Monday, October 25, 2010


This past weekend the Columbus Symphony's performed Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite with our new Music Director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  Pulcinella is the first piece of Stravinsky's neoclassical period, and is full of unique challenges for the 1st bassoon.

The first challenge is to obtain a reed which can do everything called for in Pulcinella.  It has to favor the high range and the low range, it has to have a big sound and a more subtle ability to accompany.

The first solo passage occurs at rehearsal #1:

My teacher at Eastman, K. David Van Hoesen, spent a lot of time coaching me on Pulcinella.  He said that the passage at #1 should be played with a very full sound throughout, with no crescendos or diminuendos, with strict rhythm.  Of course, the bassoon should not overbalance the oboe solo which begins on the downbeat of  #1; the voices should be equal.

The first entrance in the Scherzino is also to be played with a very full sound:

Tempo-wise, the 1st bassoonist is at the mercy of the 2nd bassoonist who sets the tempo with 8th notes underneath the 1st bassoon melody.  The 2 passages between #20 and #21 are also prominent passages.

The Allegro is quite fast, and the most challenging passage of the movement begins 2 measures before #36:

Mr.Van Hoesen taught his students a very unusual set of fingerings for the first measure of this passage.  It involves keeping the low F key depressed from the 2nd note (G#) through the 5th note (also G#).  The high A is played with the right hand plus the low F key.  The passage is difficult to play in tune with these fingerings- the G#s and A have to be coaxed up to pitch- and the passage is very awkward at first with these fingerings.  But once you get used to it, the results are better than if you try to use standard fingerings, especially if the tempo is on the fast side.  Our tempo was fast, but I didn't mind at all.  It makes things very exciting and energetic.  These are the Van Hoesen fingerings for 2 measures before #36:

The trill passage later in the same movement goes by quickly.  As with each of these excerpts, time spent with the metronome will pay off.

As you can (barely) see above, I penciled in a high B at the end of the1st line.  I do whatever I can to see to it that the visual aspect of the music is as clear and helpful as possible.  There's no point in screwing up if you can avoid it by writing in a visual cue.  (When I was beginning to practice this excerpt, I kept missing the high B.  As soon as I penciled in the B at the end of the line, I stopped missing it!)

The passage ending the 3rd movement is awkward because of the fingerings and the increasing tempo:

There's something about the role of the left hand 3rd finger in this passage which makes it difficult.  I have a theory that because the bassoon rests on the left hand, the 3rd finger may simply be physically strained, especially if this piece is played at the end of a concert or rehearsal.  I tried to adjust the balance of the instrument during the measures leading up to this solo so that it leaned more to the right, taking pressure off the left hand.  It seemed to help.
In the above passage, I had practiced it the traditional way, with a crescendo as well as an accelerando leading up to the end.  Our conductor asked for a subito piano on the last 2 measures, so I had to adjust my mindset a bit, which is fine with me.  I think it's important for an orchestral player to be flexible.  Once in a while I have to take a little time to reprogram my brain for certain changes, but I'm always open to new ideas, especially when they come from a respected conductor like Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

The Tarantella is in one and it's fast!

The 2 bassoons trade off during the 2 measures before #56.  At #57, the 1st bassoon has the ability to provide rhythmic stability for the rest of the orchestra.  It's important to check in with the conductor to be sure that your tempo is accurate!

Many bassoonists consider the Toccata to be the scariest movement of the piece.

The passage beginning one measure before #69 is one of the Pulcinella excerpts which I started practicing weeks before we played it.  I began by practicing it all slurred at a very slow tempo with the metronome.  When I mastered it at the first tempo, I increased it.  During each practice session I started at the very slow tempo and increased it.  (That way I'd be experienced at playing the passage at any tempo!)  Eventually my top tempo reached 120 (the tempo which is printed in the part) which is quite fast.  I kept going though, until my tempo was considerably faster than 120.  That way, 120 would seem easy.  On most recordings the tempo is slower than 120, probably because of the 1st bassoon part!  I think it's wise to be prepared for any tempo, even after rehearsing with the orchestra.  Oftentimes tempos adjust in performances, which is one of the reasons why live music is so exciting.  I wouldn't want to be left in the dust due to inadequate preparation!

You can see in the passage above that I penciled in a "C" above the high B# and a "D" above the high C#.  That's because I decided to use the high C key for B# and the high D key for C#.  That's what sounded best, although that was definitely NOT the easiest fingering choice.  On my new Heckel, those keys are hard to reach without an enormous left hand.

The 1st bassoon does a lot of accompanying in the Gavotta, and then suddenly rises out of the texture at #76:

The high D in the third measure after #75 is tricky for 2 reasons, I think.  First, the 1st bassoon has been playing constantly in that movement and the player has had no chance to reset the reed or suck the moisture out of the bocal.  Secondly, you don't really have the option of choosing a high reed for this piece- there are too many other issues to worry about!  Normally, a high D would be no big deal for a principal bassoon player, but in this context it's a bit daunting.

 Variazione 2a immediately follows the above Gavotta, with no break.

It's important not to cover the solo flute and horn and later the flute duet.  In this piece the flutes will probably be sitting in an unusual spot, since there are no clarinets in the piece, and the flutes will most likely sound very different to you in the Pulcinella configuration.  Therefore the conductor must be relied upon to assess the balance.

Variazione 2a is one of those passages which varies greatly from reed to reed.  The challenge is to make it sound clean, and on most reeds, it doesn't.  In fact, I used this movement as the basis for my reed choice.  For some reason, it's much more nerve-racking to play this in the orchestra than at home.  (With most excerpts, there's not such a difference between home and stage, in my experience.)

Although Variazione 2a is a tremendously big deal to us bassoonists, it's actually a mere accompaniment. When preparing this movement, I practiced it at every tempo imaginable, with the metronome of course.  Ideally, it will sound relaxed and easy.  That's the goal.  Good luck. 

After that workout, the 1st bassoonist should be able to coast to the end of the piece, right?   Not exactly. The 16ths in the measure before and 4 after #95 in the Minuetto below should project, but the eighths are best blended with the cellos.  On our stage, the cellos were located far enough from the bassoon that it never sounded blended to me- it sounded like I was out in left field.  This is one of those spots in which the 1st bassoon has to be sure to be with the conductor- it's very easy to lag behind between #95 and #96.

In the Finale, the 16ths such as those after #103 should be quite aggressive.  Even if you're able to single tongue at 144 to the quarter, double tonguing is more appropriate for aggression and velocity.

No doubt, the 1st bassoon player has a lot going on in this piece.  I can't wait to play it again!



Carlee Dee said...

Wow, wow, wow. I remember having some of these in an excerpt book and trying them out. Wicked fun!!

Q: Did Van Hoesen recommend those fingerings just for those parts, or did you learn these for the bassoon you had while you were at Eastman, or...?

Carlee Dee said...

And here's an idea for a post: How many bassoons have you had over the course of your career, what were they, what were your favorites and why? How old were you when you first owned a bassoon? How did you go about buying your first bassoon, and how is that different than what you look for in a bassoon now?

B.S. said...

Hi Carlee! Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

Van Hoesen recommended these fingerings just for that passage. I never heard him talk about those fingerings any other time, and they were definitely not just for me or for the particular bassoon I had. I am sure that he gave those fingerings to each of his students for that passage.

In general, he didn't talk about fake fingerings much, not with me anyway, so these Pulcinella fingerings stand out!

I really like your idea of a post about the bassoons I've owned. I think I've owned more bassoons than most bassoonists have because I was never satisfied, so it makes sense for me to write about that.


alexander said...

Hi Betsy, your blog was in the Dutch bassoonists magazine 'De Fagot' and I like it very much!
Being an amateur, I recognize your problems very much. Even(?) Heckels need some adjustments, mine (11.000 series, 1976) did after a major overhaul. The wing joint and G key problems on a brand new one surprise me however.
Thank you very much for your excellent comments on the Pulcinella suite. Our may 2011concert features it, along with Tombeau de Couperin and Respighi's Ucelli. A concert with a theme like yours, with the 4 season's spring and summer as the 'real barock' piece. That one's easy on the bassoons, but I don't remember exactly how we were tricked into the 3 other pieces! Suppose we were flattered by the conductor who apparently confides these rather daunting parts with us. Your comments and recordings will surely help.

B.S. said...

Dear Alexander,

Your May 2011 concert sounds very exciting - it features 2 of my alltime favorites: Pulcinella and Ucelli! But they're also extremely challenging for the bassoons, for sure. Your conductor must greatly believe in you!

Best of luck,

Will Safford said...

Betsy, are you familiar with the "Moritz" key? It is listed in the Fox catalog as the "G#/A ring key," and listed by Heckel (according to as "option #96: G# ring mechanism in connection with G-ring for g¹, g#¹ and a¹."
Just in case not (and for any of your readers who don't know about it), here's a quick description.
It's a ring key under the first finger of the right hand. It is similar to the one on the 2nd finger of the right hand that stabilizes the G above middle C. It controls a new vent above the one for the G.
With this key, the fingerings for high Ab and A are in tune when using the 4th finger of your right hand (on the F spatula) instead of the 3rd.
It also creates several new trill fingerings, including F#/G# and A/Bb.
It also facilitates several acoustically awkward slurs, most notably the slur from high Ab to the Eb below it, or the other way. (I used it for the upward slur in a performance of Magic Flute just this evening.)
As far as I can tell, it does not interfere with any fingerings (including the standard fingerings for high Ab and A), nor does it cause any liabilities other than having one more key to keep in adjustment.
It can be voiced differently from the standard Ab fingering, if desired. Some people may want it to be a bit flat on purpose, for example, to facilitate tuning thirds in chords.
It will make those fingerings for Pulcinella work better. It also makes all sorts of passages work more smoothly, such as the descending scale in the Bolero solo; or the end of the 3rd movement of the Beethoven Trio for flute, bassoon, and piano; or even the end of the Milde Scale Study #1.

B.S. said...

Will, this is fascinating information. I did not know about the "Moritz" key. I hope to have the opportunity to try a bassoon with this key sometime soon!

Thanks for your input!


Kelly Kasle said...

Thanks Mrs. Sturdevant! I'm a senior at Eastman now with Mr. Hunt and I've been working on Pulcinella for mock auditions. This was fun to read :)

B.S. said...

Hi Kelly! Thanks for your comment. Pulcinella is one of my all time favorites. Good luck with it!