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:
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:
For me, one of the trickiest passages in the piece appears in the bassoon solo at the end of the 4th movement:
The 5th movement contains another awkward solo passage at measure 171 Un poco piu mosso:
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!!!