A consummate musician who inspired players around the world
For most of his career his home was the stage of the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall, where he spent more than 30 years as principal bassoonist of the NAC Orchestra. But tributes and letters of condolence have been pouring in from around the world for Gerald Corey, who touched the lives of musicians far beyond Ottawa with his advice and musical guidance.
Corey, the orchestra’s principal bassoon from 1972 to his retirement in 2003, was known for his warm tone and beautifully sung phrasing on the deep-voiced instrument. The bassoon does not often get a chance to shine in the concerto spotlight, but Corey performed several, including a Mozart concerto with conductor Mario Bernardi that Corey later recalled as one of the highlights of his career.
With the orchestra and conductor Franz-Paul Decker in 1996, he performed Julius Fucik’s The Old
Grouch, a piece that has playful fun with the bassoon’s timbre. Corey brought down the house with his expert performance.
A quiet, soft-spoken man who taught at the University of Ottawa for more than 30 years and had a passion for soccer and sports cars, Corey was a pillar of the NACO’s much-acclaimed woodwind section.
Former NACO bassoonist Michael Namer, who retired in 2004, worked beside him for three decades. In an e-mail, Namer praises Corey as “a consummate musician whose performance was marked by his refined bassoon tone and his attention to musical detail. Gerald, one could say, lived and breathed bassoon performance and everything related to such performance. As dedicated as he was to musical practice he never lost sight of the fact that orchestral performance is a collaborative art. To that end, as a leader in the woodwinds section, Gerald was also a consummate gentleman, willing to share and to accept ideas to achieve mutual goals.”
Founding NACO concertmaster Walter Prystawski, who retired in 2006, recalls “ a superb bassoonist and an excellent colleague. He taught extensively and was very active in double-reed groups and societies. To me he seemed completely devoted to and captivated by the bassoon.
“And the beauty of his playing, particularly in the orchestra’s earlier years, remains one of my fondest memories.”
While orchestra audiences knew Corey’s sensitive and refined performances, many wouldn’t have known about his far-reaching impact on the lives of musicians across North America and abroad. In 1969, Corey initiated a newsletter for bassoon players that evolved into the International Double Reed Society, a major international organization for players of double-reed instruments. Corey was a founding member.
The newsletter, Namer said, was typical “ of a lifetime dedicated to helping others, of selfless devotion to the art of music.”
The Double Reed Society is planning a special edition of its newsletter in the new year in tribute to Corey, whose “legacy to the bassoon world will live on and on,” editor Yoshiyuki Ishikawa writes on the organization’s website.
Corey had a passion for teaching. In addition to his career at the University of Ottawa, Corey offered master classes and worked with student musicians while the NAC Orchestra was on tour. He wrote a book on bassoon technique and he offered advice by e-mail to musicians around the world, generous with his wisdom and experience.
One of the tributes Namer received was from Harrogate, England, from Sebastian New, principal bassoonist of Orchestra Opera North, who said he had first contacted Corey more than 10 years ago and met him once when the NAC Orchestra was in Britain on tour.
“He passed on a huge amount of reedmaking expertise (mostly via email) to me that has been invaluable to my playing. I am very sad to hear that my reed mentor has passed away and will often think of him when I am at my workbench making the next batch. He won’t be forgotten by me and his reedmaking methods/theories will live on over here in the U.K. in my reeds.”
Asked about his teaching in a 2002 interview for the NAC’s arts education website for children and teens ( artsalive.ca), Corey said, “ I feel I am responsible for carrying on the tradition of understanding and communicating the quality of what a performance by a professional orchestra is supposed to be.”
For young players, he explained, a good bassoon teacher is important because “the bassoon, the oboe and the French horn are probably the least found instruments in high school bands and music programs. These instruments require a lot of individual attention to make sure that the players’ posture, fingerings and the reed are just right for the creation of a beautiful sound.”
On the site, Corey offered video demonstrations of techniques that can help young players on the instrument. The bassoon first cast its spell on Corey when he was a juniorhigh school student in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth. He had been playing clarinet, but the band director persuaded him to try the bassoon and take lessons over the summer so that he could start on the instrument in the fall. He knew he had found the instrument for him, he told the Citizen in 2003, when he retired.
He was attracted, he said, “by the deep sound of it, the way that many string players like the sound of the cello. It’s a noble sound and you can sing with it.”
Corey excelled at the instrument while still in high school, and he went on to study at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. In the early 1970s, he also studied in France with the great bassoonist Maurice Allard.
Corey came to Ottawa to join the NACO in 1972, following stints in the Baltimore Symphony, the National Symphony in Washington and the Vancouver Symphony.
His wife at the time was flutist Caroline Grimes, who also played occasionally in the NACO. The couple, who later separated, had two daughters, both now living in the U. S. Corey is also survived by two grandchildren.
When he retired from the orchestra, Corey told the Citizen that his favourite memories included the Mozart operas Bernardi conducted.
“ Doing any Mozart opera with Mario and a good cast was something that almost eclipsed anything else I’ve done in music. He was such a natural with Mozart and was such a good opera conductor. This orchestra became known as an ideal Mozart orchestra because of his influence.”
Corey, who taught at the University of Ottawa School of Music from 1972 to 2004, was also passionate about the importance of performing contemporary music and was involved with Ottawa’s Espace Musique organization in presenting pieces by living composers. He was always interested when the NACO performed a contemporary piece, and he thought it was important.
“I think an orchestra has to look to the future, rather than just reinventing museum pieces,” he told the Citizen in 2003. “ It has to be done carefully but when it’s done well, it’s healthy for the audience and the orchestra.”
In his retirement, Corey continued teaching, and he also volunteered his time for several community organizations, including the Kiwanis Music Festival. Corey chaired a panel of musicians who chose which young university-level players would receive the festival’s senior scholarships each year.
Kiwanis festival director Gary Morton praised Corey as “a bright light and an icon in the music community, and he helped so many young people.”
Corey, who had been ill for about a year, died in hospital Dec. 1 at age 75, of what had recently been diagnosed as advanced ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Ottawa resident Mike Larsson, who will soon marry Corey’s daughter Pamela, said that though Corey’s illness prevented him from playing in recent months, he remained dedicated to his craft. This past summer, he drove to Oklahoma to attend the meeting of the Double Reed Society.
A memorial service is planned for Corey for Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. at Ottawa’s First Unitarian Congregation, 30 Cleary Ave.
It will include performances by Namer and by former students, in a tribute to the dedicated musician who touched so many lives.