Musical chairs ends with principal appointment for Grand Rapids Symphony bassoonist Victoria Olson

Grand Rapids Symphony Principal Bassoonist Victoria Olson grew up in a musical family.

Her mother, Vicki Olson, is a violist. Her father Robert Olson, a professor of music and director of orchestras at the University of Missouri-Kansas City since 1990, was conductor of Kansas City Ballet for 14 seasons.

Her father also was a bassoonist earlier in his career, though Victoria had never heard him play until he took his instrument out one day when she was 13 years old.

“He was getting ready to sell it,” she recalled. “I had never seen it or heard him play it.”

Intrigued with the four-and-a-half foot tall instrument, Victoria soon began playing it. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s a fun, quirky, beautiful instrument,” said Victoria, who is in her second full season with the Grand Rapids Symphony and her first full season as principal bassoonist.

It’s also a unique instrument that’s not for everyone.

“For a child to choose bassoon, you have to really like it,” she said. “And you have to have the desire to be different.”

But it has its rewards.

"The sound is really beautiful,” she said. “The tenor register is so reminiscent of the voice.”

One of the peculiar challenges of playing bassoon, as well as oboe and English horn, is that the players have to make their own reeds. Musicians who play clarinet and saxophone usually buy reeds and then customize them to their individual needs. Musicians who play double reed instruments make theirs from scratch.

Victoria estimates she spends an average of an hour a day making reeds though usually in two or three-hour blocks of time every few days.

“If you don’t have a good reed, you can only sound elementary,” she said.

A native of Kansas City, Victoria began music lessons with violin at age 3 and piano at age 9 before taking up bassoon.

In 2005, when she was a junior in high school, she spent a summer at Interlochen Fine Arts Camp as an Emerson Scholar and was a finalist in the Interlochen Concerto Competition.

Victoria earned her bachelor’s degree at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh followed by a master’s degree at the University of Kansas in Lawrence and an Artist Diploma at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Over the past three years, she’s performed with many orchestras in the country including Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony. She has participated in such festivals as the Castleton Music Festival under the direction of Lorin Maazel; the National Music Festival; and the Aspen Music Festival as a New Horizons Fellow.

In her short time in Grand Rapids, she’s been through a series of musical chairs. Though she initially won the third bassoon/contrabassoon position in January 2016, she soon auditioned for and won the assistant principal position in August 2016. But due to a leave of absence, she began the 2016-17 season as acting principal bassoonist.

“My goal always was to play principal,” she said. “I love the solos and working closely with the other woodwinds.”

In February 2017, one year after joining the orchestra, Victoria won the national audition for principal bassoon, becoming the Grand Rapids Symphony’s first principal bassoonist since the retirement of Martha Bowman in May 2015 after more than 40 years of service with the orchestra.

In the end, Victoria only played a few concerts on contrabassoon and essentially none in the assistant principal chair before taking up duties as principal bassoonist.

“Last year was such a blur,” she said with a laugh.

Victoria said she’s happy to be playing with the Grand Rapids Symphony under Music Director Marcelo Lehninger. She’s the first principal player appointed by Lehninger since he became Music Director in June 2016.

“I’ve felt like everyone was very welcoming and seemingly happy,” said Victoria, who serves on the music faculty of Grand Valley State University and teaches bassoon privately.

Though Grand Rapids, with about 1 million people in its metropolitan area, is about half the size of Kansas City, which has more than 2 million people in its region, she’s enjoying discovering the area.

“I love ArtPrize and the breweries,” she said. “And the lake is beautiful.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 9:00 AM
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