Gone with the woodwind

By Will McKinley

For musician Rebekah Heller, the motto is ‘have bassoon, will travel’

Like many young people, Rebekah Heller met her first love on summer vacation. Unlike many young people, the object of her affection was a bassoon.

“In the summer before fifth grade I decided I wanted to play an instrument nobody else played,” Heller said on the phone from Atlanta, where she is performing in a production of “Madame Butterfly.” “I was nine the bassoon was taller than me. I couldn’t even reach all the keys, but I took it home and honked out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and it was love.”

In retrospect, Heller’s act of youthful self-expression seems more like prescient career planning. The 29-year-old bassoonist is now a sought-after and award-winning chamber, orchestral and solo musician, and she’ll be showing off the fruits of her two-decade love affair with the uncommon woodwind on October 29 at The Tank. A recent addition to the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Heller will be the featured artist in the second installment of the monthly “ICETank” concert series, performing an eclectic program of solo pieces for bassoon, including a newly commissioned work by Mexican composer Edgar Guzmán. But please don’t call it classical.

“ICE is blurring the boundaries of contemporary classical music with some very adventurous programming, to appeal to people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a classical or a ‘new-music’ concert,” Heller said. “I’ll be doing two pieces with electronics, and the bassoon will be amplified, which creates some very cool sounds. There will be a lot of experimentation with noise. It’s not something you would hear at Alice Tully Hall.”

“Plus,” the newly minted Brooklynite added with a laugh, “It’s sort of my coming out party in New York City.”

Forgive Heller if she hops the wrong subway to TriBeca on show night. Although her Gotham debut comes almost three months after taking up permanent residence in the Big Apple, Heller has spent most of that period on the road, as usual. The minister’s daughter from Wanakena, New York – population 80 – may not have known it at the time, but the bassoon she first picked up at Clifton-Fine Elementary School 20 summers ago was destined to lead her through life like a musical divining rod: from the Adirondack Mountains; to the famed Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio (with a semester of study in Florence); to a graduate fellowship at the University of Texas at Austin; to the Civic Orchestra of Chicago; to a three-year stint with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach (including a European tour of Paris, Caen and Granada); to annual summer performances with the Utah Festival Opera; to her recent booking playing principal bassoon with the Atlanta Opera and, finally, to ICE’s home base in the borough of Kings. Only a few years into her professional career, Heller’s bassoon case has more stickers than a vaudevillian’s trunk.

“I love the traveling, flying by the seat of my pants, being in a different city every month,” she said. “But I also love the variety. I’m totally committed to playing new-music, but it’s nice to go back and play Puccini and Donizetti. And to be able to do both, all around the country, is really exciting.”

Not every classically trained musician can transition from traditional to experimental and back, but Heller is gaining a reputation as one who can, and does.

“The transformation for her seems effortless,” said Claire Chase, ICE’s co-founder and executive director. “Rebekah has this fierce curiosity and she’ll try anything with her bassoon. So much of the time we’re putting ourselves out there, doing work that’s brand new, and we’re not sure how it’s going to go over until the night of the gig. Rebekah’s fearlessness fits right in with ICE’s garage band mentality.”

Creative risk-taking will be front and center for Heller’s performance at The Tank, a non-profit venue founded five years ago and recently dislocated from its longtime home on Church Street. Residence has been temporarily re-established at the Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), allowing the organization to continue offering affordable programming for increasingly cash-strapped aficionados of alternative arts.

“It’s a common misperception that the bassoon is something you can only play in a large orchestra, something stuffy,” Heller said. “But The Tank is not a place where you wear a tux. You can drink a beer while you listen to music. And it’s an opportunity to hear something new and innovative, something you’re not going to hear anywhere else.”

If anyone knows what people are hearing elsewhere, it’s Heller. She’s got the frequent flier miles to prove it.