Written by: Ben Hogwood
The first series of Classical Star was broadcast towards the end of last year, 2007, on BBC2. Under the stewardship of Matthew Barley and judges Charles Hazlewood, Jason Lai, Chi-chi Nwanoku and Steve Abbott, a group of promising young classical players were auditioned to enter a special academy, whereupon they had tuition and masterclasses before being whittled down to a final three. At this point the public were asked to vote and rewarded the winner with a contract with Universal Classics. While this went to pianist Sophie Cashell, the runner-up, bassoonist Karen Geoghegan, was quickly snapped up by Ralph Couzens and Chandos.
Karen is currently toward the end of her second year of four at the Royal Academy of Music, where we meet to talk about the show, her first recordeding and her plans for the future. First of all I ask her to recall the moment she was first told about the programme.
“We got an e-mail about it from the college, which must have been in about March last year. My first impressions were that it looked like something interesting to do, I didn’t think ‘oh, it’s a TV show’. Then I realised the age limit was nineteen rather than eighteen, and I just thought it would be a good thing to enter.”
She goes on to describe the selection process. “They cut it down to three-hundred people from all the applications, and then we had a first round of auditions, which cut the number down to eighteen. That was in the first televised programme, and then it was cut down to the nine of us who went into the house.”
The remaining contestants then had to live together! “We stayed in the house for three weeks, which was quite intense! We weren’t allowed to leave at any time.” They then had the final set of concerts with which the programme finished.
Karen remains undecided as to the overall success of Classical Star, though it’s clear she took a lot from the experience. “In terms of success I think it was fifty-fifty, with some people really against it – ‘making a mock of classical music’ is how they described it. But I thought it was good, you don’t often get programmes on television of that sort that are showing classical music. I think it was a great idea as well.”
Unlike established pop-talent shows such as X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, the contestants played full works throughout, which Geoghegan sees as a good thing. “Playing full works was a big plus, as at the end of each week you were giving a fifteen-minute concert, so it’s not like it was cut down for television – we were still doing proper performances.”
So were there any surprises as she watched the programme afterwards? “It was scary how much they cut out! Obviously we were there doing things solid, and they had to cut them down to three hours, but I think it was quite good watching it back. It was quite hard because they just pick specific bits out of your performance to show, and they might not necessarily be the best bits, so you think ‘why couldn’t you have shown that bit’ – it’s a bit annoying. But I think they did a good job overall.”
In terms of reaching people who don’t necessarily have frequent contact with classical music, it seems the programme did its job – and Karen agrees it made a credible alternative to pop-related talent shows. “I think it was just what was needed to give classical music a boost. You’ve got Young Musician Of The Year but it’s been going on for a while now, and getting a bit samey. I think they needed something new and exciting that people would want to watch.”
With another round of the relentless Britain’s Got Talent having ended, I’m curious to know Karen’s take on the string quartet Escala, who reached the final ten. “I think that’s making a mockery of classical music” is her unequivocal response. “I watched it with my flatmates, who are all musicians, and it’s just really annoying to see them making a mock of it in that way. What they were playing wasn’t difficult at all, but what made it look and sound more impressive was the backing music and the flames on the stage. It wasn’t technically difficult at all, and I was quite annoyed they made the final. If a proper string quartet had come on the programme they wouldn’t have got anywhere.”
Karen, it turns out, played a stringed instrument before learning the bassoon. “I did learn the violin from when I was five, but when I was twelve I started the bassoon.” She immediately had a natural affinity with the instrument. “I don’t know what it was, but everything seemed to click and feel comfortable, and the embouchure was right. The violin just always seemed to be such a chore, and I was never good at it, but then everything came so naturally with the bassoon.”
She also talks of recording her new CD for Chandos, which includes works by Hummel, Weber, Berwald, Elgar and Jacobi, alongside an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’. Making the recording was quite intimidating. “To go out and have a professional symphony orchestra waiting to accompany you on a whole CD of works felt a bit strange. I would have understood if they were thinking ‘who is this?’ but they weren’t like that at all – they made it very easy for me to fit in, and within an hour I was very comfortable. It was a very exciting experience!”
On reflection she is happy with the runner-up spot in the programme. “Well the prize for winning Classical Star was a contract with Universal Classics, but in a way I don’t think the bassoon would have been suited to them, whereas Chandos I think is ideal.”
I suggest it’s also a positive development for wind instrumentalists, who don’t seem to enjoy the profile of their keyboard and string counterparts. Karen nods in agreement. “I don’t understand why there’s a lack of woodwind players. With the exception of James Galway and Emma Johnson you don’t hear anything about wind players, and it really does bug me because there’s mountains of good repertoire out there for wind instruments, and I really can’t understand why strings and piano take the lead all the time.”
Chandos has made a longer term commitment, however. “We’ve got another two CDs planned – one is in August, with the BBC Philhamonic Orchestra, and they’re doing a whole CD of Wolf-Ferrari pieces. They want me to play his Concertino for bassoon and orchestra which is exciting. Then in October we’re recording a CD of French recital music – the Saint-Saëns sonata, Dutilleux and things like that. I’m thrilled with the one CD but to have more planned is just incredible!”
On the new CD is Berwald’s Konzertstück in F, which Karen struggled with initially. “I learned it when I was about fifteen with my old teacher, and for some reason I hated it then. If I hated a piece I just wouldn’t practice it either, and I would just play it with piano and didn’t find it very interesting. Then the moment I heard it with orchestra, I just completely changed my opinion of it because it sounds like a completely different piece! With the harmonic changes I now find it really exciting!”
Technically, her debut disc represents a considerable challenge. “It’s so difficult – each of the pieces on the CD is in its own way. With the Elgar you’ve got the challenge of tuning and getting the legato line, which is not nearly as easy as it sounds, and then the Berwald with all these tricky little finger passages which do not sit nicely at all!”
The programme was a combined decision. “There was a lot of e-mailing backwards and forwards about the things we could do, and then Ralph Couzens would e-mail back with what they would prefer and we came to the agreement finally about what we would do.” Also included is the first recording of the orchestral version of Carl Heinrich Jacobi’s Introduction and Polonaise.” It was a last-minute decision to record the Jacobi, because one of the pieces we had planned was out of print, and we had to make a decision two weeks before. My teacher suggested the Jacobi, and it turns out it had never been recorded with orchestra before, so we got the parts sent to us. I’m really glad I did it because it’s a great piece, and to do the first recording of the orchestral version is really exciting.”
Karen’s immediate future involves plenty of live appearances, which she is looking forward to, not least playing as soloist with the Edinburgh Youth Orchestra, which “will be nice because I played in the orchestra for five years, so it’s nice to return as a soloist.” She also plans to complete her course. “It’s going really well, and some people are saying why are you keeping going, and why don’t you leave, but I really want to get a degree and I love it here!”
And it’s been a busy year at the Royal Academy of Music. “I’ve been playing in the symphony orchestra, the concert orchestra and the opera orchestra, and also the wind ensemble. The last thing I did was an arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for wind nonet by the composer. It was a very tough piece!” And who orchestrally does she like or find most difficult to play? “My favourite composers are Shostakovich and Beethoven, and my favourite piece is Sibelius’s Swan Of Tuonela – if that cor anglais solo had been for bassoon everything would have been ideal! The most difficult composer to play would be Tchaikovsky, because as well as the solos you’ve got some technically difficult bits and some very quiet passages, so it’s every aspect of the bassoon in one symphony. That works especially in the last movement of the Pathétique, which nobody likes, but you’ve got to get on with it I suppose!”