musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A metronomic discovery

As a constant metronome user, I am inseparable from my little Korg credit card sized metronome (which was a very thoughtful gift from a student).  That will never change.  However, I discovered a great online metronome which is perfect for practicing with other musicians.   David Thomas, principal clarinetist of the Columbus Symphony and I are preparing to perform the Strauss Duet Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with String Orchestra and Harp.  We've been using this online metronome to ensure that we can both hear it clearly.  (We grew weary of passing  the little metronome back and forth, taking turns being the one who could hear it.)  Even through modest computer speakers, this metronome can be very loud and impossible to ignore.  When practicing by myself I sometimes prefer to use the online metronome just because it is so imposing.  I'll definitely use it during chamber music rehearsals from now on - it will be great for keeping quartets and even quintets in line!



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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Carmina Burana

Carl Orff's best-known work Carmina Burana is one of the most enduring masterpieces of the 20th century.  Its driving rhythms and simple (for 20th century) harmonies appeal to just about everyone - even those who think they don't like classical music!  A couple of weeks ago, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed Carmina Burana under the direction of our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

For bassoonists, Carmina Burana provides great challenge in #12 Cignus Ustus Cantat (The Roast Swan).  The following video of the Berlin Philharmonic with tenor Lawrence Brownlee conducted by Simon Rattle starts with the famous swan song bassoon solo:


12. Cignus ustus cantat (The Roast Swan)

Olim lacus colueram,Once I lived on lakes,
olim pulcher extiteram,once I looked beautiful
dum cignus ego fueram.when I was a swan.
   (Male chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!
   (Tenor)
Girat, regirat garcifer;The servant is turning me on the spit;
me rogus urit fortiter;I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
propinat me nunc dapifer,the steward now serves me up.
   (Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!
   (Tenor)
Nunc in scutella iaceo,Now I lie on a plate,
et volitare nequeoand cannot fly anymore,
dentes frendentes video:I see bared teeth:
   (Male Chorus)
Miser, miser!Misery me!
modo nigerNow black
et ustus fortiter!and roasting fiercely!

The bassoon solo begins on high D and ends on a loud low C.  As bassoonists know, it is easier to slur than to articulate in the extreme high range, and this solo requires articulation of high D, high C# and high C.  That, along with the low C, is challenging.  This is the only solo in the orchestral literature for which I would consider using a high bocal.  (For every other solo, I just use my everyday Heckel CC1 bocal.)  The reason I'd consider using a special bocal for Carmina Burana is because high note bocals assist with articulation in the high range.  The problem is, high bocals do not assist with the low C!!

As usual, I began preparing the solo several weeks in advance.  I always approach as a beginner would, as if I had never played the piece before.  That's the only way to ensure the best possible performance, since many factors undoubtedly will have changed since the last performance.  The other musicians, the hall, the conductor, the interpretation, the soloists - so many things will be or could be different.  In my case, even the bassoon is different since I am now playing on a new 15,000 series Heckel.

The first factor I tested was the bocal.  In the past I used my high bocal, but I did not want to assume that it would be the best option this time.  The decision was not obvious, since my regular Heckel CC1 played the solo fairly reliably.  The one thing that bothered me was that the articulation was not as clear in the extreme high range, so I ended up choosing my Allgood brand high bocal.

The next factor to consider was fingerings.  I often consult with my Cooper/Toplansky The Essentials of Bassoon Technique when preparing orchestral parts.  I think it's beneficial to keep an open mind about fingerings.  High note fingerings especially have to be flexible, in my opinion.  I had to decide which left thumb keys to use for high C and C# in the solo for the best possible sound and pitch.  There were also several high D fingerings to test.  I go through such fingering analysis every time I prepare a solo.  That's one reason why I start early - it takes time to incorporate the chosen fingerings.

The reed is also critical.  The bocal and fingerings are useless without the right reed.  For this particular piece, precious few reeds can do the job.  I went through a significant number of reeds in the search for the ideal Carmina Burana reed.  How many?   Well, I thought a photo of the rejected reeds might be effective:


No, I am not exaggerating.  This is the number of reeds I "auditioned" for the swan solo of Carmina Burana.  There were 7 finalists and thankfully, one winner.  The finalists were the ones which had the best sound and intonation in the extreme high range AND which could also belt out a low C.  My search for this reed began 3 weeks before the first rehearsal, after I had already been practicing the solo for a while on practice reeds.  I wanted to groom several reeds for the swan roast.  The reed which originally came out on top ended up being demoted and replaced by another winner, but all 7 of the original finalists remained the 7 best reeds throughout the 3 week period.  Since they had been stable for 3 weeks, I didn't have to worry about them suddenly becoming capricious.

Some of those reeds were brand new and some had been made previously (over the past year or so) and had been set aside as potential high note reeds.  As I've stated before on this blog, I am not one of those reed makers who claims to be able to construct reeds for specific purposes (low, high, easy to control, etc.).  I have always found that it's better to assess each reed for its inherent characteristics, and possibly seek to enhance those characteristics through reed-finishing techniques.  Why?  Well, the bottom line is that a reed is a vegetable, and its true character is determined by nature, not by my reed knife. 

The only problem with my approach is that it requires A LOT of reeds so that there is always a large supply of reeds with various characteristics to choose from.  Since brand new reeds play better and sound better than old ones anyway, obsessive reed-making does pay off.

During the performance, I switched to my high bocal and high reed two movements before the solo in order to be sure that the reed was totally functional.  In that regard, the rehearsals were more difficult because the order of movements was unknown and there was no chance to play on the high reed and bocal prior to the solo.  That's OK - I didn't mind dealing with a handicap during rehearsals.  It made the performance seem easy.  Sort of.
my Carmina Burana high reed





Monday, October 24, 2011

From the perspective of the audience

This past week the Columbus Symphony woodwind and brass players had a few days off while our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni gave the strings, percussion and keyboards quite a workout in the following program:

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Barber: Adagio for Strings
Bernstein: Serenade (after Plato’s Symposium)

Of course it seemed strange to attend a concert presented by my orchestra in which I was not performing, but I relished the opportunity to experience one of our concerts from the perspective of the audience.

This was no ordinary concert - it was the premier of the Columbus Symphony's new series in the Southern Theatre.   For the first time ever, the CSO is presenting four of its twelve Masterworks programs in the Southern Theatre in an effort to create a more personal and informal experience for concertgoers.  The attire of the performers for the Southern Theatre concerts is more casual, and beverages are allowed in the hall.  The series also features more interaction from the stage. 
There was an undeniable buzz in the air as the sizable audience prepared to experience the new CSO format.  The Southern Theatre is quite a bit smaller than our usual venue, the Ohio Theatre.  The smaller size provides a better connection between audience and musicians. I tested several seats, from the top of the third balcony to the front of the floor, and each location provided great views (and as I would later find out, fabulous acoustics).  A hush fell over the audience as the performers walked out onstage en masse, European style.

Before the concert began, Jean-Marie Zeitouni spoke about the Bartok, explaining in understandable terms how the piece is based upon the math concepts of the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence. poster There was a slide show accompanying his speech as shown on the photo below:
I was completely blown away by the performance of the Columbus Symphony strings, percussion and keyboard players.  The superior acoustics of the Southern Theatre contributed to the success of the concert for sure, but the excellence of the concert is mainly attributable to Jean-Marie Zeitouni and the orchestra.  I have heard the strings play in the past when they performed works with no bassoons, but this performance was by far the most impressive.

Rachel with Mark O'ConnorViolin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine joined the orchestra for the Bernstein Serenade.  Before beginning the piece, Jean-Marie Zeitouni explained that it was based upon Plato's Symposium on the true nature of love.  After delivering a splendidly lyrical and colorful rendition of the Bernstein, Ms. Pine further delighted the audience with a blues encore written by Corky Siegel.  Embracing the CSO's new format, Ms. Pine regaled the audience with a fascinating story about one of Corky Seigel's most ardent fans, conductor Seiji Ozawa.



And that wasn't the end of it!  The audience was encouraged to step into the adjacent Thurber Bar after the concert to mingle with the musicians, including Jean-Marie Zeitouni and Rachel Barton Pine.  The bar was packed - the buzz turned into a  ROAR.  Even though I hadn't been performing that night, I had the pleasure of meeting some enthusiastic audience members, several of whom showed off their freshly-honed comprehension of Fibonacci and Golden Ratio concepts.....




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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Could this be the symphony orchestra model of the future?

Paul Judy
Paul Judy
 Tony's Blog , published by Tony Woodcock, president of the New England Conservatory, features an intriguing post by Paul Judy, founder of Polyphonic.org.and former president of the Chicago Symphony.  In this post Mr. Judy lays out a truly innovative and informed plan for a functional orchestra model.

One of the first points established by Mr. Judy is that over the past 15 years, there has been little change or innovation in the way orchestral organizations operate.  I certainly agree.  The Columbus Symphony has tweaked itself more than most orchestras have, and it's thanks to those changes that the orchestra is still in business.  The Columbus Symphony is now managed by CAPA and the number of weeks in the season has been reduced.  Yet the basic model remains in place, and the following quote from Mr. Judy describes my primary concern:
"While the need for greater community engagement and social value has mounted, it is discouraging to see how little has changed. Orchestra organizations have done little to redefine the community services they should be providing and, thus, there has been little modification of the job descriptions of all employees, but especially those of musicians."
As I've stated in previous posts, I consider the orchestra's relevance to the community to be of tremendous importance.

Mr. Judy goes on to explain one of the major problems with the existing model:
"The ensemble of musicians— which is the very reason for the organization’s existence — is separated from and pitted economically and psychologically against governance — the management and board — and through them, against the organization’s audiences and contributors –and the local community at large"
In Columbus we have done our utmost to overcome that phenomenon.  The musicians and the union have gone to great lengths to work with (rather than against) our governance over the past two years, although admittedly, that is new behavior for us.  I believe that our effort to cooperate is a huge part of the reason why the Columbus Symphony is still in business despite extreme financial distress.

What exactly does Mr. Judy propose as a solution to the problems evident within the current symphony model?  (Warning: this is radical!)  Here's step one:
"Firstly, the notion of a “symphony orchestra organization” needs to be tossed out and replaced by the concept of a “musical arts and services organization.”  Such an entity would have a larger musician membership than a symphony orchestra, and its musicians would perform a wide range of classical and high-standard popular music. Among the activities would be symphony concerts performed in a central venue or venues. But more broadly and extensively, the organization would present a wide range of music in many smaller venues and settings throughout the community.  It would serve broad and diverse audiences, and such performances would be coupled and integrated with music education."
 I can imagine that the "musical arts and services organization" concept might not appeal to musicians who already have "secure" full time orchestral jobs.  But let's face it, the number of people in that category is diminishing, as orchestras fold and cut back!   I wonder how many musicians in the U.S. actually feel confident that their jobs are secure.

Aspiring orchestral players in college are being educated in entrepreneurship and the importance of thinking outside the box in order to create a career in music.  My guess is that those younger musicians would have no problem accepting the idea of the musical arts and services organization, with its extreme flexibility..

Perhaps this aspect of Mr. Judy's plan will appeal to all orchestral musicians, including those who are traditionally-oriented:
"Secondly, in another major departure from past practice, these new organizations must be musician-governed and musician-driven.  By this, I mean the legal beneficial control of the organization through its organizing documents needs to rest with the musician membership. What’s more, the central board/executive committee functions, and particularly the artistic decision making (personnel and programming), need particularly to be led by musicians."
It's been my experience that musicians often think that they are better-equipped to run an orchestra than those who are doing it, so here's our chance, if we choose to embrace Paul Judy's truly innovative model in which the musicians control the governance. In summary:
"We need to develop a new model for larger scale, musician-governed, diverse, and flexible musical arts and services societies. These entities would galvanize and liberate the creative potential of musician members, management and staff, and community participants.  They would better serve audiences, donors, and the community at large. And they would provide economic sustenance for the musicians, who would have the primary and controlling stake in the success of the organization."
What do you think?  Can you imagine this model succeeding?
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