Michael Sweeney

Principal Bassoon

Michael Sweeney

Hometown:  Los Angeles, California

Instrument(s):  Bassoon

Age you began playing:  15

Year you joined the TSO: 1989

Who or what inspired you most to play your instrument? I saw a picture of a bassoon when I was about 10 years old and decided immediately that it was for me. It would be another five years before I finally got my hands on one. This only happened because I confessed my longing to a friend at school who played the double bass in the school orchestra. She went to the orchestra director and said that she’d found a boy who wanted to play bassoon. He said, “Get that guy in here quick!” Coincidentally, it happened that my high school owned a bassoon and that it was sitting on a shelf waiting for me!

Most memorable experience performing with the TSO: Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 with Peter Oundjian at Carnegie Hall, New York City, in 2008. Friends from NYC who attended this concert and met me afterwards told me that it was one of the finest orchestral concerts they had heard in New York in recent memory.

Does your instrument have a story? My bassoon is custom built by Heckel of Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1985. Since acquiring it, I myself have designed and had installed additional mechanical improvements, making certain matters of playing technique more efficient.

What is interesting to you about working in an orchestra? It’s a fantastic real-life, real-time enactment of Aristotle’s idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Why are orchestras important? Orchestras provide an alternate way of knowing, understanding, appreciating, and enjoying the world of ideas, emotions, and sensations.

What is your favourite music to play? Anything from the Baroque era (especially J.S. Bach and music from France), and Stravinsky.

Who are your favourite musicians in any genre? Currently I’m obsessed with Caroline Shaw (violinist, vocalist, composer, and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize), Kristian Bezuidenhout (Dutch pianist and incredibly imaginative Mozart interpreter), and Rachel Podger (violinist and early music specialist).

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Musician Biography

Michael Sweeney has served as Principal Bassoonist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra since 1989. Over the years, critics have frequently praised his orchestral solos, characterizing them as “soulful” and “imaginative” (The Globe and Mail), and “superb” and “gorgeous” (National Post).

As a soloist, Mr. Sweeney is keenly interested in Baroque, Classical, and Postmodern works. In 2003, he premièred three newly commissioned works for bassoon and ensemble—including two from Canadian composers Marjan Mozetich and Rodney Sharman—and subsequently recorded them along with Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with The Seiler Strings. The CD, entitled mozart and well beyond, was praised by Gramophone magazine for its “vitality” and sensitivity, and in particular for Michael’s “excellent interpretation” of Mozart’s Concerto through which he “glides…with stunning suppleness.”

As a chamber musician, Michael Sweeney has collaborated with pianists Emanuel Ax, Ingrid Fliter, Angela Hewitt, James Parker, and Patricia Parr, oboist Cynthia Steljes of Quartetto Gelato, and with Via Salzburg, Amici Chamber Ensemble, and the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival. He was a founding member of Caliban (a quartet of bassoonists) and can be heard on their highly acclaimed début CD, Bassoonatics!

In addition to performing, Mr. Sweeney is also interested in music history, especially research on Mozart’s music and life. He is currently at work on a commentary which will accompany his recent critical/performing edition of Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto.

Prior to joining the TSO, Mr. Sweeney attended state universities in California and New York, the Yale School of Music, and the University of Southern California, studying bassoon with Kay Brightman, Arthur Weisberg, and Norman Herzberg. He also studied musicianship with Joan Panetti at Yale. Between the completion of his formal education and joining the TSO, he was Principal Bassoon of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra for two seasons.

Michael Sweeney is married to Peter Eliot Weiss, who is a playwright.

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