Monday, November 28, 2011

Preparing to perform as soloist

Nothing compares to the thrill of performing as soloist in front of the orchestra.  Bassoonists do not often experience this phenomenon, so we might feel a bit like a fish out of water when we do.  How does a bassoonist go about preparing for such a momentous occasion?

During a summer festival after my freshman year at Eastman I spoke with a brilliant young horn player from Juilliard who was preparing to perform a Mozart concerto with the orchestra.  He explained that he lived the Mozart Concerto for months leading up to the performance.  "The concerto has to be your life," he explained. "You have to eat, sleep, breathe the concerto."

Legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz said in the video about his life that it's necessary to be 150% prepared for each performance. Although he did not elaborate on how to accomplish that, it is obvious to anyone listening to his recordings that he knew what he was talking about.

As soon as I found out last season that Columbus Symphony principal clarinetist David Thomas and I would be performing the Strauss Duet Concertino this season, I began listening to recordings.  (I do not like to listen to recordings close to the performances because I don't want to inadvertently mimic other bassoonists' interpretations.)  It's advisable to have a score on hand for studying the accompaniment.

The wood-shedding ideally begins many months before the performances.  Even though an orchestral player will undoubtedly have other music to prepare during the months prior to a solo performance, it's beneficial to begin working out the finger technique of the solo piece well in advance. 

For double reed players, there's the additional issue of reeds.  I stopped making blanks during the 3 weeks prior to the Strauss week because I wanted to focus on practicing.  That was OK because I had made plenty of reed blanks already, in advance.  But I did find it difficult to force myself to finish blanks right before Strauss week.  I wanted to practice, not work on reeds, and I resented the time I had to spend finishing blanks!  But it had to be done, since I always play on brand new reeds.

One of the most enjoyable things I did to prepare the Strauss was to play along with the Chicago Symphony recording with David McGill as bassoon soloist.  Of course, this Grammy-winning recording is outstanding, and David McGill sounds first-rate as always.  I had to restrain myself from playing along too often, because I didn't want to become set in my ways, addicted to that particular performance.

Strauss: Wind Concertos

The Columbus Symphony's music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni did an amazing job of handling the orchestral accompaniment in the Strauss.  David Thomas and I never had to worry about the accompaniment - we knew that we would be perfectly followed no matter what we did.  (That's rare.  I am accustomed to having to accommodate the accompaniment during solo and recital performances.) 

Jean-Marie Zeitouni asked David and me if we'd be willing to take a fast tempo in the third movement.  We said yes, because the brisk tempo really worked.  The tempo taken in the Chicago recording third movement was considerably slower, so it's a good thing I hadn't completely bonded with that recording.

In the past I have chosen to sit rather than stand for solo performances.  Orchestral bassoonists sit all the time, and usually there is little reason to go to the trouble of learning to play standing.  It's quite daunting to find the best possible combination of balance hangers, harnesses, neck straps, shoulder straps and right hand crutches!

For the Strauss I decided to put forth my best effort to stand.  I used a shoulder strap called the Wittman Spinstrap Model 700 (with no balance hanger or right hand crutch).  To me, this strap provides the best possible balance.  As all bassoonists know, after playing standing for a while, the left hand goes numb.  Fortunately, I was able to last quite a long time before numbness set in.  During the Strauss performances, each time I had even a brief rest in the music, I shifted the bassoon's weight to my right hand temporarily to give the left hand a break

It's wise to begin practicing standing well in advance of the performances.  In fact, even though the Strauss performances are over, I am continuing to stand while practicing and I'm planning to stand for my bassoon recital in May 2012.

One of the best ways to optimize your performance is to record yourself.  I had been using my iPhone to record myself, but wore out my phone in the process.  So I researched the best affordable recorders on the market and chose the Zoom H2.

The quality is outstanding.  Some musicians buy an external microphone to plug into this machine, but I found that unnecessary.  I recorded passages from the Strauss to figure out the best fingerings, places to take breaths, and reeds.  It is so much easier to assess one's own playing when hearing it recorded.

I also used the Zoom H2 to improve my ability to play while standing.  At first there was a wide gap between my execution of the Strauss bassoon part played while standing vs.sitting.  (It sounded a lot better when I sat!)   So my goal was to eliminate the gap.  It was especially helpful to realize from listening to the recordings that sitting did not necessarily eliminate any and all technical challenges!   (The piece remains difficult regardless of the player's choice to sit or stand.)

David Thomas and I began rehearsing our parts together about a month before the performances.  We had to be sure that our parts were properly coordinated, and for the rhythmically complicated Strauss, that's a major undertaking.  We also rehearsed with the Columbus Symphony's keyboard player playing the piano reduction before the first rehearsal with orchestra.

Traditionally, soloists do not perform from memory in works with multiple soloists, so for the Strauss, David and I used the music.  For solo concertos, though, wind soloists often do perform from memory.   The best advice I ever heard for memorizing (because wind players are not accustomed to memorizing our music) is to make sure that you can: A) write out the entire solo part, B) silently finger the entire part and C) hear in your head the entire part (all without looking at the music, of course).

The more you know about the piece you are performing, the better.  I researched Strauss's life and music, his late period of composition (he wrote the Duet Concertino when he was 83), and his programmatic intention for the piece.

For sure, it's best to leave no stone unturned when preparing for a solo performance.  Your chances of a successful performance will be enhanced by the assurance that you have done everything you possibly could to achieve that end.

In summary, these are the key elements for preparing to perform as soloist:

1.  Familiarize yourself with the composer and the history of the piece.
2.  Listen to recordings with the score.
3.  Begin wood-shedding many months before the performances.
4.  If playing from memory, test your visual, aural and tactile memory as described above.
5.  Build up a hefty supply of reed blanks.
6.  If you are going to stand to perform, practice the piece standing most of the time.
7.  Record yourself.
8.  Rehearse with the other soloist(s), if applicable, a few weeks in advance.
9.  Rehearse with a pianist playing the piano reduction of the score.

Gustavo Nunez and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra demonstrate in the following security cam video what the end result of thorough preparation can sound like:


Here is another European bassoonist, Eberhard Marschall, also performing  the Mozart first movement.  This soloist even makes use of circular breathing.  I especially like his embellishments:

Although preparing for solo performances is a lot of work, it's very enjoyable work indeed.  The value of the opportunity to perform as soloist with live orchestral accompaniment is immeasurable.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Strauss Duet Concertino

Thank heavens that Richard Strauss had a lifelong friend in Hugo Burghauser!  Burghauser was the principal bassoonist of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he was the reason Strauss wrote his Duet Concertino for Clarinet and Bassoon with String Orchestra and Harp.  The post-Baroque repertoire for solo bassoon with orchestra is....well...scant, so the Duet Concertino stands out as a late Romantic gem for bassoonists. Written when Strauss was 83,  the Duet Concertino fully embraces his late style of composition with its reduced orchestration and highly refined writing which pays homage to his beloved Mozart. 

This past week, principal clarinetist David Thomas and I had the good fortune to perform the Strauss with the Columbus Symphony  conducted by our music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.  We performed the Strauss three times on the Columbus Symphony's new series in the Southern Theatre, a 925 seat hall with pleasing acoustics.

The first time I heard the Strauss (in a radio broadcast by a major orchestra), I was extremely disconcerted by the rhythms in the first movement.  I couldn't make rhythmic sense out of it!  Maybe that particular performance lacked accuracy, but even under the best conditions, the first movement of the Strauss sounds conflicting.  And it should!  As Strauss stated to Berghauser, the bassoon represents a bear who encounters a princess (represented by the clarinet)  The 1st movement meeting of the pair is awkward indeed, and seemingly ill-fated.

The piece opens with a clarinet solo (which David played with mesmerizing beauty).  Then the bassoon/bear enters in a lumbering fashion, in an ascending scale with grace notes:

During the Saturday night performance, I saw peripherally that a man sitting near the stage nearly jumped out of his seat.when the bassoon entered.  I thought to myself, "Good!  The bear has done his job!"  Right after that, of course, David evoked a shrieking princess, mirroring the man's reaction.

Next the bassoon/bear asserts himself soloistically for a while, and then the bear and princess engage in a rhythmically conflicting duet, part of which is shown below:

The clarinet and the orchestra parts are in 4/4 while the bassoon part is in 6/4.  The best way to deal with that is to think of the bassoon part in 12/8 in order to line up with the 4 beats per measure of all of the other parts.  When I began learning this piece, I thought at first that I could just think of those measures in 2, but accuracy is compromised with that approach.  It really is preferable to divide each measure of the bassoon part into 4 beats.

The slow movement is a tranquil romantic aria in which the bear woos the princess.  Although Strauss called for an Andante tempo, common practice is for it to be more like an Adagio.  This movement is a prime example of one which would benefit from circular breathing.  Clarinetist David Thomas used circular breathing, and I would have if I could have controlled the intonation.  As I have stated in prior posts, I am learning to circular breathe, but I have not yet progressed to the point where I can control the pitch.

The third movement is a dance between the now-enamored (assuming, of course, that the second movement was successful!) bear and princess.  It begins tentatively and ends full of joy.  Our conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni always manages to find the right spirit of whatever we're performing.  For this movement he asked for a snappy tempo which, although a bit challenging to execute, was just right and led to a highly energetic performance.  (Most recordings sound way too conservative in this movement, I think.)

The entire piece is replete with technical challenges for the bassoon, many of which appear in the third movement.  This passage is one of the trickiest, especially at a brisk tempo:

I spent a lot of time slow practicing the last measure with various rhythms.  I found it to be beneficial to begin the passage with a calm and confident mindset, not surprisingly. 

In the past, I have chosen to sit instead of stand when featured as soloist in front of the orchestra.  This time, I decided to stand.  Although it is harder to maintain the desired embouchure and finger control while the bassoon is suspended from a neck strap, shoulder strap, or harness, there are advantages as well.  The bassoonist looks and feels more like a soloist when standing.  Projection is enhanced by the increased distance from the floor.  Overall, I was convinced that standing would lead to a more effective performance.

When I was a student at Eastman, the bassoonists were being trained to be orchestral players rather than soloists.  We never stood.  However, I attended a recent recital by my teacher, K. David Van Hoesen.  Much to my surprise, he performed while standing (and circular breathing!).

My teacher, K. David Van Hoesen preparing for a recent recital
In order to successfully perform the Strauss while standing, I tried many different types of harnesses, neck straps, and shoulder straps.  (Having tried balance hangers in the past, I didn't use one this time, which turned out to be a wise decision.  The balance hanger brings the bassoon too close to the player, in my opinion)  I ended up choosing the Wittman Spinstrap (shoulder strap):

Wittman Spinstrap for Saxophone or Bassoon
Even with my chosen shoulder strap it was still a bit challenging to hang onto the bassoon during certain passages, like the ones below:

The bassoon moves around more when it is not anchored to a seat strap, so the player has to sort of hang onto it while playing.  That can lead to a sense of panic in passages like this.  It took me a while to figure out the obvious - that taking a calm approach worked much better.

Near the very end of the Duet Concertino, the clarinet, in the middle measure below, ascends in a rapturous scale:

It seems that the princess has adopted the bear's original stumbling ascending scale!  Now it's smooth and triumphant, and everyone lives happily ever after.

It's daunting for an orchestral bassoonist to suddenly step out in front of the orchestra as soloist, no question about it.  But it's also thrilling beyond words.  I can't wait for the next time.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Brief encounters

Last night the Columbus Symphony performed a pops concert entitled  Chairman of the Board: A Salute to Frank Sinatra.  As I approached the Ohio Theatre before the concert, I struck up a conversation with a couple of audience members who happened to be entering the theatre at the same time. 

The woman asked when Albert-George Schram would be back.  Maestro Schram, a member of the Columbus Symphony conducting staff, is a frequent and popular conductor of our pops concerts.  I said that we were all looking forward to George's next concert, and that I wasn't sure exactly when that would be.

Then I decided to segue into a delicate topic.  I offered the notion that Maestro Schram would undoubtedly be conducting some of our Picnic with the Pops concerts next summer, in our brand new venue in the new Columbus Commons Park.  I asked if the couple would be attending Picnic with the Pops in our new downtown venue.  (The reason this is "delicate" is because some of our Picnic with the Pops fans are understandably wondering what the series will be like in its new urban environment.)
Columbus Bicentennial Pavilion in Columbus Commons Park, future home of  Columbus Symphony Picnic with the Pops
The woman replied that they didn't think they'd be coming downtown because they preferred the old location.  I decided to try to talk them into it, since clearly they were already comfortable with attending concerts downtown.  I assured them that the symphony was going to do everything possible to make the new venue at least as appealing as the old one.  I guaranteed that if they tried it, they'd not be disappointed.  They ended up saying that they'd give it a try.

As we parted ways, the man said, "Thank you for talking to us."  I was embarrassed that apparently, in that couple's experience, it's unusual for a musician to interact with a concert goer.  The symphony would not exist without the audience, and in fact I had said that when they initially seemed surprised that I spoke to them. 

Besides, I was presented with an opportunity to win over a couple of audience members for the new downtown summer pops series.  I know that our management is working very hard to convince the public that the move will be a positive one.  But management didn't happen to be there last night outside of the Ohio Theatre.  I did happen to be there, and I think it's wise for musicians to take advantage of any chance encounters which might present themselves, for the sake of preserving our own livelihood.  We are the orchestra's ambassadors.