Joanna Funk

music, gardening and my dog

Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus

What do you call a bunch of guys who play with heart and spirit? Director Stephen Wu said the orchestra’s name came about in the mid ’90’s.

“I was the head string teacher at Haileybury in Melbourne, while Joanna (Fairs-Wu, violinist) was teaching at Sophia Mundi. We used to get a bunch of freelancers to play, just like we do now.

In Latin, Heart is Cord or Corda. The name got refined over time. We started out as Corda Spirita, but apparently that wasn’t very good Latin, so it eventually became Spiritus.

Stephen Wu

Orchestra Corda Spiritus started playing in Brisbane in 2006. “We had a fantastic little group, and we were invited to open the Brisbane Festival of Classics, as organised by the 4MBS radio station, by playing at the Governor’s house. That was a big bash of a start for us! From then on I scheduled a number of concerts a year, and we now do five,” Stephen said.

I wanted to hear Corda Spiritus because although Stephen was born in Hong Kong, he spent 15 years in Sabah, Malaysia, before coming to Brisbane in 1967. Stephen studied (among others) under John Curro at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, where he later became a member of staff. He was a member of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra under Narry Tuckwell, Patrick Thomas and Vanco Cavdardki; a member of Queensland Theatre Orchestra, the State Orchestra of Victoria, and the Melbourne Chorale Orchestra under Graham Abbott.

The concert on March 10 2013 was within the stately grounds of Brisbane Grammar School.

The programme:
Director Stephen Wu
Soloist Peter Musson, bassoon

Franz Danzi. Bassoon Concerto No.2 in F major

Beethoven. Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op, 60

Percy Grainger. Londonderry Air


, Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus

Bassoonist Peter Musson described the Bassoon Concerto we were about to hear.

“It’s a very approachable piece, with very nice bouncy rhythms and nice melodies. It’s very unpretentious. It’s almost like folk music!

“I played it 20 years ago, a long time now! The most often played bassoon concertos are probably by Mozart, and Mozart’s bassoon pieces are definitely not his best pieces. They’re very awkward, not specially inspiring at all, compared to his wind concertos (the clarinet, the oboe and the flute) which are really, really famous!

“But this Danzi concerto is cute! You can just relax and enjoy it.”

Peter is very soft-spoken, with a list of accomplishments as long as your arm. He found out I was from England and said something about loving it there, loving all the literature, and how much fun he’d had there being a freelance bassoonist. “There were lots of us over there!”

London in the late sixties was a welcoming place to great classical musicians, and Peter played Principal with the Royal Philharmonic alongside James Galway on flute, just one of many huge musical adventures. Read about Peter Musson’s prolific musical life here.

So how did it all begin?

“I started on the clarinet when I was six, and on the saxophone as well. I was in an Auckland junior symphony orchestra with my elder brother, who was a clarinet player and ten years older than me. There were NO bassoonists, at all, in Auckland.

“So they got two new (bassoon) instruments and they gave one to me. They didn’t ask me if I wanted to play it, they just gave it to me! I must have been about eleven or twelve. I didn’t know how to put it together or anything! My clarinet teacher taught me how to put it together.

“At the time there were probably, say fifty clarinet players, to one bassoon player. And many, many more flutes, because the flute is not very expensive.”

By sixteen, Peter became the youngest-ever member of the NZBC Symphony Orchestra, beginning his luminary musical career.

“The bassoon is a real challenge, but it’s a very interesting instrument. For people who haven’t heard bassoons much, when they hear one playing the solo in a very high register, they don’t know what instrument it is! It has a weird, wailing sort of sound, like in the Rite of Spring, and other famous solos. The middle register is different again, and the bass register is different again! Everyone knows the “Grandfather” theme from Peter and the Wolf, and that’s played on the bassoon. It’s very, very interesting!”

, Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus

By the way, the sound on both these videos was recorded by Graham Badcock. (More about him later.) I sat at one end of the church, in order to video Stephen’s conducting. This of course meant the recording from my camera was unbalanced.

Stephen, as you would expect, is passionate about the sound experience of his live concerts, and he questions what sound engineers sometimes do to the recording of the music afterwards.

“In essence, that’s my job,” he said. “As the Conductor, I mould exactly how the musicians play the music, and the music as I hear and experience it is exactly what should be recorded, and what should be heard by other people buying a CD.”

He argues that a live concert is often recorded from several microphones; sound engineers then work in the studio to produce what they consider is a “balanced” piece of music. In addition, which instruments are transmitted from which stereo speaker is determined by the design of the speaker.

“By the end of it, what the purchaser of a CD is receiving is not the musical experience of any one real person!” Stephen summed up.

Graham Badcock described his recording equipment.

“I use two omni-directional microphones. They’re just hanging off that rod with the cross piece,” said Graham.

“They are Schoeps MK 3 microphones – made in Austria. I feed them directly into the digital master Marantz PMD 670, with nothing else.”

Graham said the mics were the state of the art in 1980, and very expensive. “The person that used to own them actually did a digital recording in this church in 1980, with those microphones!”

It’s not surprising then that Graham places his microphones pretty much right behind where Stephen is conducting! “From where I place the mics, I get a very sweet recording,” he said.

As a performing musician, Peter Musson had a different take on the sound in the church.

“It’s a beautiful hall, but the acoustic here is a little bit difficult. It sounds beautiful in the audience area, but during the Beethoven symphony I’m sitting at the back (of the stage area) and you can’t hear the strings at all. The sound comes out towards the audience, so you are never quite sure if you’re a little ahead or behind,” he said.

Graham uses his recordings to make CDs for Stephen.

“Afterwards, I make a CD for Stephen and the orchestra, and then he sometimes gets me to make 20 or 30 that he can sell. I only met Stephen probably about two years ago, although I had known of him. When he was having problems getting someone reliable to record these concerts, he spoke to John Curro, who I know well.”

That was the beginning of their recording history together.

, Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus
, Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus

I wish I had videoed the opening of the Beethoven symphony. The music built up from a dark and trepidatious beginning, before an explosion of tympani and exuberant violins brought in the light.

As it happens… the sun moved across and light rays flooded in through the church windows!

Bassoonist Peter said afterwards, “The sunlight! I couldn’t see anything, it made everything white and I couldn’t see Stephen or the sheet music!”

Cool, huh?

You can buy the CD of Orchestra Corda Spiritus of St Andrew’s performance, exactly as Stephen Wu would have wanted you to hear it. Visit the Orchestra Corda Spiritus website for more information.

6 responses to “Heart and Spirit: Orchestra Corda Spiritus”

  1. Done with Love and thank you very much Joanna.

    1. My pleasure Stephen. I hope you are well and making beautiful music.

  2. […] Orchestra Corda Spiritus and Stephen Wu […]

  3. […] Orchestra Cords Spiritus & Stephen Wu […]

  4. Ciao! Vorrei solo dire un grazie enorme per le informazioni che avete condiviso in questo blog! Di sicur diverr un vostro fa accanito!

    1. Thank you very much for visiting!

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About Joanna

Joanna is British Australian. She worked mainly in financial news in London. In her forties she moved to her parents’ birthplace, Sabah, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, where she became a pianist in a hotel and wrote a blog about musicians. The blog became a book before Joanna came to Australia in 2012. In this blog she writes mostly about music, gardening, and trips to Sabah. Oh, and Wookie the Havanese.

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