musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Stravinsky Octet for Wind Instruments

Igor Stravinsky (1862-1971) wrote his Octet in 1922-3 during his early Neo-Classical period.  At this stage of his career he was abandoning his "Russian phase" which had brought us such works as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird.  His (which never caught on with audiences to the degree that his Russian phase works had) combined a formal, structured compositional style with modern sounding harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint.  (His third and final phase of composition was his serial period, in case you're wondering.)

Stravinsky himself conducted the 1923 premier of the Octet at the Paris Opera House, since he had disliked Serge Koussevitsky's conducting of the premier his earlier work Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

Paris Opera House where Stravinsky premiered his Octet
Apparently Stravinsky stated that "there is no interpretation" for the Octet, and that's part of the reason he insisted on conducting it himself (so that it wouldn't be ruined by a conductor's interpretation of a piece which requires no interpretation!).  What he meant by that, I think, is that he had been so clear in his markings (including metronome markings) that all that was necessary was for the performers to follow his instructions.  Here is a recording (divided into 2 parts) of Stravinsky conducting the Octet:

It's unusual for bassoonists to have the opportunity to perform the octet on an orchestral subscription series, but luckily for me, the Stravinsky Octet was programmed on a Columbus Symphony classical subscription series.  As you may know, this piece is sometimes performed without conductor, but seeing as how Stravinsky himself conducted the Octet numerous times, it seems judicious to follow his example and use a conductor.  Here in Columbus our associate conductor Peter Stafford Wilson conducted our performances.

The octet is scored for 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 2 bassoons, one flute and one clarinet......where did the odd instrumentation come from?  This is what Stravinsky told his biographer Robert Craft:

The Octuor began with a dream in which I saw myself in a small
room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some very
attractive music. I did not recognize the music, though I strained to hear it,
and I could not recall any feature of it the next day, but I do remember my
curiosity—in the dream—to know how many the musicians were. I
remember too that after I had counted them to the number eight, I looked
again and saw that they were playing bassoons, trombones, trumpets, a
flute and a clarinet. I awoke from this little concert in a state of great
delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose the
Octuor, which I had had no thought of the day before, though for some
time I had wanted to write an ensemble piece—not incidental music like
Histoire du Soldat, but an instrumental sonata.
There are plenty of bassoon-related challenges in the Octet.  The opening Lento calls for some tricky trills, such as the high Aflat to Bflat at the beginning:

 This is the fingering I found to work best (as you can see above, I wrote the fingering in the part because I was not familiar with it):

This trill is certainly awkward, though, and is not the most comfortable way to begin a piece.  With both the right and left hands involved in trilling, coordination is tricky.  Don't be surprised if your bassoon shakes, as if the entire instrument must participate in the execution of this dastardly trill.  

As you can see in the following excerpt from page 2, the bassoon is often called upon to play staccato in Stravinsky's works. If the notes don't have dots, then the abbreviation "stacc." may appear underneath the staff.  Typically, the "Stravinsky staccato" is ULTRA short, and it certainly seems that Stravinsky capitalized on the bassoon's ability to play staccatissimo.

The passage which most musicians, bassoonists or otherwise, associate with the Octet's bassoon parts is the repeating 32nd note scale passages as demonstrated in Variation A below: (especially the downward scales beginning in the 4th measure):

The second bassoon continues the downward scales so that the 32nds sound continuous.  Even though this is what most listeners seem to notice, this is certainly not the most difficult aspect of the 1st bassoon part.

The following 5 measures leading into and beginning Variation C are even more challenging than the above scales:

Fortunately, our maestro conducted the measures before Variation C in quarters.  I spent considerable time practicing (with metronome) dividing the beat into 7 parts and into 5 parts so that I became comfortable with the relationship between the septuplet and the quintuplets. I didn't bother with the notes at first - I either just played on a single note or just used my voice.  (Rhythm is such an important aspect of music that it deserves to be practiced separately from the notes!)

Then at 33 (variation C) the tempo suddenly changes, and it's in one, AND the fingerings become treacherous at that point as well.  In fact, I made up a fingering for A# to B as an alternative to the standard fingerings.  I fingered A# as usual, then for the B, I added the B flat key while lifting the 3rd finger left hand.  That fingering combination, while somewhat more reliable than the standard fingerings, was still nerve-racking.  Despite that observation, I do recommend that fingering since I don't know of any better way to execute that passage.

Variation D is fast (quarter = 160) and light.  

The 16ths at 42 are fast, but playable after slow practice.

The low A, such as the one at 40 below, is suddenly loud and accented, and that happens repeatedly. (This is from Variation D pictured above.)  Due to the sudden dynamic change as well as the pitch tendency of the note, the low A is likely to be sharp in pitch if the player does not make an embouchure adjustment.  (The lower jaw should suddenly drop to lower the pitch.)

The 3rd movement (Finale) begins with a rather martial-sounding 1st bassoon solo accompanied by the 2nd bassoon. Especially for a bassoon solo, it's really long, lasting from the bridge at the end of the 2nd movement to #61, and should be played with lots of character.  Sometimes  bassoonists tend to automatically play at a healthy mf dynamic for any passage marked "solo", but watch out - this solo is marked "sempre p e stacc."!  It should be kept strictly in tempo, and short, light, and quiet.

As with so many Stravinsky bassoon parts, there is indeed a passage in the extreme high range.  It can be seen above beginning 8 bars after 61.  Because of that, it is necessary to use a reed which reliably hits high D.

At 66 begins a lengthy passage of continuous notes with no break.  I think it is important for bassoonists to learn to take very, very quick breaths for such situations.  The breaths should be so short that no time is lost and there is no interruption in the part.  If the staccatos are as short as Stravinsky intended them to be, then such quick snatch breaths are indeed possible.

I think it's a great idea for symphony orchestras to offer chamber works such as this one now and then.  The audience benefits from seeing and hearing the wind instruments up close, and the players get to enjoy the opportunity to perform chamber music for larger audiences - a win-win!


Monday, October 15, 2012

Baroque masterpiece for orchestra (with a great bassoon part)

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666~1747) was a child prodigy violinist who studied composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully and served as court composer for Louis XIV.  At age 71 he came out of retirement to produce a shocking ballet, Les Élémens, in which he set out to depict the settling of creation into its natural order.

Rebel wrote of the work :“I have dared to link the idea of confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound”.  Yes, he really does begin the piece with dissonance - the first "tone cluster" in the history of music!  The man was indeed a rebel.

Although the original score is lost, fortunately the parts (or some of the parts) were preserved.  The bassoon part, assuming it's original, was written for a virtuoso, as evidenced by the following passage in the Chaconne, in cut time:

This reminds me of an intriguing fact I read recently.  Apparently double-tonguing used to be common on the bassoon in bygone eras, which explains some rapid tongued bassoon passages written by Handel, Vivaldi and of course Beethoven.  In more recent times, at least over the past century, double tonguing on the bassoon fell out of favor, possibly due to the fact that oftentimes it doesn't sound very good due to the presence of the reed in the mouth.  During the past 20 years or so, however, double tonguing has again become an important aspect of bassoon technique, fortunately for any bassoonist performing Les Élémens.

There is also a movement featuring the bassoon as soloist: 

Here's a performance of the entire work, with a dancer:

If you live anywhere near Columbus, Ohio, please do come to hear the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni perform this piece live on Friday, Saturday or Sunday in the Southern Theatre.  Here are the program details and ticket-buying links:.

Masterworks 2:

In Nature's Realm

2012-13 Masterworks Series
Jean-Marie Zeitouni guides you through Beethoven's enchanting landscapes of the countryside in the refreshing Pastoral Symphony. Even though written in the 1700's, Jean-Frey Rebel's surprisingly contemporary tone poem Les élémens (the elements), depicts the creation of the world and all its creatures. The program is completed by Rossini's William Tell Overture painting a musical picture of a Swiss Alps dawn, storm, pastoral calm, and the famous cavalry charge gallop.
Jean-Marie Zeitouni, conductor
ROSSINI Overture to Guillaume Tell (William Tell)
REBEL Les élémens
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, Pastoral
Russian Soul
Venue: Southern Theatre
Oct. 19, 2012 - 8 pm

Oct. 20, 2012 - 8 pm
Oct. 21, 2012 - 3 pm

Masterworks Series Sponsor:

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Cleveland Orchestra bassoon section's newest member

In case you haven't heard the news, Billy Hestand is the winner of today's audition for second bassoon of The Cleveland Orchestra!


I had the good fortune to hear Billy play through the audition material a couple of days ago when he stopped in Columbus on his way to the Cleveland audition.  What a thrill it was to hear a bassoonist who was on the verge of winning a position in one of the world's greatest orchestras.  Clearly, he played like a winner.  He had what I would describe as the Cleveland sound - very beautiful and refined - never out of control or the slightest bit crass.  The beginnings and releases of his notes were subtle and perfectly controlled.  He found the right character for each excerpt, showing total command of the orchestral repertoire.  He was ultra prepared, calm and confident.

That's what a winner sounds like.  Congratulations, Billy!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Orchestral Baroque ornamentation

It's easy for a symphony musician to feel a bit like a fish out of water when performing Baroque repertoire. It's not unheard of for the training of classical musicians to include no Baroque performance practice whatsoever.  Sure, most of us have listened to Baroque recordings, but oftentimes contemporary performance practice is applied to Baroque repertoire.

The Columbus Symphony has performed a number of Baroque works recently with our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni in which we did actually follow Baroque performance practice.  (If you'd like to hear an example, InstantEncore is streaming our  Best of Baroque concert.)  But I haven't had enough experience in the Baroque realm to be able to state that I'm comfortable with it yet.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to perform with another orchestra.  One of the featured works was the Vivaldi Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Bassoon "La Tempesta di Mare" RV 570.  The first movement is featured in this video by La Orquesta Sinfonica "Kronos":

None of the recordings I found of this work had much, if any, ornamentation going on in the solo bassoon part, so at first I was planning to just play the printed notes.  But I have always been fascinated by Baroque ornamentation.  When I closely examined the bassoon part it appeared as though someone had penciled in some ornamentation which had been erased.  At first I ignored it, but eventually I became obsessed with the notion of adding ornamentation to my part.

I found a couple of YouTube videos of the piece which were pitched at A=440, and I played along.  I really liked adding ornamentation, and practiced doing so.  At first I used the faint traces of ornamentation which had been erased from my part, and using those markings as examples, I came up with some fairly elaborate ideas.  There wasn't enough room on the part to write out those elaborate ideas, so I wasn't sure what to do?  Should I write out a whole new part? Should I even be trying to plan the ornaments before I knew the tempos?  Or should I just "wing it"?

And how exactly does one "wing it" anyway?   How do we learn how to improvise ornamentation?  The only way I know of is to listen to examples.  When I was a student at Eastman I spent many an hour in the music listening library learning how to be a musician.  I was mesmerized by a recording of oboist Leon Goosens playing the Bach Arioso BVW 1056.  It included ornamentation which is forever embedded in my brain.

It's easy to find examples of Baroque ornamentation on YouTube.  Here's a gorgeous example by German oboe virtuoso Burkhard Glaetzner:

On the day of the first rehearsal of the Vivaldi Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Bassoon "La Tempesta di Mare" I had still not figured out what I was going to do......I wanted to use ornamentation, but fully expected that the conductor would put the keibash on that.  After all, I have never before used ornamentation in the orchestra.  I had other things to worry about anyway, such as whether I would double-tongue or single-tongue the many consecutive 16ths.

During the initial read-through of the first movement, I was a complete and utter coward.   I played it straight, without a single added note.  Luckily for me, we went back and read it again.  This time emboldened, I found myself adding notes and flourishes here and there which seemed to fit, kind of playing it by ear.

When we finished that run-through, I braced myself for the conductor to ask what on earth was going on with the bassoon.  To my complete surprise, he exclaimed that he loved the ornamentation in the bassoon!

The tempo was faster during the performance, which is one of the reasons why it's so exciting to be an orchestral musician.  (I mean that!  I love the thrill of having to adjust at the last minute as the conductor and musicians find themselves caught up in the moment.)  This meant that I had to switch to double-tonguing and it also meant that the ornamentation was different from what I had in mind.  It was a thrilling performance, the type that reminds us of why we chose to be musicians.



Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A highly recommended new composition for bassoon & string trio


My Columbus Symphony colleague violist Brett Allen recently wrote a blog post about his new composition for violin, viola, cello and bassoon.  Brett and I have already performed it with Quartet Amici here in Columbus.  It was challenging for each instrument, but the piece is a lot of fun to put together and is extremely appealing to the audience.

Here's Brett's explanation of his new piece, 4amici:

4amici: Quartet for Violin, Viola, Cello & Bassoon

As unusual as the quartet combination of Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello may be, there does exist an ample body of repertoire for it. Out of the Classical period composers Franz Anton PfeifferJohann Christoph Vogel, Francois Devienne, and Franz Danzi all wrote for the combination. Though not household names like Mozart or Haydn, their output remains significant today for both showcasing the bassoon and tracing the development of bassoon technique.

In more recent times, and in like manner, composers Villa-Lobos and Vaughn Williams have works setting solo bassoon against a bed of strings, though not the exact combination under discussion. But, Bernard Garfield, long-time Principal Bassoonist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, now retired, has no less than three Quartets for Bassoon, Violin, Viola and Cello in his catalog, in addition to reams of other bassoon-centric chamber works.

When Betsy Sturdevant, Principal Bassoonist with the Columbus Symphony, invited me to play and compose for her Amici Quartet, I saw it as an opportunity to break the bassoon-showcase mold in some respects. I thought, "Bassoon, plus Violin, Viola and Cello. How likely is that? It sounds like a wedding gig where the 2nd Violinist became indisposed and the other quartet members went out and grabbed the first instrumentalist to come along - a bassoonist!" Such suspension of disbelief is possible only in music videos, but I retained the idea of this being some kind of pick-up group.    

That, plus I had just seen the movie, The Visitor. I won't give the plot away except to say that a burned out college professor gets hooked on hand drumming and starts showing up at community drum circles. The phenomena of drum circles is of huge interest to me because it is quite the opposite of my classical, tightly structured training in music. What I am saying is - it explodes my whole musical universe! No one brings music. No one comes "prepared." It doesn't matter how "good" you are. No one knows what's going to happen. There's no leader. It's entirely spontaneous. As the drumming rises in intensity, people start dancing and singing. All the while new and interesting drumming patterns are rising to the surface. There's no distinction between audience and performers. No one "performance" can be written down or recreated. No one owns it. No one says, "I invented this, I am a great genius." It seems to reach down deep in the human soul and call forth some primitive, essential need to express. Everyone goes away quite satisfied, the same as if they had just listened to Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

I went to work on my "4amici" quartet with all these things in mind. I had a vision, like a stage play. Four buddies (four friends, "quattro amici"), wandering about the city, decide to gather in a public spot for a jam session. In this vision each instrumentalist is an equal participant, it's not just the bassoon on display. Each one throws in a musical idea. One is thinking about half-steps. Another throws in a forceful downward third. Another takes that and turns it on its head. Before long some semblance of music takes shape. Suddenly, there is an interruption, ceremonial music, as if the mayor is passing by. Later, the same material is transformed into something that sounds like a war song from the old country. Then the strings decide to cut the bassoon out and do their own thing. But the bassoonist won't have it and crashes the party. And so it goes, on and on. Each section spins out new ideas and new sections. Where it is headed and where it ends is anyone's guess. Eventually though, as with drum circles, the high energy dissipates and everyone calls it a night.

Sample parts are available on Sheet Music is available for purchase here.

Thank you, Brett, for this most welcome addition to the bassoonist's chamber music repertoire.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Daphnis and Duruflé

The Columbus Symphony's most recent Masterworks concert entitled "French Feast" included Ravel: Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe and Duruflé: Requiem, Op. 9 conducted by our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni. The feast offered a varying menu of challenges, from technical complexity to melodic simplicity.

Ravel composed the music for the ballet Daphnis et Chloe as a commission for Sergei Diaghilev.  It was premiered in Paris by Ballet Russe in 1912.  Many musicians consider this to be Ravel's orchestral masterpiece - its huge orchestra, (optional) chorus and lush, passionate melodies have made it a favorite of audiences worldwide.  Ravel extracted music from the hour-long ballet score to create two suites, the second (and more popular) of which includes the rousing "Danse generale".

Maurice Ravel in 1914.
Maurice Ravel in 1914

Daphnis is famous for its woodwind parts, especially the flute solos.  Although the bassoons are not particularly prominent in the piece, our parts are notoriously difficult, if unheard.  In fact, many bassoonists consider the Daphnis bassoon parts to be unplayable.  (No doubt, some orchestral bassoon parts truly are unplayable!)  If asked my opinion, I suppose I'd say that it is unlikely that any bassoonist would be able to execute each passage in Daphnis with 100% perfection at a reasonably fast tempo.  However, near-perfection is possible, and it's worth putting in the time to attempt to nail it reasonably well.

One thing I've noticed recently about practicing difficult technical passages is that it's helpful to keep track of progress.  I've developed a habit of penciling in my achieved metronome marking at the end of each practice session.  I mark it right in the music so that it will be visible each time I practice it.

It's extremely heartening to discover that with each practice session, the achieved tempo increases.  Frankly, I was surprised to see the evidence of progress - before I began keeping track, I often had the impression that I was just spinning my wheels.  Now I'm able to see actual proof of progress.  (If not, then it's time to re-assess one's practice techniques!)

I always start with the tempo at which I can play the passage accurately, which, due to the difficulty of the passage in question, is always very slow.  I do not allow myself to increase the metronome speed until I can play the passage perfectly several times in succession at the current tempo.  During each practice session, I begin at a tempo which is slower than my last highest tempo, to give my fingers and brain the benefit of slower-than-necessary review.

The most difficult section of the Ravel Daphnis 1st bassoon part!

Now to visit the other end of the French Feast spectrum: the Duruflé Requiem bassoon soloDon't be fooled by the fact that Duruflé's Requiem is only his 9th opus.  An incurable perfectionist, Duruflé has only 14 published opuses to his name; he was 45 when he wrote his Requiem, Op. 9 in 1947.  It's based upon the Gregorian themes of the Mass for the Dead, and the Lux aeterna movement opens with a statement of chant melody by the bassoon:

To me, it's very daunting to play a simple melody such as this one. It has to be perfect.  That means the intonation has to be perfect, the sound has to be even, the articulation must be perfect, the slurs must be perfectly smooth regardless of the fingerings involved, and any markings in the part must be observed.  Oh, and of course the rhythm must be perfect.

Two of those requirements are easy to practice.  Intonation is practiced by setting a drone to a reference pitch (I usually used Bflat for this solo).  The drone can be played by certain types of electronic tuners, on a computer using an online pitch-producing tuner, or on an electronic keyboard which can sustain pitches.  Then the melody is played against the drone.  It's easy to hear any pitch problems.  Rhythm is easy to practice as well, with a metronome.  Despite the odd meters, I set my metronome to 88 to the quarter.  (Since I often practice with the metronome beating on the offbeats, it does not concern me when the metronome switches from beating on the beat to off the beat in this excerpt.)  But because I don't like to become locked into any particular tempo, I make sure to sometimes practice it at different tempos, even at times like this when the composer has provided a metronome marking.  Live performances are not metronomic, and I like to plan for flexibility.

The other issues (evenness, smoothness, articulation, dynamics, phrasing, tone quality) are best addressed by recording.  Although I own a high quality recorder, it's a big hassle to get it out, re-read the directions and figure out how to operate the #&*@% thing each time I want to record.  Since I always have my phone with me, I use that.   I have recorded thousands of bassoon passages over the past year or so - in fact, I wore out the battery of my last iPhone by recording so much.  Of course we always listen to ourselves while we're practicing, but the recorder offers the perspective of the outside observer, which often exposes hitherto hidden flaws.

If I had to decide which was more challenging - the worst fast passage of Daphnis or the simple melody of the Duruflé, I can say without hesitation that the simple melody is the greater challenge to me.  How about you?


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Also Sprach Zarathustra

 The opening fanfare (entitled "Sunrise") of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Opus 30 (composed in 1896) is undoubtedly one of the most famous classical music excerpts in history, especially due to its feature in the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey:

Strauss' tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's literary epic of the same name.  Strauss said that he hoped that his tone poem conveyed “an idea of the development of the human race from its origin…up to Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman.”  The famous opening sunrise fanfare may be thought of as the dawning of life itself, and after exploring such aspects as religion, passion, joy, science, longing, convalescence and death, the piece ends with a musical representation of the World Riddle, which remains unresolved.  (Throughout the piece, C major represents nature, and B major or minor represents mankind.  At the conclusion, the B major woodwind chord co-exists with a C in the basses so that neither B nor C is established as tonic.)

When I first encountered this piece during high school, I was most taken aback by this section:

It looks awfully daunting, doesn't it?  It's totally playable, though.  It's in 4, at a tempo of around 100 per eighth note, up to the 4/4 meter which is also in 4 at the same tempo with one quarter note per beat.

Now that I'm older and wiser, I know where the true challenge lies in this piece - at the ending, beginning with the pickup to 55 and ending at 56:

At first glance, this doesn't look like much (kind of the opposite of the earlier excerpt).  But it's one of the most difficult bassoon passages in the orchestral repertoire.  If the player's embouchure is not in shape, this passage will be unplayable because of the endurance required, especially due to the range which requires a tighter embouchure.  Additionally, breathing management is an issue.  It's necessary to push a high volume of air very slowly through the reed beginning at one after 55.  The reason the air must move slowly is because of the dynamics, which begin at p and diminuendo to ppp.  It's easy to hyper-ventilate in that type of situation.  The remedy is to rapidly expel air first before inhaling, if there is a buildup of excess air (and you won't know until the time comes!).

Normally I don't worry about embouchure.  But for a passage like this, I do.  When the Columbus Symphony recently performed this work with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, I anxiously awaited the first rehearsal on Tuesday so that I was able to find out what the tempo would be for the bassoon passage near the end of Zarathustra.  (Of course, the slower the tempo, the more difficult the bassoon solo.)  The tempo was on the slow side, and I planned for the tempo to possibly be even slower in the performances (just because it's wise to plan to be flexible).

After Tuesday afternoon's rehearsal, I practiced a lot - much more than I normally would practice late in the day.  I practiced the Strauss passage many, many times, at excruciatingly slow tempos, using the metronome so that I couldn't cheat.  Every once in a while I practiced long tones or other music before returning to the Strauss solo.  The goal was to strengthen the embouchure and to become extremely accustomed to playing that passage.  (Familiarity breeds confidence.)

On Wednesday morning, I did not practice before rehearsal.  Why?  The goal all week was to have as fresh an embouchure as possible each time I played the solo in the orchestra.  So I practiced a lot, but always after rehearsals were finished for that day.  Wednesday after rehearsing with the orchestra I practiced until late into the night, but Thursday morning no practicing was allowed before the rehearsal.  Like any other set of muscles, the embouchure rejuvenates itself during sleep, so no harm is done by over-practicing at night.

On Friday we had a morning rehearsal followed by a concert at night.  I did not allow myself to practice at all until after the Friday night concert so that I wouldn't be "wasting" my embouchure before the concert.  Why was it necessary to practice after the Friday concert?  It's because the rehearsal and concert on Friday might not provide enough of a workout for the embouchure to sustain the high level of strength needed for the Saturday night concert.  Remember, this is not normal embouchure strength we're talking about - it's super strength.

This routine may seem eccentric, but it's what I had to do to be able to sleep at night during Zarathustra week.

The following Zarathustra 1st bassoon passage (sehr langsam tempo) would normally be a big deal, but it's a stroll through the park compared to the above solo!

Strauss had a knack for writing long, full-blown bassoon solos which pushed the boundaries of range, control and endurance.  It's surprising that excerpts from his works do not appear more frequently on bassoon audition lists!

That week's program, which also included Mozart's Overture to the Magic Flute and the world premiere of  Donald Harris' Symphony No. 2, was full of exciting moments.  Here is a video of our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni talking about the program:

"Life without music would be a mistake."
     - Friedrich Nietzsche


Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

Bassoonists are well aware of Mozart's incredible writing for our instrument.  His lovely bassoon concerto, written when he was 18 years old, takes the prize as the best-known work (by far) ever written for bassoon.  The bassoon parts of Mozart's wind serenades, symphonies and operas clearly show his extraordinary usage of the bassoon, and his late piano concertos perhaps offer the best examples of that.

Mozart composed K. 491 for himself to play in the Vienna concert series of 1784-6.  He was quite taken with the quality of the wind players in Vienna around that time and as a result, he assigned dramatic solo roles to the wind instruments rather than mere augmentation of the string parts which had been the tradition until that point in history.  In fact, some music critics have dubbed these concertos to be concertos for winds with piano obbligato!

I love the story about Beethoven, who upon first hearing Mozart's C minor concerto famously said "Ah, we shall never be able to do anything like this".  Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto, also in C minor, is clearly influenced by Mozart's K.491.

It's not uncommon for the winds to be moved to the front of the stage for these concertos so that projection and interaction with the piano are best enabled and the performance can be approached more like chamber music.  When the Columbus Symphony performed the Mozart Concerto No. 24 last week with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni and soloist Stewart Gioodyear, the Ohio Theatre stage didn't allow for such flexibility; in fact, the winds were unusually far back from the front of the stage.

There are many, many exposed passages for bassoons in this concerto, so I will identify only the standouts.  In the slow movement, practically every note is exposed, and the 1st bassoon becomes particularly important in the passage for woodwinds beginning at measure 20:

The tempo can vary quite a bit in this movement.  Stewart Goodyear's tempo was on the fast side.  Still, I do not recommend trying to double-tongue the 32nds, even though the flute, which alternates 32nds with the bassoon, is likely to be double-tonguing.  I think it would be nearly impossible to achieve the clarity and tone quality required for Mozart if double-tonguing were to be used here.  (In other words, double tonguing is likely to sound too harsh.)  Also, it's important to match, and not over-balance, the flute on the 32nds.  It can be difficult to judge balance with the flute being in front of the bassoon, so the conductor is likely to assist with that determination.   Also, the conductor may ask for the bassoon to echo the flute on the 32nds.  This is challenging, since the notes in question tend to sound loud, especially when tongued in rapid succession.  It's unlikely that Mozart intended for the bassoon to sound like a machine gun in the midst of this tranquil, lyrical movement.

This is the second page of the Larghetto:

Each note on the page is exposed, which is part of the reason why the concerto is so much like chamber music, with the bassoon rising to higher levels of prominence in certain passages such as the one beginning at 70.  The type of reed I seek for this type of playing has reliable intonation on Bflats, the ability to taper well, and a pleasant, round sound.  

The lengthy eighth note passage of the third movement is one of the bassoonistic highlights of the piece:

I like to practice it all slurred, which is infinitely more difficult than playing it articulated.  Psychologically it's good to practice with a handicap so that performing the passage as printed seems like a breeze.  (Also, it's great for tongue-finger co-ordination to practice all slurred!)

Today's wind players are indebted to the Vienna wind players of the late 1700's.  If their playing hadn't impressed Mozart as it did, our orchestra repertoire would probably be missing some great gems.


Monday, March 5, 2012

A week with Nicholas McGegan

The last time  Nicholas McGegan  guest conducted the Columbus Symphony, there were no bassoon parts.  I knew I had really missed out, judging from the buzz amongst the musicians following that experience.

Well, this time around I was lucky.  Each piece on the program called for 2 bassoons:
Rameau: Selections from Dardanaus
J.C. Bach: Sinfonia Concertante in C Major for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Cello, W C 343
Mozart: Chaconne from Idomeneo, K. 367
Haydn: Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat Major, Drumroll
McGegan, an advocate of early music and longtime Music Director of San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque, has been called the sunniest conductor in classical music.  Indeed, he was absolutely beaming throughout his week in Columbus.  I'd go so far as to say that he's one of the sunniest human beings I've ever encountered.

The McGegan effect pervaded the orchestra.  Even the most glum among us began to lighten up and crack a smile now and then.  His humor was irresistible, as demonstrated by this McGegan quote about dining with composers from WOSU's Christopher Purdy's  blog post:
“Were I to invite composers to dinner at the same time, there are certain composers you really wouldn’t want at the table. Wagner would have been absolutely awful, he’d have only talked about himself. Bruckner probably would have prayed all the time, nothing wrong with that but you wouldn’t want it for dinner. Mozart would have been nice, he would have probably thrown bread rolls at the pretty girls, but that would have been okay. Mendelssohn would have been wonderful, and he could have answered your questions in any language. But Haydn would be the ultimate dinner guest. Handel of course would have just eaten your food as well as his, and Bach would have wanted more beer.”
Imagine those words spoken with a British accent, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the sort of entertainment the musicians enjoyed this past week.  One memorable story he told was of Haydn's wife - apparently the irreverent woman tore off pages from Haydn's scores to use as hair curlers!

You can hear his accent for yourself in this impromptu interview by Columbus Symphony principal clarinetist David Thomas:

The orchestral parts had been carefully marked in advance by Maestro McGegan, which helped immensely in our efforts to summon the Baroque style using modern instruments.  None of the repertoire had been previously performed by the Columbus Symphony as far as I know, so we lacked the benefit of familiarity.  But McGegan's ultra expressive conducting left no doubt in our minds regarding what effect or nuance he was seeking at any given moment.  Sometimes, for example, he just shrugged his shoulders and waved us off with his hands, and we knew exactly what he wanted.  He even used appropriate facial expressions to help us keep track of confusing repeats and DCs, as if willing us to succeed!

Standards were high, and we were challenged, but we immensely enjoyed our Baroque adventure.  I definitely hope for bassoon parts the next time Nicholas McGegan comes to town.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5

Last week the Columbus Symphony performed one of my all-time favorite works, Mahler Symphony No. 6, with our Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni.

I would prefer to continue wallowing in the aftermath of Mahler 6, allowing memories of its melodies to meander through my mind, but reality dictates that I must prepare for this week's performances of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5.  I find myself making comparisons between the 2 symphonies, each of which is considered to be the most personal work of its respective composer. 

But it's time for me to move on from Mahler and embrace Tchaikowsky.  After all, bassoonists are eternally grateful to any composer who favored the bassoon, right?  And Tchaikowsky is right up there near the top of the rather short list of such composers.  His 4th, 5th and 6th (and sometimes 2nd) symphonies appear on nearly every orchestral bassoon audition list.
“I should not wish symphonic works to come from my pen which
express nothing, and which consist of empty playing with chords,
rhythms and modulations… ought not a symphony – that is, the most
lyrical of all musical forms – express everything for which there are no
words, but which the soul wishes to express, and which requires to be
expressed?” - P. Tchaikowsky
 Tchaikowsky's inner turmoil is no doubt expressed in his 5th symphony, although it ends in bombastically optimistic triumph.  Tchaikowsky denied that this symphony was programmatic, but his initial sketches, jotted down during his lengthy period of self-doubt which preceded the writing of this symphony, hint at his original intent:
Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same,
before the inscrutable predestination of Providence.
(I) Murmurs, doubts, plaints, reproaches against XXX
(II) Shall I throw myself into the embraces of Faith???
It's generally accepted that his idée fixe, first presented by the unison clarinets in the introduction, represents fate in this symphony.  Beyond that, we can use our imaginations to figure out what Tchaikowsky's soul wished to express "for which there are no words".

There are many exposed bassoon passages throughout the symphony; I will focus on the main solos.  The 1sr clarinet and 1st bassoon play a soli in octaves at the beginning of the Allegro con anima of the 1st movement:

The top priority, I think, should be to successfully blend with the clarinet.  Using a reed which has the ability to taper note endings is ideal, to provide the degree of refinement necessary for this solo and the bassoon solo of the recap:

The articulations and a couple of the notes are different in this solo, although the hairpins are similar.  The bassoon playing alone in the recap is perhaps meant to sound lonely, wistful, melancholy, haunted.  For this solo and the earlier soli with clarinet, I try to play with a smooth, even and subdued sound.

In the Moderato con anima of the very famous second movement, the clarinet plays a solo followed by the bassoon.  To me, the clarinet solo always sounds soaring, and even though it's much more difficult to soar on the bassoon, that's my goal - to soar like the clarinet.

It's necessary to really put out for this solo just to match the clarinet.  I think it helps to have a well-focused sound.  In the second beat of measure 72, I practice it slowly in 3 groups of 3, tonguing the first of each group of 3 for clarity.  When actually playing it in the orchestra, it's likely that the bassoonist won't have the time or wherewithal to actually count the 9 notes.  I have found it helpful to practice it beforehand to the point where I can be sure that 9 notes are going to come out, even if I don't count.  This solo and the one at letter E can be played with rubato, such as stretching the notes with tenuto markings.  I practice with a metronome (at around 72 to the quarter) to be sure that any rubato is going to fit into a strict tempo.  Projection-wise, the solo at E is even more challenging to project than the solo before D.  Some bassoonist other than myself marked a breath at the end of the measure 2 after E, but I am not planning to breathe there - not unless the tempo is unusually slow..

And of course, the most famous bassoon solo of the symphony (and the one most likely to be asked at auditions is this one, in the third movement waltz:

The actual bassoon solo begins halfway through measure 56, but it's possible for an audition excerpt to begin at 4 after A and continue to measure 72.  Measure 19 is the beginning of the bassoon and oboe soli, which is an elegant dance.  At B, the bassoon joins the clarinets (be sure not to use any vibrato!) in yet another blending opportunity, leading up to the famous bassoon solo.

The first phrase (first 4 notes) of the solo is traditionally played slowly, out of tempo, in a dramatic declaration.  The second phrase is played subito p, either back in tempo or as part of a gradual return to tempo.  The downward slurred syncopated notes beginning in 78 may be awkward to play, but the goal is to not let that be known.  It should sound strong and easy.  I always practice this passage with the metronome set at many different tempos.  Even though I prefer to think of it in one, I set the metronome to 3 beats per measure at tempos ranging from 100 to 180.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, I like to practice with the metronome on the offbeats rather than the downbeats.  That method is particularly useful for this solo.  (Incidentally, the reason I have an orange sticker in measure 64 is so that my eyes will know where to go on the page after watching the conductor for the solo up to that point.)

Even though I have recorded this piece with the Columbus Symphony, I am sticking to my rule of preparing as if for the first time.


Tomorrow we begin rehearsing Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5 with guest conductor Gunther Herbig.  If you're in Columbus, come and hear the concert Friday or Saturday night at 8 in the Ohio Theatre!  And if you're not, you can hear the live broadcast at WOSU FM Classical 101 streaming audio.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Brahms Violin Concerto

Last week the Columbus Symphony performed the Brahms Violin Concerto with soloist Gil Shaham and our music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni. It was an amazing concert, as confirmed by the enthusiastic audience packed into the Southern Theatre in downtown Columbus.

It's important for bassoonists to focus on world-class musicianship as demonstrated by artists such as Gil Shaham, lest we allow the technical hurdles of our instrument to divert us from our primary goal.  Here's a stunning example of his playing:

What an honor it was to be onstage with such a musician!  In order to prepare, I sought a very smooth reed which played  pianissimo reliably.  Reeds like that also enable delicate attacks and tapers at the ends of notes.  These are the reeds I always prefer, actually, since they offer the player the most control.

The 1st movement requires a great deal of smooth, discreet and in tune playing from the 1st bassoon, as evidenced by the passages below:

For the dotted half F#s and C#s, it's a good idea to figure out the best fingerings for your chosen reed in advance.  I used my standard F#3 (LH: 2 + Eflat key; RH: 1+2+4) followed by the short C# (LH: 1+2+3+C# key+low D key) followed by alternate F# (with the right hand little finger F# key).  Intonation is the top priority, and smoothness is also important.  The eighths following the dotted halves are traditionally played with a tasteful bit of rubato, in the style of the piece. 

The bassoon enters with a smooth line in D major at the end of the violin cadenza:

In my experience, the tranquillo can be achieved only with a reed which allows it.  That's why I spend so much time seeking the right reed for a piece like this which requires such subtlety from the bassoon.  Also, this is one of those passages in which it's easy for the bassoon lag behind, because only the strings and the violin soloists are playing with the bassoon.  If the bassoonist relies on his/her ear, lagging behind is the probable result because of the physical distance between the strings and the bassoon.  At times like this, it's critical to watch the conductor.  (Light travels faster than sound!)

The slow movement's glorious wind writing features the 1st oboe as soloist.  The 2nd bassoon part commonly appears on 2nd bassoon audition lists as a test of intonation, control, and familiarity with repertoire.  The opening major third chord is played by 2 bassoons only and is traditionally played with a straight tone (no vibrato), especially since 2 horns later join the chord.  (As a general rule, all chords are best played without vibrato!)  The dynamics and hairpins can be exaggerated for maximum impact, but without ever overpowering the 1st oboe.

The 1st bassoon arpeggios beginning in measure 22 are open to interpretation.  Some conductors like them to be quite pianissimo; others like them brought out more. It's best to choose a middle-of-the road approach (not too hushed, yet not too outgoing) until the conductor weighs in.

In the last 2 measures of the Piu largemente above features a dialogue between the violin soloist and the 1st bassoon.  Again, that subtle and flexible reed which allows tapered note endings is a plus.

At the Poco piu presto in the 3rd movement shown below, the 1st bassoon and 1st clarinet enter with grace notes before the second beat after a very brief violin cadenza:

It's helpful to know that the orchestra is silent in the 1st beat of the Poco piu presto.  That's why I always listen to recordings of the pieces I'm about to perform, even if I think I know the piece.  It would be all too easy to forget about a detail like that, and it's not good to be caught off guard!


Monday, January 30, 2012

Prokofiev Symphony No. 4

Although Prokofiev himself favored his Symphony No. 4, apparently not everyone does - it  is rarely performed.  Prokofiev said that he liked this symphony for its "subdued tone and wealth of material".  (Believe me, its tone is not completely subdued!) Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century's great composers (the greatest in some musicians' opinion), often infused his music with a dynamic, life-affirming character, and Symphony No. 4 is no exception, ending in a blaze of C major glory.  This very lyrical symphony, based upon Prokofiev's ballet The Prodigal Son, was substantially revised by Prokofiev in 1947, and it was this revision which the Columbus Symphony recently performed under the direction of guest conductor Rossen Milanov.

This symphony's 1st bassoon part is quite colorful and exposed.  The 4-note figures beginning at 12 in the 1st movement dovetail with the same notes in the second bassoon part.  This passage must be played with extreme smoothness and tranquility.  Then at 13, the 1st bassoon plays an unaccompanied solo, continuing the smooth, tranquil quality established earlier.

Prokofiev's bassoon parts are often unusual clef-wise, with treble clef making frequent appearances.  But check out the 3rd note in the measure 3 bars after 49:

Yes, that's a high E flat written in bass clef - we bassoonists rarely encounter high E flats, and we never encounter high E flats (also known as E flat 5) in bass clef (until now)!  This passage is with the horns and 2nd bassoon (an octave lower).

Another of the many exposed 1st bassoon passages begins the 3rd movement, in octaves with the 1st oboe:

Attention to detail is very important in this piece.  Maestro Milanov asked the oboe and bassoon to play this opening in a style which might be described as smooth and graceful, yet scherzando-like and full of character. 

Later in the movement there is another unaccompanied bassoon solo, beginning on high C (C5) written in bass clef:

I used the Bflat key fingering for F# (RH: 2 + E flat key; RH: 1 + 2 + Bflat key) because sometimes when playing with a full sound, it's too easy for the F# with my usual fingering (RH: 2 + Eflat key; RH: 1 + 2 + 4) to go sharp in pitch.  I also use the alternate F# key for the lower F# on the 2nd beat at 63.  I often use that fingering for its slightly darker tone and very slightly lower pitch.  Using the alternate F# key is a bit more challenging technically, but I use it so often that I'm used to it.

The 32nd note scale in the 3rd measure below really threw me off when I first looked at it, and I had a hard time trying to play it!  Then I realized that it was the enharmonic equivalent of an E flat major scale.  Oftentimes I jot down the key in the part to help with the execution of a tricky passage, but in this case the enharmonic equivalent was more useful than the original key, for sure.

The passage at 8 measures after 70 is another unaccompanied bassoon solo:

This solo is best played very legato, with a full sound, watching the conductor for the huge slowdown (with diminuendo) into 71.

There were mistakes in my part in the following exposed passages, so if you play this piece, check your part for note mistakes.  The 1st section, before 90, is with the 1st flute and the next section is with the 1st oboe.  These passages are finger twisters:

It takes a certain kind of reed to pull of the following sarcastic bassoon solo in the 4th movement (it's in 2 beats per measure, or one beat per measure for 2/4 or 3/4):

It really has to be played forte and should sound like a taunting, bratty child!   I chose a reed that had a really strong and reliable high C.  It has to cut through the orchestra.  The mocking bassoon outburst continues a few bars later, in B flat major and c minor.

I would say that Prokofiev had a vividly imaginative approach to his bassoon writing, especially in this symphony, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to perform it.