Memories of Bangor from bassoonist Gareth Newman
Bangor University alumnus Gareth Newman has gone on from Bangor to become one of the leading bassoon virtuosos in the UK.
Bangor University played a significant part in shaping my future career, many years before I became a student there. My parents were both musicians and were keen that I should play an orchestral instrument, knowing that this can be where satisfaction and encouragement can help the learning process. I had tried the violin and found it much too hard, so I was going to concerts and wondering what I might try.
I don’t remember the programme, but I do recall spotting this intriguing looking wind instrument – centrally placed, at the back of the orchestra. My parents knew the bassoonist, so took me to meet him after the concert. He looked down at me (I was eight years old) and gently suggested that I might be a little small for the large hand stretch required. This only served to make me more determined to play the bassoon. After nearly a year of waiting and being measured against it, I was pronounced big enough and my father managed to get an instrument on loan for me to start.
A postgraduate student, Owain Edwards, gave me my first lessons. In the Autumn of 2019 I received a letter from him saying that he’d seen me playing at the Royal Festival Hall, and was I the same Gareth Newman that he’d taught fifty plus years before!
After Owain left Bangor, I travelled to Manchester for lessons, and, at the time, I was the only bassoon player in North Wales. This meant that I was asked to play in the University Orchestra, and this provided wonderful encouragement and formative musical experiences that helped make me the musician I became.
Many years later, after attempting to read law at King’s College London, I realised that music had too strong a hold on me, so I returned to Bangor to read music. Unlike London, where the logistics of rehearsing and performing are daunting; and the nightly professional concerts can easily lead one into becoming a spectator – being a student at Bangor was a treat – lots of opportunities to perform and be involved in all sorts of events on top of the normal curriculum.
Being involved in both the drama and music departments was wonderful, though it posed challenges in time management. The drama department was very strong, with the mercurial Sam McCready in charge of some amazing students – I remember John Sessions, Danny Boyle and Frances Barber, all of whom went on to make their mark.
Musically, the faculty was led by William Mathias, an old friend of my parents and sometime neighbour of ours. An outstanding composer, he led a very strong department which put on an impressive array of performances over my three years there. I even had the chance to try my hand at conducting, with a performance of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony and, most memorably, Orff’s Carmina Burana – it gave me a first hand insight into how seductive the sense of power is, standing in front of a big symphony orchestra; it also made me realise that I didn’t have all the extraordinary range of gifts that being a first class conductor requires!
Graduating in 1977, I auditioned for a postgraduate year at the Guildhall School in London, hoping to develop into a professional bassoonist. A couple of weeks before term began I saw a notice in the Saturday Daily Telegraph (where all orchestral jobs used to be advertised pre-internet) for a post as Second Bassoon in the Gulbenkian Orchestra of Lisbon, Portugal. Thinking that some more audition experience might be good, I applied, went to play to them in London, and they offered me the job!
Despite knowing nothing about Portugal, I realised that the opportunity of full-time employment might well trump another year as a student, so off I went. What a lovely place to begin a career! A properly funded orchestra in a country with a wonderful climate, excellent food and wine, and a fine golf course on the doorstep (I have always been a keen golfer).
After four years there, I spent two and a half years in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic before joining the BBC Concert Orchestra as their Principal Bassoon. I have lived in London ever since – I left the BBC after five years and freelanced until 2008, when a vacancy came up in the London Philharmonic. I was fortunate enough to be offered the job and have been there ever since.
I feel very fortunate to have enjoyed such a varied musical life – the wonderful thing about the LPO is that for four months every Summer we are the resident orchestra of the Glyndebourne Opera – so there is built-in variety in our schedule and a rhythm to every season that makes the job unique.
Who was it who said: “the tragedy of life is that it must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards”? - seemingly small decisions at the time determine the future course of one’s life – and Bangor was there for me at the beginning and then as a student, shaping who I became and helping to determine what I wanted to do.