musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, October 9, 2009

Beethoven 9

Each time I prepare an orchestral work, I prioritize the passages to which I will devote most of my time, effort and reedmaking focus.  Of course, in Beethoven Symphony No. 9, my top priority is the solo below:

We seem to perform Beethoven 9 rather frequently in the Columbus Symphony, including this very week, and I've noticed an interesting phenomenon regarding this solo.  Bear in mind that this problem could be unique to the Ohio Theatre in which we normally perform.  The stage is very deep, so the woodwinds sit rather far back, behind all of the strings.  In other orchestras, the bassoon section seems to be surrounded by strings, which is certainly preferable for ensemble.

In the Ohio Theatre, the winds must place their notes with the conductor's baton.  Any attempt to listen to the strings will result in shouts from the podium that the winds are behind.

The solo in question poses a problem due to its placement on the page.  The solo is complicated enough that most bassoonists want to keep their eyes on the music.  A furtive glance at the conductor's baton could result in the bassoon soloist getting lost, as the wandering eye searches for its place upon returning to the page.  Therefore, most bassoonists' eyes tend to remain glued to the solo passage, which frequently causes the bassoon's counter melody to lag behind the viola section's melody.

Here's my solution:

I xerox the solo, cut it out and tape it to the top of the page.  (I'm hoping that it's easy to dismantle, since the parts belong to conductor Gunther Herbig.)  This setup allows me to keep my eye on the solo while still having a great periferal view of the baton.  In an ideal world, the bassoonist would have the luxury of simply listening to the viola melody and fitting the counter melody over it.  In the real world of the Columbus Symphony, that is not possible, but the above solution works well.

I came to this after some experimentation.  The last time we performed Beethoven 9, I asked the principal clarinetist to discreetly conduct, mirroring the conductor's baton.  That solution did work, but I don't like to impose upon my colleagues for such unusual favors.  (Besides, what if the clarinetist forgot about his assignment?)

There are many exposed bassoon passages in this symphony.  One which often inpires conductors to claim they can't hear the bassoon is this, beginning with the pickup to letter O:

I was quite pleased when Maestro Gunther Herbig announced yesterday that the bassoon was too loud in that very passage!  That incident proved what I've been saying about my new Heckel #15421- it really does have superior projection power.

The third movement is a known chop-buster.  Orchestras usually use double the woodwind parts for Beethoven 9 to enable then best possible sound and intonation from the soloists.  The Columbus Symphony is in financial distress, so we are not using doublers.  Especially for the first bassoon player, that means relentless playing throughout the lengthy slow movement- it's quite a test of embouchure strength.  For me, endurance preparation involves obvious embouchure strengthening exercises such as long tones, but in addition to that, I carry a reed around during the week prior to the first rehearsal and I keep it in my mouth as much as possible, forming an embouchure around it and sometimes even crowing it. 

During the second rehearsal of the day yesterday I noticed that I was so exhausted near the end of the 3rd movement that my eyes had trouble following the end of one line to the beginning of the next.  Whenever this happens (sometimes it's due to repetitive music which all looks the same) I employ a technique I learned from my teacher Ryohei Nakagawa: Draw a symbol at the end of one line and draw the same symbol at the beginning of the next line.  Then at the end of that line, draw a different symbol, followed by a repeat of that symbol at the beginning of the next line, as follows in the third, fourth and fifth lines below:

The eye automatically follows the symbol- you don't have to think about it.  This technique has made my life easier many times.

In the near future, the Columbus Symphony may be offering live streaming.  I'll keep you posted!  Meanwhile, our Beethoven 9 with Maestro Herbig from 2 years ago is featured on InstantEncore where the bassoon solo is featured in the next to last excerpt.


DTclarinet said...

Nice detailed and helpful descriptions of your process of preparation. The more I think about it, it's hard to describe the complex processes we go through to prepare these parts, over a week or a lifetime.

The bassoon obligato in the last movement went beautifully tonight, just like someone singing a lovely counter melody to herself while matching perfectly the main melody.

B.S. said...

Thank you, David. And you're right- it is really difficult to describe what we go through to prepare. This post offered but a glimpse!

Tina B. said...

Betsy!! I'm so happy to have found your blog. It would have been great to have heard this concert. I've never played Beethoven 9, but it was a thrill to sing in the chorus in the mid-90s. That seems like so long ago... Nowadays, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of the complex process of putting the bassoon together, but my therapist really wants me to start getting back into it. Your post reminds me that the work never ends!!

love from NJ,
(my email address is the same!)

B.S. said...

Tina! It's so great to hear from you! And you figured out how to comment- yay! Many people have told me they can't figure out how to comment on this blog.

I too am glad you've found this blog! I'd love for you to write a guest post about your adventures in getting back into bassoon playing!


T.B. said...

Well, give me a year, and I may have something worth posting, LOL.

I do miss Columbus. The east coast is not all that!

B.S. said...

Columbus misses you, too, Tina- especially now, during opera week.....

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