwestern and earned a Masters degree in bassoon performance and a Ph.D. in Music History.

Q: What inspired you to become a musician, and how did you choose the bassoon?
A: I started on the saxophone in the fifth grade. I was in a very small town in Tennessee, and one day the band director came in and announced that we were getting back the bassoon that we had been loaning to a neighboring city. He was looking for someone to take up the instrument in our band. Our community was so small, talented grade school players also played in the high school band (I was now in the eighth grade). We had too many sax players, so the band director politely suggested that maybe a sax player would be a good fit. Uncharacteristically, I raised my hand. I was normally very shy and reticent at that time. I don’t know what possessed me, but I raised my hand not even knowing what a bassoon was. Nevertheless, I remained a dedicated saxophone player until I was 22. Bassoon was only a secondary instrument for me until after I came to Northwestern as a grad student. When I changed my major to bassoon, I was 22 and very much behind the curve. I spent hours and hours in the practice room because I knew I would soon have to earn a living, and I was petrified.

Q: If you could play any other instrument, what would it be?
A: Cello. It has the same register, but so much more repertoire (think string quartets, etc.). Plus, they don’t have to make reeds.

Q: What practice tips would you give to someone trying to learn the bassoon?
A: Start early and concentrate. Also learn to play the piano. I wish I had done both. Although I was a very good sax player, I wish I had concentrated on the bassoon very much earlier and had a background in piano.

Q: You have performed countless concerts in the Chicago Philharmonic and Lyric Opera Orchestra with your wife, Jean. What is it like being part of the same orchestra?
A: For over 43 years I sat behind one of the greatest flute player in the country. (Some women would say having the husband in the second row is how it should be. With Jean in the front, that would be difficult to argue). Sometimes we were asked if we practiced together at home. The truth is, I could count on about three fingers the number of times we did that. She is such a great and intuitive artist, I can tell exactly what she is going to do and synchronize with her better than just about any other musician I can think of.

Q: If you could live a day in the life of any composer, who would it be?
A: What a treat it would be to live a day in the life of almost any of them. I would love to see how Bach managed his 20 children, his composing, his organ-playing for a three-plus hour church service every week, and his teaching of Latin to the choir boys. I would love to have traveled with Mozart around Europe and been with Beethoven when his Ninth Symphony was premiered in a freezing hall in the winter with only one or two rehearsals (we wouldn’t think of doing that even now), all the while he is conducting with no ability to hear (totally deaf) and an assistant is prompting the orchestra just in front of him.

Q: What was an unusual challenge you had to face as board president of The Chicago Philharmonic Society, and how did you go about finding a solution?
A: It is so great to see the Chicago Philharmonic doing so well. I congratulate Donna Milanovich, our Executive Director, for her wonderful leadership in getting us to a much better place and Paul Judy, our Chairman, for his vision and tireless efforts in rescuing a worthy but lame and wounded organization. During my ten-year tenure as President we did some great things. We put on wonderful concerts, teamed up with many other organizations — including Ravinia Festival, the Music Paradigm, and Salute to Vienna — and we did a number of recordings. But we were under-staffed and under-funded. Paul and Donna rescued us, and I am eternally grateful because when they came on the scene, we were only weeks from closing our doors.

Q: What might someone be surprised to learn about you?
A: I like to juggle (balls in the air — not schedules and organizational matters, although I have had to do that, too), I have run three marathons, I enjoy stone masonry having built a number of walls and fireplace projects at my home in Evanston, and I hope to write a book about how we innately understand music.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: With reference to the book mentioned above, I am convinced, and much current scholarship confirms, that music is much more basic to the human condition than people begin to recognize. Mothers speak to infants in an exaggerated musical language, and the children respond. Our musical education begins on day one because it is a fundamental part of our being able to communicate and bond. When someone says to me they are “tone deaf,” I say “nonsense.” We all understand the melody and rhythm of speech, or we wouldn’t survive. That same faculty is behind our ability to understand music. It all comes from basically the same place. We are all innately musicians.