People name their pets. They name their plants. They name their pickups, their office printers, their sexual organs, their desert-island volleyballs. And they name their musical instruments—possibly less often in the case of a mass-produced Yamaha synth, but certainly if it’s a comparatively rare woodwind lovingly produced by a venerable family-owned firm in Europe.
Ian Newton, a craft distiller in Baltimore, took a decade and a half to give his 1982 Heckel bassoon a name. And her name is Passionfruit.
“It’s a she,” Newton confirms. “We were shopping for wedding cakes and we got samples in a mason jar with the flavors on top. One was passionfruit. On my way to a rehearsal, I stuck the reeds in this jar, and my wife started calling it ‘Passionfruit.’ I liked it, even though I played for 15 or 16 years without a name.”
That was three years ago. Newton married his now wife, Rachel, over New Year’s, and this April, he brought both her and Passionfruit to California to spend time with their officiant and some bassoonist friends, including one Rufus Olivier—whose father, also named Rufus Olivier, is the principal bassoonist for the San Francisco Opera and Ballet.
While driving to wine country late in the morning on Wednesday, April 13, the Newtons pulled over at Marina Green to take pictures. There were half a dozen people throwing frisbees around the bayfront, a typical scene.
“We step out of the rental car,” Newton says. “All the luggage is in it. We lock the car, grab a silly selfie in front of the bridge, do the Zillow thing. We never stepped more than 100 feet from the car, which was in sight the whole time. We were only gone for minutes.”
But as anyone who’s been the victim of a smash-and-grab knows, mere minutes can be more than enough. They never saw anyone approach and didn’t hear any glass breaking, but when they returned to the car, the Newtons found the windows smashed and everything in the car, Passionfruit included, stolen in broad daylight.
Bassooner or Later, It All Comes Crashing Down
The bassoon is both peculiar and anonymous. A hefty, double-reeded woodwind some 53 inches in length, it doesn’t immediately stand out like the trumpet or the piano, but its warm timbre and cello-like sonorousness give it a distinctive quality that spans Bach concertos, the opening solo of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and cartoon-orchestra farts. To play one, it’s helpful to have rudimentary woodworking skills, as most bassoonists make their own double reeds. A full symphony orchestra may have dozens of string players and only a dozen or so woodwinds, of which but a handful are bassoons.
“The manufacture of them is difficult,” Newton says. “And if there are market forces in the equation, they’re all directing the world to have a smaller output of bassoonists than almost any other instrument. … It does attract a personality, I think. Oboists are more neurotic, and flutists are more whimsical and flighty and jolly. We’re usually more down-to-earth.”
The musicians may be, but their instruments are not. Heckels have been manufactured in Wiesbaden, Germany for nearly two centuries, making them essentially the Stradivarius of bassoons. Newton’s father purchased his almost 20 years ago from a professional in Houston who was suffering from temporomandibular joint dysfunction and had to give up playing.
“This thing cost $28,500 in 2003—about as expensive as you can get without buying a famous person’s bassoon,” Newton says.
Calling himself a “failed professional,” Newton graduated from Arizona State University’s music program in 2009 on a full ride, enduring the audition circuit before eventually mothballing Passionfruit and pursuing other career options. After a long hiatus, he picked it up again.
“Certain things were just a lot easier and better than I remember, like the rabbit hole of audition crap,” Newton says. “I was enjoying playing more. I didn’t put it down, and I could afford to get it repaired and resealed. I was really excited to play it.”
In the intervening years, Passionfruit’s value had appreciated considerably—almost doubling, in fact, to $53,000 when Newton had her appraised.
“You can look up a 12000 Series Heckel, and they are between $45,000 and $60,000,” Newton says. “So it’s super-valuable. They’re not being sold to students.”
A musty joke among musicians goes, “How do you keep your jewelry safe? Put it in a bassoon case.” Still, tales of missing instruments seem to have a measure of uncanny good fortune. A busker in Toronto got his bassoon back after a six-week absence, and a bassoon left on a train by an absentminded British musician was found behind a tree, while a contrabassoon snatched from a hallway in the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra was repatriated to its owner six years later. Then again, violinist Roman Totenberg—father of NPR journalist Nina Totenberg—never again saw the Stradivarius that was stolen from him in 1980, although his heirs were reunited with it in 2015, three years after the virtuoso’s death.
Maybe it’s the lower woodwind’s relative obscurity to the uninitiated—it’s definitely not a clarinet, but what even is this thing? A bass clarinet? An oboe?—but holding such a large and relatively rare musical instrument may be more like holding a work of art than a utensil. Passionfruit is, as Newton says, “totally nonfungible and extremely valuable.”
But what happens to a stolen bassoon?
The April 13 theft at Marina Green set in motion the usual chain of events, starting with a police report. (Alison Maxie of SFPD’s media-relations department confirmed to The Standard that a report was filed with the department.) However, in addition to playing the bassoon himself, the younger Rufus Olivier also happens to be an officer with the San Francisco Police Department, a coincidence that may have been a boon.
Approximately half an hour after the incident, a plainclothes officer in the Mission observed luggage being dumped from a car and decided to tail the vehicle, watching as its occupants proceeded to break into several other cars. Shortly afterward, an enforcement operation apprehended the suspects and seized more than two dozen laptops—including the Newtons’.
“We get a call around 7 p.m.,” Newton says. It was SFPD saying they’d managed to retrieve almost every item the pair lost. “There may have been some socks we didn’t get back in the hullabaloo, but they even found my bassoon’s barebones soft case cover, and a neoprene gig bag that I keep reeds and music or a folding stand in.”
Passionfruit was, in fact, the only unrecovered item. Newton has a theory why.
“I don’t have any hard evidence, but I’m an armchair serial podcaster,” he says. “In the 30-minute drive from the Marina to the Mission, that could mean a dumpster, tossed on the street, it could have ended up in a landfill, or in anybody’s possession—if it were just discarded. Sometimes these groups are organized enough that if they know something is valuable, even if it’s not straight to a pawn shop, it’s possible they offloaded it.”
“Maybe it goes overseas, maybe it just vanishes for six months,” he adds.
Newton emailed three dozen woodwind shops offering to pay cash with no questions asked, spoke to a well-regarded bassoon-maker in Canada, and had Rufus Olivier the elder put the word out on listserv he maintains. From there, presumably just about every professional player in the Bay Area has been quasi-deputized in the search.
“I put out a little email to all the bassoon players I know and told them to tell all their bassoon friends,” says Olivier, who’s at age 66 has been playing professionally for almost half a century. “We gave out a serial number, and that’s registered with Heckel.”
A bassoon is “like a painting,” he adds. “You can almost name each player of a bassoon before them. There’s a little provenance that goes along with it.”
Assuming it wasn’t already towed to international waters on some garbage barge or buried beneath a heap of broken televisions, that tacit provenance may be what saves this instrument. The serial number, Newton says, is hard to find. It’s on a detachable section that nobody who isn’t actively looking would think to inspect. So there’s a way to positively identify this bassoon, unless it’s been “destroyed beyond recognition.”
Still, even the most well-documented paintings can vanish. Prior to selling for a record $450 million in 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi was lost to history for centuries before resurfacing—and no one in the art world seems to know where it is now, either. It could be on a Saudi yacht. It could be in a Swiss vault. It could be anywhere.
So, What’s the Score?
Unlike trumpet players, who must maintain their embouchure—the facial musculature required to position their lips to hit those high notes—Newton’s ability to play the bassoon won’t rapidly wane. But the stinging loss of theft is measured in hours and days, while the timescale of a well-crafted instrument is practically geologic by comparison. Rufus Olivier, for instance, bought his first Heckel in 1977, for $2,500, a figure he calls “a good deal.”
“It should have been about five grand,” he says. “If I knew what I know now, I would have bought 12 bassoons. I heard of one going for $100,000 bucks last year. [Heckel] is a nine-year wait now. That’s why Ian’s horn is worth so much.”
Is cost a function of Heckel’s quaint-sounding, Old World monopoly on the artisanally produced instruments?
“I don’t think that’s artificial,” Olivier says of the long wait time. “We’re talking a little place with four or five people making horns, not a car factory. It takes forever. One of my colleagues has a horn for sale and I might be retired before he gets rid of it, and he’s younger than me. You can find a great horn, but you have to pay for it.”
In addition to leaning on the entire bassoon-playing community, Newton also hired a private investigator and ex-cop named Pedro to scour flea markets and pawnshops and post flyers promising a $2,500 reward around the Mission, which initially brought the missing bassoon to this reporter’s attention.
“We’re already $2,400 deep with Pedro’s time,” Newton says. “There’s totally a chance this thing just shows up tomorrow and someone could buy it for $500. But he’s gotten lots of people saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got your bassoon right here. I’ve got your bassoon between my legs, man!’”
Raunchy jokes aside, Olivier attests that when he started out, everyone told him he’d never work, but the instrument’s popularity has grown during the course of his 45-year career.
“We only have so many professional orchestras in the United States, so anybody who gets a job in this country is 1% of all musicians,” he says. “And so most bassoon sections are only two to four players. Just a few, but it’s competitive. They’re under rocks, they’re under beds. They’re like lizards.”
The lizards are on the lookout now. It’s hard not to imagine this whole sorry episode scored as orchestral music, in which the moment of deepest dejection could actually be a bassoon solo. Plaintive and mournful, too dignified to work as a cheesy movie montage, the instrument’s velvety timbre works better as a dejected sigh than as raw agony. But the bassoon isn’t just for despair; it’s too warm in tone to concede defeat—and able to pivot into a sprightly allegro passage in the event Newton’s instrument is found.
Two months have now elapsed, and Newton’s hopes are dimming. He admits to kicking himself a little, as probably anyone would. And the grind of the judicial system brings little closure.
“I think if I had known how likely it is to get robbed, I would have thought twice about it,” he says. “I got one form from the court, which is a victim’s restitution form and sent it in asking for the appraised restitution, $53,000. My dreams of maybe moving to San Francisco one day got dashed on the rocks because my wife is now 1,000% no, no matter how beautiful the view was.”
A colleague of a former teacher gave Newton a loaner bassoon, but life is not the same without Passionfruit. Whether she’s in a Recology landfill or a junk dealer’s basement or a high school band closet in the East Bay, she’s not where she belongs. And Newton only brought her to California in the first place because he’d rediscovered his love for his craft.
“That was one of the most disappointing things. I had all this momentum, and I was enjoying playing music more than maybe I ever have,” he says. “I don’t want to get used to not having a bassoon.”
Peter-Astrid Kane can be reached at [email protected]