musings of a professional bassoonist

Monday, December 27, 2010

Orchestral relevance

My friend, colleague and fellow blogger David Thomas recently posted his well-informed thoughts about the changing role of the performing musician.  David lists the irrefutable trends which have contributed to the financial crises for orchestras nationwide:
  • the slow decline in classical concert attendance since the 1960s
  • the aging of the audiences
  • the explosion of vivid competition for entertainment dollars
The third point, competition for entertainment dollars, is huge, and it largely explains the first 2 points (declining and aging audiences).  The internet provides amazing options for listening to and watching world class performances anytime, anywhere.  The most striking example of this is the Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall.  There are also countless performances of orchestras and chamber groups offered on YouTube free of charge.

Of course, the internet options are a double-edged sword for us musicians.  An important part of our ongoing development involves listening to music, and now our options are infinite.  These days there's no excuse for musical ignorance - we are able to easily find internet performances of any piece of music we are preparing.   We can access world class performances of any orchestral or chamber work right now, often without spending any money.  That's miraculous!

The infinite internet options (including musical performances as well as video and TV streaming and social media) potentially provide competition for live, in person orchestra performances.  Internet options are an essential aspect of the social trend known as cocooning.  Cocooning, quite simply, is the tendency of people to spend their leisure time at home, using computers, TVs and game consoles for entertainment. 

For those who choose to buck the cocooning trend, and instead, venture out into the city of Columbus for an evening of entertainment, there are now many more entertainment options in real life as well (not just on the internet).  During its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the Columbus Symphony was one of the only acts in town, although competition had begun to materialize, as exemplified by the founding of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra in 1980.  Now, the performing arts options are so numerous (including theater troupes, dance companies, opera, choral, chamber groups including chamber orchestras, jazz ensembles, and folk, world, and renaissance music groups) that local arts groups compete with one another.  In addition to competing for audiences, each arts organization seeks donations from the same local businesses, foundations, and individuals.

In Columbus, I believe that there is another factor or trend which has affected the symphony:
  • the decline of downtown
Twenty years ago, downtown Columbus experienced incredible growth.  A stunning shopping mall called Columbus City Center was built right in the heart of downtown.  It was connected to the Ohio Theatre where the Columbus Symphony performs.
 
Columbus City Center attracted shoppers from all over the Midwest.  Symphony patrons typically enhanced their concert-going experiences with shopping, dinner and drinks at Columbus City Center before and after the performances, for a true night out on the town.

This year Columbus City Center was demolished, following a dramatic decline in which most of its stores went out of business.  (New malls built in the suburbs created competition which could not be overcome.)
 

Columbus City Center became a ghost mall as store after store shut down.

What's the solution?? What can be done to minimize the effects of these trends?

During the 1980s and 90s, the symphony was important in Columbus, since a large number of people wanted to hear live classical music, and there was no oversupply of options available for  socializing and entertainment.  At that time, venturing downtown was exciting, as Columbus City Center  was constructed and opened.   The symphony's relevance during the 80s and 90s must somehow be recaptured, perhaps by dissolving the barriers between audience and orchestra and by showing the public how the orchestra can enhance their lives in myriad ways and help define the community.

One solution is already being taken care of.  The non-profit Capitol South Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (Capitol South) has built a brand new park, Columbus Commons, on the former City Center site.  I like the new (not yet finished) park, which unofficially opened this month.  Despite the cold  and blustery weather conditions, I've enjoyed walking through it on my way to Nutcracker performances.
 
Upon completion, Columbus Commons will include cafe, a fountain, a carousel, and a large concert amphitheater!  Certainly there is link between the revitalization of the downtown core and the thriving of the symphony, at least here in Columbus.  (Is it mere coincidence that the symphony peaked when the Columbus City Center Mall thrived, and that the mall and the symphony declined simultaneously?)  I'd like to think that the grass being planted in the ground at Columbus Commons symbolizes new growth for the symphony as well as for the city.

The brand new venue for outdoor concerts in Columbus Commons could be a real shot in the arm for the Columbus Symphony.  We already have a successful outdoor summer series, Picnic With the Pops, taking place at Chemical Abstracts near the Ohio State University, but our summer schedule includes a lot of free time during which we could be performing elsewhere.  The more we perform, in as many different locations as possible, the more relevant we become to the community, as Columbus citizens begin to associate the ever-present symphony with various events, festivals and venues.

Community spirit is part of the reason why  local orchestras still exist in spite of the internet.  So many cities are proud of their symphony orchestras!  Musicians of full time orchestras live in the community and provide services such as teaching and coaching for students.  They perform in chamber groups as well as in the orchestra, and ideally, they are highly visible, performing all over town for many different events.  Here in Columbus many orchestra musicians have performed for fundraisers for various charities (including the symphony itself).  When we perform in smaller settings, we have the opportunity to really connect with the audience with conversation in addition to music.  Such interaction works wonders in establishing the musicians as relevant community members.

The Columbus Symphony, along with several other U.S. orchestras, has already embraced the internet's ability to offer music anytime, anyplace.  Our recordings of recent concerts are streaming on InstantEncore
free of charge.  Has that caused a decline in our ticket sales?  On the contrary!  Ticket sales remain solid, and corporate donations are increasing, perhaps due in part to the evidence that we are technologically up-to-date and therefore relevant as evidence that Columbus is on the cutting edge.

The restructuring of the administration to include the symphony under the umbrella of the successful and highly regarded Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) was a bold move undertaken last season when the symphony faced continuing financial instability.  Such innovative restructuring was an important part of the solution here in Columbus, since it reduced administrative costs and reassured civic and corporate leaders that the symphony is now well-managed.  In addition, the symphony hired a new leader, our dynamic music director, Jean-Marie Zeitouni whose fine international reputation is sure to help re-establish the orchestra's relevance in the classical music world.  

Collaboration with other local arts organizations is another solution which is already being implemented here.  The Columbus Symphony regularly performs with BalletMet Columbus and OperaColumbus.  We perform side-by-side rehearsals and concerts with the CSO Youth Orchestra, and have collaborated several times with the Columbus Gospel Choir.  Hopefully more such collaborations will be part of our future, further increasing our community visibility as well as our relevance to other arts organizations.

The very obvious solution to the trend of aging audiences is to grab the attention of the children, our future audience members.  It's not enough to just present concerts, any old concerts, to young audiences - we must find a way to connect, and therefore become relevant to the young concertgoers, to the point where classical music is considered an essential part of life!  Conductor Leonard Bernstein created a large segment of today's audiences through his nationally televised Young People's Concerts during the 1950s and 1960s.  Bernstein figured out how to make classical music fascinating, enticing and relevant.  It is now the job of symphony orchestras to follow Bernstein's example and show our future audiences why our music is relevant - why 300 years ago, William Congreve wrote the poem which includes the famous quote: 
Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.

.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Eve gig and the power of music

Milford Hills UMC

Many musicians worked late last night, on Christmas Eve, myself included.  I performed a church gig which featured various combinations of chorus, orchestra and organ in works by Handel, Rutter, Bach, Holst, traditional carols, and Gregorian chants.  Although quite interesting, the program was not particularly bassoon oriented, so I was afforded the opportunity to just listen rather than having to worry about mastering my instrument.

A year ago I played the same Christmas Eve gig, and at the beginning of tonight's program I began having flashbacks to a year ago.  My sister had been very much on my mind last year, and I remembered texting photos of the beautifully decorated church to her last Christmas Eve.

The organ in the church is one which has the ability to shake the earth - that's how powerful it is.  The very talented organist performed Weihnachten, Op. 145., No. 3 by Max Reger (for solo organ) both years.  During the Reger, the lights were turned off, leaving the huge church in total darkness.    This year when the Reger began, I flashbacked again to a year ago.  I hadn't known that it was my sister's last Christmas, because her cancer was in remission.  The piece is spooky and ominous-sounding, and last night something happened as the tremendous crescendo built up.  I was completely overtaken by the music, in an indescribable way which seemed to somehow involve my sister.

When she died this past fall, I didn't talk about it or even mention it to many people.  I left Columbus to attend her funeral, but hardly anyone knew.  A friend suggested that maybe I should write about it on this blog, and discuss what it's like to go on with business as usual at a time like this.  But I couldn't.  In order to keep playing the bassoon and functioning, I had to NOT think about it.  There were times when the music we were rehearsing or performing would make me think of her, but in order to function as a bassoon player I had to push those thoughts away and be very businesslike. 

Last night was different, though.  The lights were off, nobody could see me crying, and I wasn't even playing during that portion of the service.  It was the perfect opportunity to allow the music to take effect. My guess is that every person in that church was deeply affected by the organist's performance of  the Reger Weihnachten, but each of us had a different issue or perspective which responded.  The music performed its therapy on whatever ailed each one of us.

When I left the church last night, I could tell that I had been internally re-arranged during the Reger Weihnachten.  And to think, I was paid to be there.

.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lest we forget

Every once in a while we benefit from a reminder of why we do this - why we push ourselves relentlessly to be the best possible musicians we can be regardless or in spite of compensation or appreciation from outside sources.  One of the most famously inspiring examples of such a reminder is found in the speech delivered by Dr. Karl Paulnack to the incoming freshman class of the New England Conservatory of Music in September 2004:

"If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing
appendectomies, you'd take your work very seriously because you would
imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your
emergency room and you're going to have to save their life. Well, my
friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and
bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that
is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you
do your craft.

You're not here to become an entertainer, and you don't have to sell
yourself. The truth is you don't have anything to sell; being a musician
isn't about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I'm not an
entertainer; I'm a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue
worker. You're here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a
spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works
with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come
into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.  

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I
expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this
planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of
equality, of fairness, I don't expect it will come from a government, a
military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the
religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war
as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is
to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit
together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that's what we do.
As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the
ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives."
 
Thank you, Dr. Paulnack.  I needed that.
 
. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nutcracker update

During last night's Nutcracker performance I decided to change my fingering for the high A-B trill in the bassoon solo in No. 11:


For reasons I cannot explain, the high A-B trill fingering I have used ever since my very first Nutcracker is unreliable.  I don't know why I remained loyal to this fingering:


Mysteriously, the fingering works perfectly when I first take the bassoon out of its case.  The trill works quite a few times at first, and there doesn't seem to be any problem.  Then suddenly, inexplicably, something changes and the fingering fails, with a cacking noise replacing the high B in the trill.  Once this change occurs during a practice session or orchestra service, the cacking continues each time the trill is attempted!  It's confounding.

It might seem obvious to some bassoonists that if the cacking begins only after repeated executions of the trill, the logical solution would be to not practice it before a performance.  But I am too obsessive to restrain myself from testing it, over and over, before a performance!

Finally, in the middle of last night's Nutcracker, I decided to solve the problem once and for all.  As long as other fingerings exist, why not find a reliable fingering for the High A-B trill?

Early this morning I pulled out my Cooper/Toplansky Essentials of Bassoon Technique.  I tried all of the fingerings for that trill, thanking my lucky stars that there were so many choices, and decided upon the one that had popped into my mind last night during the Nutcracker:



This one never cacks, even the hundredth time it is played.  It is slightly awkward due to the 2nd finger right hand having to go up when the 3rd finger left hand goes down, but my original fingering wasn't exactly easy either.

But a problem does exist.  I have practiced the original fingering thousands upon thousands of times (ask any member of the Columbus Symphony).  That fingering is in my DNA.  Now suddenly I'm supposed to have a new (and awkward) fingering ready to go by tonight's performance?!

In the past when I've had to "reprogram" like this, I've used the technique of keeping the bassoon out all day (normally I put it back in its case whenever I'm not practicing) so that I can continuously pick up the bassoon and play the new trill fingering, within the context of the Nutcracker solo, then set it down and do something else briefly (or practice something else), followed by another go at the passage, ad infinitum, in the hopes that I can make the trill automatic by tonight.  I have found that the most helpful thing I can do at this point is to remind myself before playing the passage to leave the 4th finger right hand on the F key for the A4 which begins the trill, since that is the most unusual and unnatural aspect of this new trill fingering.  Whenever I do remind myself to leave the 4th finger on the F key, the trill is a success.

Have you ever encountered a problem with this trill?  What was your solution?


.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

High F



Sigh.  High F.  Sure, I can squeeze it out using a high note reed or an Allgood high bocal, but I want to be able to add F5 to my repertoire of everyday notes.  My goal is to be able to include F5 in scale practice using my everyday Heckel CC1 bocal.  (Is this goal reasonable?)

My current bassoon (Heckel 15421) enables me to play reliably up to high E (E5) on regular reeds (as opposed to "high" reeds), and I am glad that my scale routines can cover the bassoon from Bflat1 through E5 without altering my equipment in any way.  But now I want to expand to F5!

This is the only fingering I've had any success with:



It only works for me some of the time, on certain reeds.  I am using a very tight embouchure which is parallel (no overbite).

Do you have any solutions?!  Please comment here or send me an email at betstur@aol.com.  I will post the solutions in a later blog post.  I'm interested in any information or suggestions offered, even if it involves alteration of equipment!

Thanks!


.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Nutcracker


nutcracker-girl

Until recently, bassoonists typically used to roll their eyes and issue a guttural "aughhhhhh!" whenever Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker was mentioned.  After all, it contains some of the most confounding bassoon passages ever written, and it is often performed ad infinitum throughout the entire month of December with multiple performances per day!

Things have changed.  From my perspective with the Columbus Symphony, being offered the opportunity to perform in the Nutcracker pit represents a major victory.  Last season, BalletMet Columbus was unable to afford to hire the Columbus Symphony to accompany its Nutcracker performances, and they used recorded music. 

The musicians were obviously unhappy about the ballet company's use of recorded music, as were many audience members who voiced their disappointment to the ballet management.  The musicians feared that we would never again perform with the ballet, since once such a change is made, it usually turns out to be permanent.

We were lucky, though.  BalletMet's board and management (along with the also financially strapped OperaColumbus board and  management) sincerely wished to work out a solution which enabled continued collaboration with the Columbus Symphony.  Last summer the boards and managements of all 3 organizations (symphony, ballet and opera) worked out a deal.  Because the symphony was also having severe financial problems, it was remarkable that a solution was reached.  The musicians had to vote on a variance to our master agreement to allow reduced pay for ballet and opera services, and the variance passed.

This is the version of the Nutcracker which we're using:


The orchestration was reduced by David Itkin.  Any bassoonist who has encountered the Itkin reduction will report that this part is even more difficult than the original.  There is only one bassoon in this version, so yes, some of the second bassoon parts are included.  Also the bassoon part contains lines originally assigned by Tchaikowsky to a horn or trombone.  The string parts seem to be original, but the woodwind and brass parts are quite altered.

It's a safe bet that this is the most challenging bassoon passage in any version of the Nutcracker:


The tempo of this passage can make or break the bassoonist's success, of course, but the tempo is usually uncomfortably fast!  I have practiced it by slowing it down and altering it in every way I can think of:  playing in duple rhythm, playing all slurred, playing with various rhythms and articulations.  Sometimes in performance, the way I watch the part as it goes by seems to make a difference.  If I take care to watch each note in succession, that helps.  (I seem to normally ignore the printed music, especially with something like this which I have practiced a lot!)

The 3rd phrase of the following bassoon solo in Act II used to frustrate me to no end:


Now, suddenly it is easy on my 15,000 series Heckel.  I have no explanation, other than that the degree of difficulty of this passage varies greatly from bassoon to bassoon.  Just pick your favorite high A-B trill fingering, and that's it.

The infamous B octaves at the end of the Arabian dance played in the original by 2 bassoons is always tricky to tune:


But in the Itkin version, the lower octave is played by the second clarinet - violà - problem solved!  Itkin is either a genius or a lucky experimenter. 

As an example of the unexpected surprises transferred from other instruments to the bassoon in this version, the following appears in the Dance of the Flowers:


The scalar passages at the top of the page are unfamiliar, but playable, as are the horn choir parts beginning at H.  Chances are, the music sounds perfectly fine (and normal) to the audience. 

Classical musicians are beginning to open our minds to change. Perhaps we would have balked at the idea of performing the Itkin Nutcracker reduction 10 or 15 years ago.  We're beginning to ponder the notion that flexibility may be required of us if we want to remain employed as musicians.  And I think it's safe to say that all of us are more appreciative of the work we're offered, since we can no longer take it for granted.

.