Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Rite of Spring

The premiere of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring Ballet at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913 went down in history for inducing a riot.  The audience that night was expecting conventionally elegant ballet, not pagan rituals leading to the sacrifice of a young girl who dances herself to death.  The noise, fighting, and shouting in the audience rose to such a volume that the great choreographer Nijinsky had to shout out the numbers to the dancers so that they knew what they were supposed to do.  Pandemonium prevailed.

part of the set for the Ballet Russes 1913 production of The Rite of Spring

We bassoonists like to think that it was Stravinsky's music - especially his outrageously stratospheric  opening bassoon solo - which inspired such bad behavior from the audience.  Apparently, that's not entirely true, and in fact the audience noise drowned out the music during much of the performance.  According to reports, the attendees were more upset by the barbaric choreography, the Russian pagan set designs and the primitive costumes.

In all fairness, though, the opening bassoon solos really did cause some uneasiness, especially for the intrepid individual playing it for the first time ever.........

The opening bassoon solo is still mighty daunting, even now that it's been played for a full century with varying degrees of success.  (I once heard about a well-known bassoonist who received a scathing review for the Rite of Spring in the next morning's newspaper.)

When I was a student at Eastman I read a quote from Jascha Heifetz about performance preparation.  I don't know the exact quote, but the gist of it is that it's necessary to be 200% prepared, not just a mere 100%.  At the time, I didn't fully understand, but I took note of it.

Since then I have come to understand that it is impossible to create true performance conditions at home while practicing.  I know that many audition coaches recommend attempting to do just that, such as by running up and down the stairs a few times before immediately sitting down to play.  However, it has been my experience that nothing compares to playing the solo in the orchestra and in the hall, whether it be for a rehearsal or for a concert.

The possible reasons for this phenomenon are fairly obvious:
  • nervousness or anxiety which is present only on stage
  • the presence of the conductor and other musicians, who must be accommodated with regard to tempo, timing (rubato), intonation, and volume 
  • acoustics of the hall
Last week the Columbus Symphony with Music Director Jean-Marie Zeitouni presented The Rite of Spring in collaboration with BalletMet.  (The orchestra was onstage rather than in the pit.)

During the first rehearsal of The Rite of Spring last week, despite my careful preparation, I was caught by surprise in two ways.  First, even though I am familiar with the hall, I was shocked by the way the opening of the Rite sounded.  I don't often have the opportunity to hear myself alone on stage.  It takes The Rite of Spring for that to happen.  The extreme dryness of the hall caused certain internals to sound to me as though there were huge chasms between the two notes.  The other unexpected factor was that I found that my left thumb was accidentally opening the low D key, which threw off the pitch when it happened.  Why didn't that happen when I was practicing?  My guess is that my fingers were more relaxed during practice, and unlikely to bear down on the low D.  (For those of you who have large hands, this will never be a problem.)

Each of the two problems had a solution.  For the issue with the low D key opening inadvertently, I stuck a foam earplug under the low C and D keys so that they wouldn't open no matter how much pressure I applied.

For the smoothness factor (eliminating "chasms"), I found the following exercises, played with extreme smoothness, to be helpful:

Those exercises are deceptively difficult and I spent a great deal of time with them.  Especially challenging is the interval from E3 (the 3rd E on the bassoon) to B4.  I often isolated that interval.  Also, I turned on my chromatic tuner to check the pitches.  On many bassoons, the G3 tends to be high and the lowest note (E or E flat) tends to be low.  Another helpful variation is to turn on a drone on one of the notes in each exercise.

In the above exercises, the grace notes are added in the second line.  They should sound smooth, not standing out in any way and not being slighted.  My teacher K.David Van Hoesen always said they should be melodic - that means not rushed.  Also, those grace notes can create a "squeaking" sensation if they go too fast.  The 2 measures at big number 1 in the opening solo pictured above are especially tricky in that regard.  I found that backing off the grace notes (not putting too much air through the instrument) and not letting them be too quick helped avoid "squeakiness". 

In my opinion, the biggest challenge when playing in the extreme high range of the bassoon is intonation.  My bassoon, for example, has a tendency to play the high C on the sharp side -  higher than the other notes and higher than the 440 standard.  However, my bassoon can be coaxed to play the C down to pitch.  It takes a loosening of the embouchure and a conscious effort to play low.

Thinking of Heifetz's advice to prepare 200%, I did everything I could think of to ensure the proper pitch of high C.  Beginning a few weeks prior to our first rehearsal, I began practicing the opening solo while a loud C at 440 was sustained on my electronic keyboard.  That prevented me from allowing a deviation from 440.  Once in a while I'd turn off the drone and use an electronic tuning meter to force myself to find the right pitch without the aural assistance.  This may seem like a lot of work, but there are some notes on the bassoon which the player can be tricked into playing at the wrong pitch level, and it does take a lot of effort to overcome that.

One of the other problems associated with playing in the high range is simply lack of familiarity.  Practicing extended scales on a regular basis helps, but let's face it - we rarely play solos in the extreme high range.  The reed is critical.  Being one of those bassoonists who prefers to play on new reeds, I tried to make a new reed for The Rite of Spring but did not succeed.  On the newer Heckels like mine it is difficult to begin the high C without a "cacking" noise, and newer reeds have a greater tendency to cack.  I went through hundreds of reeds both old and new before finding the one that I trusted to not cack.  It was an old reed, but I don't think I had ever played on it before, so it wasn't worn out.  Then I had the dilemma of how to practice - I didn't want to wear out my chosen reed, but each reed played differently.  I had a box full of practice reeds which I forced myself to use at home most of the time.

I often record my practicing, and it's safe to say that I made hundreds of recordings of the opening of the Rite over the past few weeks.  Smoothness, sound and intonation issues are easily revealed that way, and to me, it's an integral part of preparation.  

It goes without saying that one's embouchure must be in top form for The Rite of Spring - but not just normal top form.  The embouchure used in the extreme high range is somewhat different from the embouchure needed for the rest of the range.  One must spend a great deal of time in the high range during the weeks leading up to The Rite of Spring.  Long tones in the high range can speed up the embouchure-strengthening process.

Even after all of that, it's still daunting.  Yet it's what we live for, isn't it?  When I began my Rite of Spring preparation routine for the last time on the Sunday of the final performance, I was stricken with sadness that the final performance was about to take place, and then it would be over.........

Photo: Ohio Theatre
L to R: Betsy Sturdevant, Douglas Fisher, Christopher Weait, Jesse Schartz, Cynthia Cioffari



Unknown said...

Just read this Betsy, again such a fan of this page. Congratulations again on the Rite performance. I was struck, as an audience member, how big and clear the solo was and at the same time haunting. I struggle with "perfect" performers, who play only notes correctly, and not give much else to the music or the performance. I am a firm believer of musicians who bring a new emotion or a character to life with solos. Your performance remind me how great music making can be when this is achieved. You gave every audience member in the sold out theater a Master Class on how to play the Rite of Spring Principal Bassoon Part. Congratulations again!
-Scott H.

B.S. said...

Thank you so much, Scott, for your incredible compliments! I'm going to have a swelled head after reading this......


Anonymous said...

I wish I had heard you play it. Its one of my favorites. I heard it played 3 times last years since it was the birthday. One of my favorites was the piano version which I did not even know existed.