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Absolutely Instrumental: Bassoon with Parkersburg past still making music

Judith LeClair performs with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Hamburg, Germany. (Photo Provided)

PARKERSBURG — A musical instrument once owned by a young Parkersburg musician whose life was tragically cut short continues to thrill audiences around the world in the more-than-capable hands of its current owner.

Thomas Neal Taylor, a member of Parkersburg High School Class of 1971, was a gifted bassoonist even in his high school years.

“Tom was tall and lanky, good-natured and effervescent, the type of person it was fun to be around,” said David LeClair, who played in the PHS orchestra with Taylor.

Taylor’s girlfriend, Sarah Scott, played flute in the orchestra.

“Sarah being very pleasant and amicable, they made a fine couple,” LeClair said.

Judith LeClair accepts a hug from Leonard Bernstein, the legendary composer and conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, which she joined at the age of 23. (Photo Provided)

Taylor and Scott got engaged in the spring of 1972.

“I remember being exceedingly impressed by Tom’s musicality,” LeClair said.

He also recalls a time when Taylor had to stand in for long-time orchestra director Frank Gelber at a rehearsal.

“Tom’s command of the score and his conducting technique were extraordinary, even at that age,” he said.

When LeClair’s younger sister, Judith, was in seventh grade at Jackson Junior High School in Vienna, she took a bassoon lesson from Taylor.

Judith LeClair with the bassoon once owned by the late Tom Taylor of Parkersburg. Taylor died in 1972. (Photo Provided)

“I, of course, had a huge crush on him,” she said.

Shortly afterward, her family moved to Delaware. Her interest in bassoon continued and she began studying with a teacher in Philadelphia who saw her potential and encouraged her family to buy her a Heckel bassoon.

Heckel, based in Weisbaden, Germany, has made bassoons for more than 180 years and its instruments are considered the finest in the world.

Taylor’s parents, Don and Purkey Taylor, bought him a Heckel in Charleston for $975 in the late 1960s, a lot of money in those days.

But Taylor’s promising music career ended before it could begin when he and Scott died in the summer of 1972 from carbon monoxide poisoning in their car.

Thomas Neal Taylor, a member of Parkersburg High School Class of 1971. (Photo Provided)

After Taylor’s death, his Heckel was put aside. All along, Judith continued playing on what her brother called a “student bassoon.” A year or so after the tragedy, LeClair remembered Taylor’s bassoon.

“I didn’t know if his parents still had Tom’s instrument and my dad felt uncomfortable about calling, perhaps reopening a partially healed wound,” he said. “He overcame his initial reluctance to call.”

The Taylors agreed to part with the Heckel, for the same price they had paid for it, $975.

“And the rest,” as LeClair says, “is history.”

“I remember getting the horn and bursting into tears, I was so excited,” Judith said. “But it had so many problems and was leaking like a sieve and I just couldn’t play it. After a lot of work with Hans Moennig, the famous repairman in Philadelphia, I was able to start playing it.”

Sarah Scott (Photo Provided)

Moennig would not be the only repairman to work with the instrument. In the more than 40 years Judith has owned and played this bassoon, she estimates more than $50,000 in repairs and maintenance have been made, mostly by her repairman Shane Wieler, who is based in Toronto, Canada.

Several things make the instrument so special, she said.

“The wood, the series and my repairman,” she said. “It was made in 1937 and it is a product of one of the best 10 years of Heckel bassoons. About eight of my students, past and current, own 8000 (series Heckels, like hers).”

A bassoon is a long, double-reed woodwind instrument said to mimic the range of a man’s baritone and tenor voice.

The bassoon is featured in “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk.”

In Judith’s hands, the Heckel has lived the kind of life of which Tom Taylor might have dreamed.

She made her professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 15. After high school, she attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., one of the world’s premier music schools.

Judith was principal bassoon for two seasons with the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Opera and joined the New York Philharmonic as principal bassoon in 1981 at the age of 23.

Since then, she has made more than 50 solo appearances with the orchestra, performing with conductors including Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Andre Previn, John Williams and Andrey Boreyko.

In 1995, she premiered “The Five Sacred Trees,” a concerto written for her by John Williams and commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of its 150th anniversary celebration. Using this same Heckel bassoon, she recorded the concerto for Sony Classical with the London Symphony Orchestra in June 1996 with Williams conducting.

It was recorded in the Abbey Road Studios, the same place where The Beatles made all of its records. She counts that experience as among her most memorable with her Heckel.

Her CD, “Works for Bassoon,” was released in the spring of 2010.

Through her work and these recordings, the music from the bassoon once owned by Taylor lives on and can be heard around the world, and will be for many years to come.

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