musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, March 12, 2010

Barber Violin Concerto and Mahler 1

Last weekend the Columbus Symphony performed Mozart Symphony No. 32, the Barber Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes, and Mahler Symphony No. 1 with Alondra de la Parra conducting.  The audio stream of the concert can be accessed here.

The Barber Violin Concerto 3rd movement features one of the most challenging 1st bassoon parts in the orchestral literature. The movement is in cut time, with a tempo of 96 to the half note.  The passage which causes the most finger-tangling is the one beginning a measure before 9:
 There's no way around it- a passage like this just has to be practiced ad infinitum.  I also found it helpful to isolate these problematic notes and practice them this way, concentrating on smoothness:
Slow practice is the only way I know of to set up the greatest possibility of successful execution of such challenging bassoon licks.

The 1st bassoon and 1st flute play the melody in octaves between 11 and 13 above.  For some reason, even though this passage is relatively easy compared to the rest of the movement, the tendency is to lag behind.  It's best to listen to the snare drum to ensure an accurate tempo.

Of course, Mahler 1 is famous among bassoonists for the 3rd movement funeral march which begins with a string bass solo followed by a bassoon solo:

The simplest melodies can be the most challenging due to the required perfection.  To practice the above solo, I played the solo repeatedly with a drone sounding on the tonic (D) so that any intonation issues would be obvious.  I used an electronic piano with the sound set on jazz organ.  I used duct tape to tape the D key down- the sound was continuous until I removed the tape.  This may sound silly, but I have a policy of doing whatever it takes to achieve the results I desire.  When practicing the solo this way, I also aimed for smoothness in addition to correct intonation.  By the time the first rehearsal with the orchestra occurred, I was comfortable with this solo.

Later in the movement, the bassoon perhaps represents a mourner at the funeral in a long line ascending, in unison with the 3rd horn, up to high B flat.  There, the horn drops out and the bassoonist is free to employ vibrato with which to sob through the rest of the solo.

Beginning 4 after 18 as seen below, the bassoon joins the flute in unison for a bit of sorrowful reminiscing.
Then the bassoon gets to show off its nasty side at 19:
The first 2 measures at 19 may benefit from a harsh, even aggressive character, but I think that the third measure sounds best when played in a contrastingly whimsical fashion.

The 4th movement of the Mahler features one of those passages which is surprisingly exposed and precarious, especially if the bassoonist is caught off guard.  (It's hardly noticeable on recordings.)
It really does have to be very quiet and, preferably, very smooth and even.  Lots of breath support is required, especially for negotiating the half step from F to G flat in the 4th measure after 40.  Then, the passage beginning 6 after 40 is suddenly incisive and quasi aggressive.  There's a big difference between ppp and p when Mahler is the composer!

4 comments:

Will said...

I remember the detailed work we did on this excerpt the last two summers! Your suggestion of envisioning blowing up a balloon was definitely beneficial. I think the most dangerous part for me was going from a high A down to a low A and getting the right airflow so as not to underplay the top and overplay the bottom.

B.S. said...

Dear Will,

You just reminded me that I forgot to write about that very important issue of the A octaves! (I've been distracted lately.) I had been backing off that low A in rehearsals until finally I missed it in the last rehearsal! I told myself that was what rehearsals were for, and the concerts were fine.

Betsy

TB said...

I remember playing Mahler 1 at CU and somewhere else - one of my all-time favorites. I seem to remember you having me articulate the lower A as imperceptibly as possible.

B.S. said...

Dear TB,

Yes, I can't believe I forgot to mention in this post that the only way to ensure that the low A will come out is to lightly articulate it, in such a way that nobody will be able to tell.

Betsy