musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Pops, a Columbus Tradition

One of the Columbus Symphony's most popular programs each year is the Holiday Pops featuring Chorus Director Ronald J. Jenkins and his Columbus Symphony Chorus.  The 130-member Chorus, made up entirely of volunteer singers from central Ohio, performs major orchestral choral works from Bach to Mahler, always at a very professional level.   The Symphony is incredibly fortunate to be affiliated with such a group.

For his Holiday Pops programs, Maestro Jenkins has figured out a formula which works year after year, never failing to please his audiences.  He has a lengthy list of tried-and-true favorites which he rotates, and each year he adds a few new selections.  There is always a child conductor chosen from the audience to conduct Leroy Anderson's Sleigh Ride.  This year the Maestro chose to feature one of his favorite soloists: our fine concertmaster, Charles Wetherbee, in two movements from Winter from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons.  Read the review from the Columbus Dispatch to see how successful this program was: 
From a bassoonist's perspective, the Holiday Pops should prove to be a relatively easy show, an opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the tunes, right?  Well, not necessarily.....

The opening bassoon passage in One December, Bright and Clear looks harmless enough at first glance.  Then I notice the clef.  Then I notice the key signature.  I worry.  I practice.  The conductor starts.  The Children's Choir, full of energy, pushes the tempo.  It's fast.  I hope for the best.  It's time: I play.  Afterwards, uncertainty.  Did it sound OK?

Fortunately, I have the luxury of being able to listen to the concert after the performance, now that the Columbus Symphony is audio streaming.  The entire concert is streamed here:

When I listened to the above passage on the stream, I was amazed at how innocent it sounded!  The instrumentation (flute, piccolo and high bassoon, which I often refer to as "screech bassoon") works very well with children's voices.  I was not sorry that I had spent so much time obsessing over that passage, trying to make sure it was in tune and as smooth as possible.  The most effective way to practice it seemed to be slowing it down (of course) and placing fermatas on the high B and high C# to be sure that those notes were secure and in tune.  It also helped to emphasize the high C#.  This is the forgotten range of the bassoon which I have written about in other posts.  I spent a lot of time simply playing the passage slowly, over and over, listening to tone quality, matching, and intonation.  My goal is to make this range sound just like the rest of the instrument.  Why should it sound weak just because it's more difficult?  It's our job to make everything sound easy!

Sometimes musicians have a more casual attitude towards pops concerts. Because of passages like the one pictured above, I find it dangerous and unwise to be casual.  The passage was difficult and exposed, warranting a good deal of attention at home. 

Here's an example of a solo brief in length but endless in possibilities for flubbing.  (This is from the charming The Night Before Christmas by Randall Alan Bass.)  Any bassoonist can see that the fingerings do not exactly fall into place naturally.  It would be infinitely easier to play without using the A vent key on the final note (A2) but it is too likely that the note will crack without venting.  For F#3, I used the full fingering (LH: 2nd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st, 2nd and 4th fingers) as usual.  I very rarely resort to the short fingering (LH: 1/2 hole, 2nd finger, 3rd finger + E flat key; RH: 1st finger and I definitely would not use it for this.  To practice the above passage, it worked best for me to just slow it down and play it all slurred.  The solo is kind of out in left field (not surrounded by 16ths in other instruments), so it's more critical than ever to subdivide 16ths in your head during the beats leading up to the solo, while carefully watching the conductor's baton to be sure that the subdivisions are placed accurately.

The third most challenging excerpt from this concert happens at measure 111 in the same piece.  It's a soli with the piccolo.  Toward the end, the B4 and A4 grace notes provide much practicing fodder.  The bassoonist almost has to will it to happen!   (Granted, it's more difficult on a newer Heckel like mine than on an older one because the new instrument's bore is larger so it's much more challenging to manipulate the left thumb keys, especially if your hand is not large.)  Normally, I'd use the whisper key on the G#3 following the grace notes, but in this case I left it out, since the note sounded fine without it.  I try very hard to stick with standard fingerings whenever possible, but this passage proved to be unreliable with the left thumb having to travel all the way down to the whisper key on the G#3. 

This very enjoyable concert closed with a vist from Santa and Mrs. Claus, and with the entire orchestra, chorus and childrens' choir donning Santa hats.  I am sure that in Columbus, Ohio, many people consider this concert to be the essential starting point for the holiday season.


BassoonII said...

Any thoughts about why Symphony Orchestras cannot "swing" like so much music performed on "Pops" concerts requires? I'm always appalled at the lack of understanding of the style evinced by conductors and orchestral musicians. String players, especially, seem clueless whenever faced with "swing" sections. I am fortunate to have had a variety of professional (and student gigs) playing "swing" styles and, while not billing myself as a swing guru, am pretty confident when playing that style.

Enjoy your Blog...hope you'll keep it going..


B.S. said...

Dear FW,

I have wondered the same thing. It almost seems as though some orchestral musicians resent being asked to swing. I think that such an elitist attitude is out of place in a field where jobs are few, far between and fleeting.

Many wind players are fortunate to have some degree of background with swing, but any orchestral musician can easily find recordings to help with learning the style. It's an important part of our job, in my opinion.

Thanks for reading my blog!