Jo Anne Sukumaran, bassoonist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

As a child, my godmother took me to many musicals, concerts and plays and I was encouraged to have a healthy and vivid imagination. Back then, I was always immersed in books, movies and had a colourful inner world.  A few occasions were important milestones: when I was 18, I won a 2-week scholarship to attend an orchestral workshop in Bangkok, which broadened my horizons. A film, called “Inspired by Bach: The Music Garden” formed a deep and lasting impression on me. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma actually managed to pitch his idea of building a real-life garden in Toronto based on Bach’s first Cello Suite. I wanted to use music in a similar way as a bridge to connect different people and communities and build something lasting and beautiful.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Studying in Switzerland instilled in me a great love of chamber music and ensemble playing. When I attended the Ghent Bassoon festival in 2014, I first saw the soloist Bram van Sambeek perform live and he was playing such challenging pieces effortlessly; that had a big impact on me. I started to practice more seriously and found new ways to improve, and the first solo gigs started coming in. Going for masterclasses with bassoonists like Audun Halvorsen and Prof. Ole K. Dahl also inspired me greatly. Some of my favourite artists include Martin Fröst, Janine Jansen, Anoushka Shankar and Björk. Listening to their music inspires me greatly as they’re not only great musicians, but are authentic and have something to say.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Before studying music professionally, I did a first degree in English Literature and worked in a law firm, so I was older than my peers at conservatory. I’ve found the classical industry tends to discriminate on age and also on where you come from. I felt a pressure to play catch-up, conform and win a job in an orchestra. I remember asking myself why I was performing better at concerts than at auditions. Auditioning internationally for an orchestral position was isolating and extremely expensive for someone based in Southeast Asia, as I am. However, on the flip side, it allowed me to make many friends and musical contacts and somehow helped develop my playing without me realising. In the end, I’ve now realised that I am more suited to a solo and chamber path and I’ve stopped auditioning.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am very proud of my debut album, The Night Garden, which was released in Oct 2019, especially my recording of “Niggun” by Phillipe Hersant. It starts off very calmly like a prayer then gets quite crazy and desperate. I studied that piece for a long time, over two years. The piece resonated greatly with me personally. It’s a complex and difficult piece that no one could teach me so I had to figure it out on my own. I went through about 20 reeds in my reed case to find the perfect one when I was in the recording studio, as it was hard getting the absolute perfect cracking multiphonics! You can check it out on my album here.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

That’s a very tricky question. I think I am drawn to French music at the moment. A recent reviewer who attended my debut solo concert also suggested that I should focus on contemporary music as I had included quite a bit of modern and fusion elements into the classical programme! I think the works that you best perform are the ones that resonate with you the most in a personal way, so that could change over time. In every concert setting, so many factors vary, such as the acoustics of the hall, to your colleagues, or accompanists.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

It really depends on my current listening style and personal interests and I listen very widely. For a period of time, I was fascinated with tango music and Brazilian music. The last 2 years, I’ve been drawn to meditation and Indian classical music, which directly influenced the concept and direction of my debut album. I’ve recently been listening to a lot of percussion music and would like to work on a new programme that brings together percussion and strings. Maybe my next concerts will follow that line.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

That has to be the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – it has a magical quality to it. After that, it would be the Victoria Concert Hall in my hometown, Singapore, as that’s where I grew up and played in during my youth orchestra years from age 12 to 18.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

I have many wonderful concert experiences, but my most memorable one has to be playing in the premiere of Alvin Lucier’s piece “Monterverdi Shapiro” with Ensemble Evolution, a wind ensemble conducted by Steve Schick at the Banff Centre, Canada, while I was in residency there. It was a 30-minute canon of long notes. I felt nervous as it was not only difficult endurance-wise, but also a world premiere. The conductor, Steve Schick, was so kind and calm with us in rehearsals, and with the encouragement of my colleagues, I made it through to the end. It was a concert I won’t forget.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being content with oneself, having a balanced life, and rising to challenges, I think is my definition of success. Success is fleeting and at the same time, I realise bad moments don’t last forever. I suppose staying positive, inspired, creative and maintaining my artistic freedom and integrity is what I consider success.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Firstly, keeping music focused as the main thing in your life is most important. Secondly, I think having time to relax is very important to maintain a healthy balance. I had to undergo physiotherapy for 5 months after a period of over-use and over-practicing. I think learning how to stay balanced and grounded is a key concept.

We are probably our worst critics, so it’s really important to speak kindly to ourselves and pay a lot of attention to our mental state. Looking back at the studio sessions when I recorded my “The Night Garden” album, I was amazed at my producer John Anderson’s direction and how he produced in a very kind and freeing manner.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I would like to have a faculty position and still be able to travel, collaborate and play concerts regularly with a collective. I would also like to have played for a film soundtrack. I have been toying with the idea of starting a chamber festival. I would also have liked to have experimented more, improvised more, and learnt how to compose.

Jo Anne Sukumaran’s debut album The Night Garden was released in 2019 on the Hello Stage label. More information

Praised for her “beautiful playing and stunning sound”, Jo Anne is one of the rare independent bassoonists hailing from Singapore. Originally an orchestral musician, in 2017, Jo Anne decided to focus on solo and chamber playing. This new direction led her to recording and releasing her debut album, ‘The Night Garden’ in October 2019 on Austrian label, Hello Stage. Curious and adventurous, Jo Anne is a highly versatile musician and continues to delight audiences with her novel and imaginative programming and compelling performances. She also presents and produces a well-received podcast, “Legends of Reed”, which showcases interviews with prominent double reed musicians from around the world.

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