musings of a professional bassoonist

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mozart, Brahms and Bartók

This past weekend the Columbus Symphony presented the Mozart Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro , K. 492, the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra with guests Peter Serkin, pianist and Stefan Sanderling, conductor.  The Columbus Dispatch published a concert review which included a bassoon mention.  The entire concert is streaming on InstantEncore.

Each piece on this program presents numerous bassoon-related challenges. I hardly know where to begin, which is how I felt when faced with the preparation for this program.  But there's no doubt about it, Mozart's Overture to Le Nozze di Figaro is the most commonly asked bassoon audition excerpt!  Why?  It requires perfection, agility, style, double-tonguing, blending, soloistic skill, ability to follow the conductor when playing with strings only, and extreme dynamic control, for starters.  

Most bassoonists have practiced this piece endlessly, and the best advice I have for performing it with orchestra is to forget about watching the part- just keep your eyes on the conductor!  It is critical for the bassoons to stay with the conductor's beat.  I can imagine that if I were a conductor, I'd really want to maintain eye contact with the principal bassoonist throughout this piece.

Smooth, even 8th notes are best achieved with slow, relaxed practice.  Certain reeds play this piece more smoothly than others, although I have no explanation for the reason why that is true!  (I noticed the same reed phenomenon regarding the fast 16th notes of the 3rd movement of the Ravel Piano Concerto.) Strong breath support helps maintain an even tone quality throughout.  Any fingering glitches which present themselves can be ironed out by isolating the problematic notes into short, repeated exercises.

I recall once hearing a bassoonist remark that his bassoon had "a really great Figaro."  I knew exactly what he meant, because the ease (or lack thereof!) of playing this piece does vary greatly from bassoon to bassoon, just as it varies from reed to reed.  It may not be a bad idea to oil the keys before performing this piece, thereby minimizing the possibility of being distracted by key noise.  My bassoon, being new, has very quiet and smoothly operating keys, which I appreciate greatly.

During the week before we rehearsed and performed this program, I thought about how I might prepare my embouchure for the notoriously taxing Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.  The slow movement presents an endurance challenge for both bassoons, especially the 1st bassoon:
In order to build up my embouchure to be extra strong for this piece, I carried a rejected reed around with me constantly, and I kept it in my mouth with a normal bassoon embouchure probably for several hours each day.  Of course I was also practicing, rehearsing and performing on those days, so the reed-only routine was done in addition to normal playing.  The result was a very, very strong embouchure which never showed signs of tiring, and I intend to use this technique extensively from now on.

While practicing onstage before the concert, I wanted to check the intonation of the lengthy exposed passages in this movement.   I decided to try a trick often used by our principal clarinetist, David Thomas: practicing with earplugs inserted in both ears.  It really worked!  Even with all the chaos going on around me, I was able to hear the pitch of each note with crystal clarity.  Thanks, David!

The Bartók Concerto for Orchestra is chock full of challenges.  The 2 bassoons were asked to play the well-known duo in a rather subdued fashion:
At 165 where the 3rd bassoon joins the 1st and 2nd bassoons, Maestro Sanderling requested that the 3rd bassoon dominate like an angry mother-in-law, while the 1st and 2nd bassoon were to represent calm, docile newlyweds.

For me, one of the trickiest passages in the piece appears in the bassoon solo at the end of the 4th movement:
There are so many possible fingering combinations for these notes!  I ended up settling on standard fingerings on each note except for F#, for which I eliminated the upper auxiliary (aka Eflat) key, so that my fingering was 2nd finger left hand + 1,2 and 4 in the right hand.  The reason for that departure from normal fingering (I normally use the Eflat key) is because it increased the likelihood that the F# would speak.  Again, each bassoon is different.  I nearly used the "French" fingering (2nd finger right hand + 1, 2 and Bflat key in the right hand) but decided against it because the tone color did not match the surrounding notes.  This is one of those passages which I practiced with a drone (B) on the electronic keyboard.

The 5th movement contains another awkward solo passage at measure 171 Un poco piu mosso:
On my bassoon, several different fingerings for Eflat 2 are possible, and it took a lot of experimenting to find the best.  I used a short fingering for the  Eflat in measure 172 (left hand 1, 3 and upper auxiliary) but for the Eflats in 174, I used a full fingering (left hand 1 and 3, right hand 1 and Bflat key).  Smoothness is the goal for this passage, despite the very awkward fingerings.  Slow, relaxed practice is undoubtedly the best way to achieve smoothness.

The reed I used for this program had one noticeable flaw: it tended to sag on C# 2 in loud dynamics.  That characteristic would have ruined the following passage in bar 369:


I discovered a new fingering which I've never used before to solve that problem: I added the right thumb F# key to the standard C#2 fingering.  It took a while to get used to the strange fingering, but it worked.  The first bassoon should be very strong in the above passages, and it's important to be able to trust the pitch of each note.

All week I rehearsed on the reed I was intending to use for the performances.  But on the day of the first concert, a cold front changed my reeds, ruining my concert reed, so I spent the pre-concert hours making new reeds.  I played the concert on a reed which was 2 hours old.

As a rule, I prefer new reeds due to their flexibility and sparkling sound, but still, I do prefer to have the opportunity to test a concert reed in rehearsal.  (Some bassoonists prefer old reeds in general because they are more stable.)  Fortunately, the reed I used turned out to be a good choice, but I was on pins and needles during the concert.  I thought of the words of the late great bassoon teacher Norman Herzberg, who taught me to make reeds.  He said that a good new reed is one which "holds its trimmings," in other words, the reed is stable, even during its infancy, changing only in response to its maker's adjustments.  He would have approved of the reed I used, I'm sure, since it did hold its trimming throughout the concerts.  Whew!!!

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Monday, May 3, 2010

New England Tryptich

Bassoonists may recognize the above excerpt.  This notorious bassoon part is from William Schuman's New England Tryptich, movement III- Chester.  We're playing it on tomorrow's Young People's Concert (YPC), for which students from the Columbus City Schools are bussed to the downtown Ohio Theatre.

For some reason, musicians often expect to be less challenged for concerts such as Pops and YPCs.  That expectation obviously is unwarranted.  There are few (if any) works in the orchestral repertoire more difficult for bassoon, technically speaking, than New England Tryptich.  While it may seem impossible to perfectly execute this particular bassoon part, there's no doubt that we can take steps to improve our odds of coming out of it relatively unscathed.

All of the 16th notes pictured above are exposed.  The repeated figure at measure 40 is one that I spent a lot of time on.  As a rule, I try to use full standard fingerings, so my left thumb automatically insists upon depressing the whisper key for the G3s in that figure.  Fortunately, the whisper key is not really mandatory here, and my first challenge is trying to talk my thumb out of using that whisper key!  The passage is much more likely to be successfully executed if the left thumb remains up near the high D and C keys.  I use the high D key to play C4 (some bassoonists use the high C key), and of course I use the high C key for B4.  I have found that it is the A3 which causes the biggest problem, with the left thumb having to move to and from the A and C# keys together.  To practice this, I isolate the 4 notes, with added emphasis (length) on the A3 in the attempt to train the left thumb to navigate reliably from the high C key to the high A and C# keys required for A3.:











I practice this repeated figure all slurred, at whatever tempo I'm able to play it accurately, and once it seems to be mastered at that tempo, I increase the tempo slightly, and so on until (hopefully) I'm in the vicinity of 160.

The passage at measure 60 involving A3, B4, C#4 and D4 is so outrageously difficult at 160 to the quarter note that fake fingerings offer our only hope!  For the interval B4 to C#4 I keep the B fingering intact and raise the 1st and 2nd fingers of the left hand and the 1st and 2nd fingers of the right hand all at once.  The fake C# comes out too flat, so the embouchure has to be used to try to squeeze up the pitch.  The High C# trill works well with trilling the 1st fingers of both hands simultaneously.

In addition to careful preparation, a good dose of luck is most helpful!  I'm hoping to have a good day tomorrow......


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