NOTTINGHAM, N.H. — Janet Polk fell for the bassoon the first time she played it.

“I wanted to play something really weird. It was love at first blow,” says Polk, principal bassoonist for the Portland Symphony Orchestra and featured soloist at the orchestra’s season-ending concerts today and Tuesday at Merrill Auditorium.

“It’s a sound that only a mother could love. When I hear bassoon students honking away, it makes me laugh. I have not fallen out of love with it yet.”

Robert Moody, music director of the orchestra, calls Polk a “great treasure” and “as fine a bassoonist as I’ve heard anywhere.”

A member of the orchestra since 1992, Polk will be featured on the program’s middle piece, Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto. It’s sandwiched between Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan and Isolde” and Ravel’s monumental love story “Daphnis et Chloe.”

Polk has played the Mozart concerto several times, including with the PSO. It’s one of her favorite pieces.

“What’s not to like? It’s Mozart. It’s good music,” she said.

“It just goes all over the range of the instrument. There is not a note untouched. It is filled with joy. The slow movement is Mozart at his most operatic, passionate and soulful. It shows off the bassoon and gives the performer a chance to really delve into the character and color of the instrument.”

For sure, the bassoon is full of color.

It’s a woodwind in the double-reed family. It’s a tall and lanky instrument, basically an 8-foot tube folded over in the middle. It’s somewhat complicated and awkward, with two dozen buttons. Bassoonists tend to sit in the back of the orchestra, often out of view of the audience.

Because of that, there is a certain mystery associated with the instrument. While its rich and reedy sound figures prominently in orchestral and chamber music, it’s not common in jazz bands or marching bands — and therefore generally not widely taught, or encouraged, in high school music programs.

Polk has made it her life’s mission to change that.

She has begun the New Hampshire Bassoon Project, a self-initiated effort to encourage the teaching and playing of the bassoon in middle and high schools. She pushes the bassoon whenever and wherever she can. “It’s a good thing it’s legal,” she quips.

Polk’s story is one of commitment and perseverance. She grew up in a musical family, and as the youngest of five siblings she decided early in life that she did not want to follow the musical path of her siblings.

When she hit seventh grade, her music teacher told her she could play any instrument she wanted. She chose the bassoon, in part because no one else in her family played it and because she loved the warm baritone sound.

She studied music education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and taught K-6 music education in Massachusetts for several years before enrolling at the University of New Hampshire, where she earned a master’s degree in music history in 1986.

She got her first job subbing with the PSO in 1984 when Bruce Hangen directed the orchestra. She subbed off and on until 1992, when she won an audition to become the orchestra’s principal bassoonist.

Like most professional musicians, Polk cobbles together work from a variety of sources to make music full time. Her career has four primary pillars: the PSO, teaching at both UNH and Dartmouth College, and performing with the Vermont Symphony. She also teaches privately.

As with many PSO musicians, she commutes to her job in Portland. While many of the orchestra’s 80-plus contracted members reside in Maine, many more do not. They live across New England, mostly, although some travel from as far away as New York and North Carolina.

Polk loves her colleagues in the orchestra. They inspire her musically, and the friendships she has made over the years are deep and lasting. As a full-time member since 1992, she ranks near the middle in terms of seniority. Five members have been playing with the PSO since the 1960s, and the longest-tenured dates to 1963.

“I love my colleagues,” she said. “I enjoy playing with them, and I also enjoy them socially. We’ll sit down for rehearsal and say, ‘Where’s lunch?’ We have a lot of fun, and I hope that translates for the audience.”

She appreciates the professional quality of the orchestra, and is especially grateful for the degree of diligence and level of commitment that Moody has inspired. There’s always grumbling when a music director pushes new music, as Moody has done, she said. But Moody backs up his words with action.

“I would play Beethoven and Bach for the rest of my life and be happy, but he’s really challenged us to stretch,” she said. “It’s been really, really interesting to experience the changes in the orchestra these last few years. He brings a lot of new ideas.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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