musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, April 19, 2010

Beethoven, Leshnoff and Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 6

This past weekend the Columbus Symphony performed the Beethoven Overture to Leonore No. 2, the Jonathan Leshnoff Double Concerto for Violin and Viola, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6.  The Columbus Dispatch published this review of the concert.

The Leonore Overture No. 2 differs considerably from the better known Leonore Overture No. 3 and features many exposed bassoon parts.  One to be aware of is the following, which must be double tongued due to the tempo:
The 4 measures preceding the presto are exposed, and the eighth note passages beginning on the 16th measure of the presto are tutti.

Composer Jonathan Leshnoff was in Columbus for the rehearsals and performances of his Double Concerto for Violin and Viola (2007) featuring our concertmaster, Chas Wetherbee and violist Roberto Diaz.  The two soloists were a perfect match, and the composer was clearly pleased.  Chas is a sought-after soloist who never fails to endear his audience, and Roberto Diaz won everyone over with his incredible Amati viola- what an awesome sound!

The Leshnoff featured some tricky tonguing passages for the first bassoon, such as this one in the second movement:.
While it may be possible to single tongue at this tempo of 130 to the quarter, double tonguing projects much better.  It's critical to be exactly with the conductor's baton, because there's not enough rhythmic background going on nearby in the orchestra to latch onto aurally.  It's necessary to count like mad while watching the baton.  If the bassoonist listens to the soloists and goes with them, he or she will end up being behind because of the distance.

I began preparing for Tchaikowsky Symphony no. 6 last week, even though last week was also a big bassoon solo week (Firebird).   I started searching for the reed I'd use for the opening of the symphony, and I took the reeds which seemed like viable candidates to the hall to test them there.

In the past, I've always used old reeds for the opening solo.  I expected to do the same this time, but much to my surprise, i ended up using a new reed.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I'm playing on a new 15,000 series Heckel- I suppose it's possible that new bassoons favor new reeds.

The winning reed had the quality which was my top priority: reliable response on low E.  This reed was so reliable that it shocked me each time we started the symphony in rehearsals and concerts!

To prepare the solo, I used my electronic keyboard to play a drone on the low E and B with which the string basses begin the movement.  That way, I become totally accustomed to playing that low E in tune.

One of the challenges of this solo for me is dealing with the A#2 in bar 4:
It is difficult to produce a controlled vibrato on that A#- it tends to be too wild or unstable.  I spent considerable time trying to tame the vibrato on that note, using my iPhone's voice memo app to record my progress. I actually noticed considerable improvement in the stability of the A#2's vibrato.  I think that bassoons, especially new ones, can be trained.

During the actual solo, I began the A# with no vibrato, then started the crescendo and increasingly added vibrato leading to the tonic B2.

The bore of the new Heckels is larger than that of the older bassoons.  Because of that, my bassoon requires more air in the low range and I have to breathe accordingly.  As long as the breaths are quick and efficient, I do not think they interfere with the melodic line.

I have never had to play these famous 4 notes in bar 160 of the 1st movement:
In most orchestras, those notes are played by a bass clarinetist who is onstage just to play those 4 notes from the bassoon past.  That way, the principal clarinetist is able to play as soto voce as he or she wishes during the solo preceding these 4 notes, and after the clarinet solo ends, the line can continue down to low D with the same dynamics and tone quality.  It is not reasonable to expect a bassoon to finish that ethereal clarinet solo!

In my opinion, the 4th movement bassoon unisons are really good audition material for any bassoon position:
In the past we've used 4 bassoons for Tchaikowsky Symphony no. 6, and the above passages are one of the reasons for that.  This time, we used 2 bassoons.  The F#3s at the beginning of the movement are in unison with the flutes.  I always listen to the flutes and defer to them.  As a rule, I defer to the instrument which is the loudest when it's unison.  The bassoons are never the loudest, so I do a lot of deferring.  (If octaves are involved instead of unisons, that's different, because the lowest octave should usually be stronger than the other octaves.)  Later in that passage the clarinets join in, and the bassoons are mere coloring at that point.  Then the clarinets drop out, leaving the bassoons and flutes to finish in pianissimo.

Beginning in bar 21, though, the bassoons are alone, in unison with each other.  Dynamics are critical to this passage, and of course, dynamics are challenging for bassoonists to exaggerate.  And intonation and ensemble must match!  The reason I consider the above passage to be great for auditions is because it is a great test of intonation, dynamic contrast, matching tone qualities from note to note, and melodic line.

Here is the audio stream of the Columbus Symphony's concert performed last Saturday.



Julia Rose said...

I've always wondered why the cues in the horn parts at m.160 were marked as bassoon and not bass clarinet. I assumed it was a Kalmus misprint, as I have never heard them performed by bassoon. I have also never seen so many pppppp's in a Tchaikovsky part. Glad no one expects you to play them!

B.S. said...

Hi Julia- I'm also glad that no one expects me to play those notes! What was Tchaikowsky thinking??!!


Anonymous said...

its not soo bad, you just have to talk nicely to the clarinet so they leave you somewhere to go dynamically ! ;-)

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I've always wondered why the cues in the horn parts at m.160 were marked as bassoon and not bass clarinet. I assumed it was a Kalmus misprint, as I have never heard them performed by bassoon. I have also never seen so many pppppp's in a Tchaikovsky part. Glad no one expects you to play them

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Anonymous said...

I always play m. 160. Put a mute in the bell, a cork wedge under the low Bb and close the long joint tone holes and the right thumb low E - you can play as soft as the clarinet. Chris Millard

B.S. said...

Thank you, Chris. This is valuable advice!


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"As a rule, I defer to the instrument which is the loudest when it's unison."

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