“F” is for Foster

“F” is for Foster

A faint pulse runs through Backun Musical Services. It’s not the day-to-day bustle or the constant hum of the massive CNC (Computer Numeric Control) machines that manufacture Backun clarinets. It’s not the thrum of the Backun family, staff, or artists. This pulse harkens back to the earliest days of the company, long before the first Backun clarinet was ever conceived.

A childhood friend of Morrie Backun’s, John Wesley (Wes) Foster shared a similar passion for the clarinet. The two grew up in Vancouver, Canada, studying under Dominic Lastoria, an archetypal clarinet teacher schooled in the Italian tradition of clarinet playing. Following years of lessons, school band, and youth orchestra, Wes and Morrie took different paths: Wes’s career took him to orchestras in Hamilton and Toronto, Canada, as well as Indianapolis, Indiana, and, finally, back home to Vancouver. Along the way, Wes was mentored by iconic player and teacher Robert Marcellus. In fact, it was Wes whom Marcellus tapped to be the heir apparent to his teaching studio, which resulted in Wes flying weekly from Indianapolis to Chicago to teach at Northwestern University after Marcellus had retired. Morrie went into the family music business, while continuing to perform as a clarinetist and conductor with local orchestras and ensembles. Later apprenticing as a flute maker, Morrie honed his skills in instrument repair and custom modification.

Years later, back in Vancouver, Wes and his wife, Karen, settled into their respective chairs in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO). Both Wes and Karen contributed greatly to the musical scene in Vancouver, continuing to travel and teach — Wes was a frequent teacher at the Banff Centre’s illustrious music program. Also a faculty member at the University of British Columbia (UBC) School of Music for over two decades, Wes was appointed Principal Clarinet of the VSO in 1981.

Back in 2000, Wes called on Morrie for some clarinet work. With Backun Musical Services having been founded just a few months earlier, Wes’s need for a replacement barrel for his vintage C clarinet dramatically altered the course of the company. Morrie dutifully set out to craft a new barrel for him, and history was made. If we’d only known at the time!

Gone but Not Forgotten

From the very first barrel to the very first bell, Wes was with us, testing almost every piece Morrie made by hand in the days before we brought in the CNC machines. Back then, with each barrel taking no less than three hours to craft, and each bell almost an entire day, Morrie spent a majority of his time taking on woodwind repairs, while I made many of the barrels and bells by hand in between and after classes at UBC. After all, one or two barrels a day do not exactly pay the bills!

In the midst of all the hubbub and daily goings-on at the shop, we noticed that, at times, Wes was not himself. Sometimes it was a forgotten fingering or the name of a colleague that slipped his mind. Over the few years that I got to know and work closely with Wes, his symptoms and forgetfulness became worse. Then one day, a diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The news was devastating, while at the same time, comforting to those who searched for meaning in Wes’s gradual decline.

After he retired early from the VSO in 2004, Backun Musical Services was often a refuge for Wes. A chance to remain in contact with the instrument and music that he loved. And he was welcomed. Even when the visits became less frequent, we were always grateful to see Wes and spend time with him, trying the latest barrels, bells, and mouthpieces, talking shop, or just listening to music. Wes passed away peacefully in 2013, and while his memory may have faded, our memory of him has not.

Tens of thousands of barrels and bells, mouthpieces, and now clarinets, later, a faint pulse runs through Backun Musical Services — that of John Wesley Foster — and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In memory of Wes and the incredible legacy he left to the Backun Musical Services, we have named our newest professional clarinet in his honour: the Model F.