The Firebird ballet is based on Russian folk tales involving a magical glowing bird (the firebird), which is both a blessing and a curse to its captor. The Firebird, premiered 100 years ago in Paris, is historically significant not only as Stravinsky's breakthrough piece with both the public and the critics, but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev (founder of the famous Ballet Russes). After The Firebird premiered, there were immediate talks of a sequel, leading to the composition of Petrushka and later The Rite of Spring.
For years there has been disagreement among bassoonists regarding a particular note in the famous bassoon solo of the Berceuse, or Lullaby, of the Firebird Suite. As far as I am concerned, the debate is resolved by this video of Stravinsky conducting the Berceuse. Although I was taught to play D natural, this time I played D flat in the famous spot:
Of all of the bassoon solos in the orchestral literature, I have played this one the most frequently. We've played it on pops concerts, summer concerts, runouts, and school programs as well as classical subscriptions. One would think that such familiarity would have rendered the solo easy by now, right? Wrong!!
First of all, it's daunting to be given the responsibility for rendering any solo, never mind one of the most famous gems in the orchestral literature. This particular solo happens to start on and be centered around what I consider the most unstable note on the bassoon: Bflat 3. Any tension on the part of the bassoonist will result in a sharp Bflat. Try too hard to compensate, and the player easily ends up with a flat Bflat! F3, another important note in the solo, tends to sound weaker than the surrounding notes, which is the opposite of what the solo calls for.
When I prepare this solo, I always think of the words of my teacher K. David Van Hoesen. He used to speak of moving the fingers as if molding clay for a lyrical solo. Indeed, finger motion is integral to this smooth, calm, lugubrious lullaby.
To deal with my top priority of playing the solo in tune, I practice against a Bflat drone. It's important to be sure that the temperature of one's practice space is close to the temperature of the stage. That's a challenge for me because our stage is often too hot, which of course raises the pitch of the bassoon.. And because of that, I really can't make any final reed decisions at home. Only onstage can I be sure of a reed's pitch level.
Sound is also critical. I don't even consider reeds which lack the sound I'm looking for, so the only reeds I test for pitch are the ones which have already passed the sound test. Yes, I go through a lot of reeds! I reject reeds which sound harsh, thin, buzzy, bright or raucous. I prefer reeds which produce a strong and appealing sound throughout the range.
We performed the 1945 version of the Firebird Suite. This was my first encounter with this version, and it included some interesting bassoon parts, especially in the Pas de Deux::
If you'd like to hear the Columbus Symphony's performance from last weekend which included the 1945 Firebird, it can be accessed here on InstantEncore.
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