musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Adams, Lalo and Prokofiev

The most difficult piece of music I've ever played was the John Adams Chamber Symphony, which was the last Adams piece the Columbus Symphony performed.  This week we're performing another piece by Adams, The Chairman Dances, Foxtrot for Orchestra, which is infinitely more playable than the Chamber Symphony.  In fact, it's hard to believe that the same man wrote both bassoon parts.

The main challenge in The Chairman Dances is concentrating enough to keep one's place during continuously repeated phrases.  The rhythm becomes more complicated in certain sections, and the music is rental, so it has markings from other players.  Those markings sometimes interfere, as demonstrated below:
With so many pencil markings, most of which make no sense, it's difficult to read the part.  I tried to alter it as best I could with an eraser, but my success was limited.  Whenever I mark the beats in a part which is rhythmically tricky, I try to make my markings extremely neat and precise.  I know that I tend to be visually oriented to the extreme, but I believe that neat, precise pencil markings are more likely to result in accurate rhythm for any player, even those who are not as visual.

The Lalo Cello Concerto features a rather unusual bassoon solo, which repeats 4 times, in the 3rd movement:
It's 6/8 meter, with 2 beats per measure.  Most bassoonists would have the option of either single or double tonguing the 16ths which first occur 3 after B.  I planned to double tongue, but since it recurred so many times, I was afforded the luxury of experimenting in rehearsal with single tonguing also.  It's one of those solos with I think benefits from the sense of velocity created by double tonguing, and I chose to double tongue.  I like it when I have the opportunity to experiment during rehearsals to choose the type of tonguing which best fits the orchestral context (and tempo).  Sometimes it's difficult to plan in advance.

Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 opens with a soli for flute and bassoon in octaves:
This passage benefits from strong breath support to ensure smoothness.  I use the image of blowing up a balloon to assist with that.  It's easy to become distracted with worry about playing each note in tune and with a sound which matches the other notes, and the overall smoothness of the passage can suffer from that.  It's always important to think in terms of the entire phrase rather than getting caught up on individual notes.  The time to address individual notes is at home during preparation, not onstage during rehearsals or performances.

It's best to breath whenever the principal flutist breathes.  In my case, that means breathing only once, in the 5th measure after the D.  Of course we try to make the breath as quick as possible so as to lessen the likelihood of interfering with the flow.

I try to do everything I can to ensure the best possible musical outcome.  For example, I'm fussy about the placement of my music stand.  I've already written about my belief that the stand has to be far enough away from the bassoon that the sound is not distorted from ricocheting off the stand.  I've also written about the importance of having the visual aspect of the music just so.  Check out the following, which is the ending of the above excerpt:
 
It bothers me to no end that the A3 and F3 are placed at the same height!  For my taste, the F has to be a certain distance below the A in order for my brain to be able to easily interpret the music.  I have to plan for the worst possible circumstances, when I might be exhausted or distracted. So I penciled in an "A" below the A3 and an "F" below the F3, just in case my brain is not functioning optimally.  Sometimes I resort to rewriting the part; in fact, I seem to recall that I rewrote a page or two of the above-mentioned Adams Chamber Symphony because the previous bassoonist had marked it up so copiously.............  .

I tried an interesting experiment with the passage at 55 in the 2nd movement:
The fingerings are a bit tricky, especially at a quick tempo.  Thursday morning before rehearsal, I wanted to practice that passage but didn't have time to get the bassoon out.  I took the bus to rehearsal that day, and I tried to mentally practice that passage on the bus.  I heard the notes in my head while imagining that I was fingering the notes on the bassoon.  I'm pleased to report that it seemed to me that my mental practice turned out to be as effective as actual practice would have been.  This trick will undoubtedly come in handy again before long!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, the bassoon section in one of the orchestras in which I play was under scrutiny by the conductor, and one of the concerns was intonation. Well, I literally lived with a tuning machine for the next several weeks and perceived that my general pitch level was a little on the flat side. About the same time, in a different orchestra we came upon the Prokofief #5 and for the first rehearsal I decided that since my tuning machine was indicating a generally low pitch, I'd try a shorter bocal to compensate. I picked a CD-0 Heckel from my stash and proceeded to play so out of tune with the principal Flutist that there were audible murmurs along the lines of "what the he77 is going on?" Thankfully I brought my usual Fox CTX2 with me and changed ALMOST immediately. I was mortified, especially since that flutist was also Principal in the first orchestra I mentioned and had been assigned to counsel the Bassoon section during this scrutiny. I'll never forget how bad it felt to play that out of tune LOL. Prokofief #5 is a great symphony..one of my favorites.

Frank Watson

B.S. said...

Dear Frank,

That sounds like a horrifying experience! It's a good thing you had the Fox bocal with you, so at least your cohorts were able to hear the difference after you switched. I know that bassoon playing can be very embarrassing at times...

Prokofiev 5 really is a great symphony, and is enjoyable to play, especially once the opening is over!

Betsy

TB said...

" I know that bassoon playing can be very embarrassing at times..."

LOL!!! Looking forward to listening to this concert!

B.S. said...

Dear TB,

Let me know if you hear any difference in recording quality of this concert.

Thanks!

Betsy

Anthony Slusser said...

I played principal bassoon in the reading of Prokofiev V a while back, and I totally agree with what you said about the visual challenges of the piece.

B.S. said...

Hi Anthony! Maybe people like you and me would make good music publishers....

Betsy

Kate said...

Thank you for blogging about this. I'm going to a Prokofiev 5 sight reading session tonight and am very thankful that you've posted the above!
Kate

Kate said...

Well, the orchestra I read with used the Kalmus edition and the solo was in treble clef! Yuck.

B.S. said...

Oh no!! That's one of the problems with some editions of Prokofiev - lots of treble clef, which we are not used to! I hope you got through it relatively unscathed.

Betsy