musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Nutcracker


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 - violĂ  - 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.



Rebecca said...

At least you have a printed part! In Tucson, we play a William McDermott version that, though published, is quasi-handwritten. SO hard to read! Also has only one bassoon, and I get to play all the EH and bass clarinet solos.

B.S. said...

Rebecca, the version you're doing in Tucson definitely sounds as though it takes the prize! At least the Itkin version has separate parts for EH and bass clarinet, and I'm sooooo glad it's not handwritten. Wow. Good luck to you!


Anonymous said...

One of the local quasi-pro orchestras I play with used the Itkin version for several was more work than just about anything I've ever played. Terrible story re Nutcracker. Several years ago one of the local Symphony Board members happened to be the Music Dean at a local College. He found out how much the Orchestra was charging the Ballet Company, and presented a much cheaper bid to the Ballet Company, who immediately accepted his bid. Then he showed up with a student orchestra to play the Itkin version and when they could not play the music successfully, the Ballet Company went to canned music and no longer uses live musicians.

Frank Watson
Greenville (SC) Symphony
Spartanburg Philharmonic

Anonymous said...

OBTW Glad to see you back posting. I really enjoy the comments and topics you present.

Frank Watson

B.S. said...

Frank, that truly is a tragic Nutcracker story. The Itkin version really is challenging to pull off, so the story is very believable. What a shame.