musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, September 13, 2009

My recording project

One of the first people I met when  I moved to Columbus was Harold Kohn, a chemist who also happened to be a symphony supporter and amateur bassoonist.  He lived a few blocks away and frequently stopped at my house for a chat, sometimes bassoon-related, sometimes not.

One morning my doorbell rang, and I opened the door expecting to find Harold standing there with his impish grin.  Instead, I found a very shaken Trueman Allison (a fellow bassoonist who was also close to Harold).  He  wanted to let me know that Harold was gravely ill. Although I was reluctant to intrude upon the gathering of Harold's family at what sounded like a deathbed vigil, Trueman convinced me that Harold would probably appreciate a visit from me.

I packed up my bassoon and headed for Harold's house.  His wife said he had been unresponsive for quite some time, but we went over to his bed and she asked him if he wanted me to play the bassoon.  We were both surprised that his eyes widened and he nodded his head.  So I played the bassoon next to his bed  while he laid there looking very ethereal.

He died shortly thereafter (which I hope had nothing to do with my playing), and his wife Janet asked me to play the bassoon again at his funeral.  It's fairly rare for a bassoonist to be called upon to play a role in a life passage event, and I was more nervous than I'd been in years.

Harold had been a fan of mine, and he had always thought that I should record a CD.  A few months before he died, Harold had started instructing me on how to bring it about.  So that I wouldn't become overwhelmed, he was giving me one step at a time.  First he had me identify the musicians I wanted to record with; then I asked them if they'd be interested.  Next I made a list of repertoire and ordered the music.

In a conversation with Janet after he died, she told me that she wanted to finish what Harold had started.  He had been planning to fund my recording project, she said, which I hadn't known, and she said she wanted to take over where her late husband had left off.

The Kohns' money had to be turned over to a musical organization in order for it to be available to fund this project.  Janet came up with the idea of having CityMusic Columbus take care of it, and Steve Rosenberg from CityMusic graciously asked me and my supporting musicians to perform on CityMusic's successful chamber music series as part of the deal.  The plan was that we would record shortly before our performance, and the concert would be billed as a CD release event.

I chose the recording engineer based on recommendations from other musicians.  I first became alarmed when we showed up for the recording sessions to find only one microphone, which the engineer placed up above the quartet. We wanted to complete the recording in one session, so we didn't have a lot of time for listening to playback. I listened to the opening of one piece, and it seemed fine, so we assumed there were no problems. Imagine our surprise at the end of the session when we listened to the recording and discovered that the bassoon-the solo instrument- was distant and unclear, while the accompanying strings came through like gangbusters!  Maybe the sound engineer could fix the balance, right? Wrong- there was only one track. That initial snippet that I had heard and approved early on during the session had been a poor choice for checking balance since the bassoon was playing a melody over a delicate pianissimo pizzicato accompaniment.

CityMusic did not approve the release of the funds to pay the recording engineer because of the glaring balance problem, which was a reasonable decision, but we didn't have enough money to pay for another recording session.  For a few days, we didn't know what to do, and the CD release concert was fast approaching.

Finally it became obvious that the only thing we could do would be to record the concert. Rather than carefully recording and editing this once-in-a-lifetime CD, it would be a live recording. (I would have chosen easier repertoire if I had known it would turn out this way!)

The acoustics for the live performance were dead and dry- anything but inspiring!  The temperature in the venue was around 90 degrees because the fan had to be turned off for recording.  I had all I could do to try to keep the pitch down as the temperature soared.  As luck would have it, part of the deal for this particular performance was that I would do a lot of talking to connect with the audience. (I wouldn't have minded doing that if the concert had indeed been our CD release event.) The last thing I felt like doing during a stressful live recording session was providing stand-up comedy between pieces!

When the unedited recording was finally completed, my disappointment with the way things had turned out paled by comparison to the relief of having the ordeal finished.  I can just imagine what Harold, with his dry New York sense of humor, would have had to say about all of this!


Tina B. said...

Betsy, that is such a beautiful thing you did for Harold! And the project, as challenging as it was, a wonderful way to remember him.

David Daye said...

I'm so sorry to learn of Harold's passing.

Harold had encountered me performing and busking around Columbus on my bagpipes, and got me a guest artist appearance with the Columbus Symphony in 1993 (I think), playing the final minute of "Orkney Wedding With Sunrise."

In childhood I'd heard George Szell's band doing youth concerts in the 1950's, and being blessed/cursed with biological iPod, I still get shudders rehearing them live and in stereo in the Akron area's Cathedral of Tomorrow in the early 60's so many years later.

So the chance to play with the Columbus Symphony orchestra meant more to me than it would've to many pipers.

It would take pages to describe the mechanical, instrument redesign and clashing phrasing style challenges of making such a primitive instrument work with an orchestra in the early 90's, but I'd never have had the chance without Harold.

Fate is cruel; the performance would be recorded on the 2nd night, but it was snowed out so there is no record of it. But thanks to the bio-iPod I will always hear the sound of an orchestra from the best seat in the house--standing next to the conductor, blending with drones and chanter.

Thanks Harold!