musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Beethoven, Brahms and Sierra

This week's Columbus Symphony classical subscription concerts featured conductor Andreas Delfs and pianist Andre Watts in Roberto Sierra's Fandangos, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor" and Brahms Symphony No. 2.  Predictably, the musicians were ultra concerned about the Sierra piece, since none of us had played or heard it before.  It has been our experience that contemporary music often presents hitherto unheard of technical challenges.

The first step in preparing for this week was to download recordings of the Sierra on iTunes.  There were 2 recordings available; after I listened to the first one, I decided to spring for the other one also (even though it meant buying an entire album) because I was hoping for more clarity regarding the level of exposure of the bassoon parts.

One of the passages I was worried about was this one:

The tempo is 96 to the quarter, which seems reasonable until one tries fitting up to12 notes into a beat. 

The other passage causing the most concern was this one, which was even more exposed than the above passage:

I used the same approach to tackling each of these passages.  First I slowed the metronome way down to a tempo in which I could actually play all of the notes accurately.  Some sections were nearly impossible at any tempo, in which case I turned off the metronome temporarily and just isolated the tough spots, trying to learn the notes even though the tempo was ridiculously slow.  I'd break down a passage into just 2 notes, then adding another to make 3, then 4, etc., as slowly as necessary. Then the metronome was turned back on, and eventually I'd graduate to a slightly faster tempo for each passage.

Realistically, it's unlikely that any bassoonist would be able to play these excerpts perfectly, so I also had to practice another way.  I guess it could be referred to as "fake" practicing, which amounted to turning on the metronome at 96 and attempting to produce the contour of the composer's intentions.  (I suspect that "faking" is easier on the other woodwind instruments.  Faking on the bassoon sounds too much like incompetence!)  Although I was resistant to this approach, I think I became fairly adept at it. (I do wonder, though, if my colleagues sitting nearby in the orchestra would agree!)  My worst problem was that at breakneck speeds, it was difficult to maintain proper hand position on the bassoon, and we all know what happens when the fingers slip out of position.

The faking would not have been at all effective without the careful slow practice which preceded it, I'm sure.  I never fully committed to the admission of faking, of course; in my mind the possibility of a miracle remained viable.

The Beethoven Emperor Concerto has a bassoon solo in the first movement which is often problematic.  It starts at the end of the second to last line on the first page of the 1st bassoon part:

This may sound strange, but I have learned that the position of a solo on the page can determine my level of success in staying with the conductor.  The position of the above solo is dangerous!  Most bassoonists are somewhat concerned about this solo, and our eyes remain glued to the bottom of the page while the conductor waves his or her arms frantically in the futile attempt to get us to follow.  It's amazing how often on live broadcasts this passage sounds behind.

My solution is this:

I taped the first part of the solo to the top of the page, where I'm able to see the baton peripherally even if I'm not looking directly at the conductor.  Once I start the solo at the right time and tempo, the rest is easy and I can look down at the bottom of the page to complete the solo. 

There are several awkward moments in Brahms Symphony No. 2.  One occurs in the first movement in octaves with the first clarinet:

In measures 326 and 327 we are presented with the problem of slurring from A2 down to A1.  Sometimes it's possible to execute that slur.  But since it is not 100% reliable, we can't take the chance.  I strongly recommend lightly tonguing the lower A.

The same problem occurs later in the movement in an exposed slur from D3 to D2 in measures 498 and 500, as if Brahms intended the piece as an exercise for the first bassoon to practice downward slurs:

A bassoonist friend of mine had the good fortune to have studied in Paris with the great French basson master, Maurice Allard.  I love my friend's description of his lesson in which Maurice Allard addressed the issue of difficult slurs:

I was playing an etude and painstakingly observing a wide slur. Allard advised lightly tonguing the slur; cheating, if you will.  He said, "Il faut mentir un peu, comme tu mens a ta femme: doucement." ("Lie as if you are lying to your wife: sweetly.")

The dotted eighth and sixteenths within the melody which appears several times in the bassoon part poses an interesting challenge, since it must be handled differently each time it occurs.  The priority is to be sure that the figure is rhythmically accurate and uninfluenced by the triplets which permeate the movement.  The opening of the movement is the easiest to place accurately:

The key is to subdivide the beat into 4 sixteenths during the conductor's preparatory beat.  Of course, the 32nds should be carefully placed as well, not starting late, and not rushed.

The next time the passage appears, at letter D pictured below, it is accompanied by a triplet rhythm in the treble woodwinds. The best way to handle this is to listen to the triplets, and place the 16th just after the 3rd triplet.  Subdividing into 4 sixteenths is dangerous due to the triplets which would very likely interfere with accurate subdividing into 4 equal parts.  The next time after that, beginning at one measure before E pictured below, the best solution is to not listen to the underlying triplets in the violins.  Why?  Due to the distance factor, the bassoonist will end up being late.  In this instance, I intentionally don't listen to the violin triplets; I subdivide the beat (beginning several beats before the entrance) into 4 sixteenths.  It's important to be watching the conductor's baton carefully while subdividing, to be sure that your placement is accurate.

The orchestral literature contains many passages like the following from the Brahms 3rd movement, in which the woodwinds play staccatos after the strings have been playing them for a few measures.  The woodwinds often get started late on their staccatos.  The reason for this is, again, the distance factor.  I have learned to count while watching the conductor's baton to increase the likelihood of entering on time.  The bassoon passages at the opening of the 4th movement are great for practicing smooth, even, discreet playing which is well supported by the air stream and with fingers moving minimally, very close to the instrument.  I sometimes imagine blowing up a balloon when playing passages like this to create the proper air support. 

The following bassoon passage at the opening of the 4th movement offers a great opportunity for practicing smooth, even, discreet playing which is well supported by the air stream and with fingers moving minimally, very close to the instrument.  I sometimes imagine blowing up a balloon when playing passages like this to create the proper air support.

It's been another week full of challenges and opportunities for improvement!


TB said...

My eyes are bleeding just looking at those excerpts.

B.S. said...

Dear TB,

My initial reaction was similar to yours! The shock wore off, though.....


TB said...

Hey, I finally listened to the Sibelius 5! I LOVE that piece and it sounded great! I wish I could have been there!!

B.S. said...

I wish you could have been there also, but it sure is great to have these audio streams available now! This week's concert will probably be available on Monday.


DTclarinet said...

Though this post and others from your blog should be required reading for bassoonists serious about succeeding, any aspiring orchestral player could benefit from your detailed yet clear analysis and suggestions.

B.S. said...

Why thank you, DT. Comments such as this one keep me going!


Franzen Shenanigans said...

Hi Betsy!!

It's taken me a while to catch up, but thanks again for all your insightful posts! I love that you burned some cane...I hate cooking, and it was totally something I would do!

B.S. said...

Hello Franzen! I'm glad that you can relate to my cane-burning experience. From now on my cane will be soaked in cold water only!