musings of a professional bassoonist

Friday, November 22, 2013

Beethoven Symphony No. 4

A couple of weeks ago the Columbus Symphony presented, for the first time, a Rush Hour concert featuring guest conductor Gregory Vajda.  Audience members were invited to skip the rush hour traffic out of downtown, and join the Columbus Symphony in the Ohio Theatre for a free happy hour concert which included free appetizers and special drink prices.

The production was a triumph.  There were tons of people filling our massive hall....what a glorious sight!  While speaking to the audience, Maestro Vajda asked how many were attending their very first symphony concert, and approximately 20% of the audience members raised their hands.  That's a major victory for the Columbus Symphony, I'd say!  The program was very exciting, if not traumatic, from a bassoonist's perspective, since it included Beethoven Symphony No. 4.

Playing the infamous Beethoven 4 tonguing solo in the orchestra (as opposed to in the practice room or audition) is tricky, to say the least.  Because it's one of those passages which involves solo bassoon and strings, depending on the hall, it may be dicey to begin the solo on time.  In the Ohio Theatre, if I listen to the strings and come in when it sounds right, I will be late.  Even if I execute the passage at the correct tempo, it will be ruined if I begin late.
Ohio Theatre, site of challenging onstage acoustics
So I force myself to focus on the conductor's baton.  If I'm with the conductor's beat, then all is well.  To those sitting near me onstage, it may sound as though I'm jumping in early, but it's actually right, as confirmed by recordings.  In an orchestra where the woodwinds are closer to the front of the stage and more integrated into the string sections, this would probably not be as big a deal.  But here in Columbus, the woodwinds are quite far back from the conductor's podium, and far enough away from the strings that the distance is a constant issue to be dealt with.

In the edition we used, the main bassoon solo appears at the top of the page.  I wanted to be as calm as possible for the solo rather than flustered from a frantic page turn, so I wrote instructions in my part on the previous page to turn the page early.  I wrote the notes from the previous page on top of the solo page, as you can see below:

I even scribbled the instructions to look at the conductor and not listen (as if I might forget...).  Someone also wrote "louder" over the solo, but I ignored that.  Since Beethoven wrote p dolce, then p dolce it is unless the boss on the podium says otherwise (and Maestro Vajda did not say otherwise, thankfully).

My preparation for this performance of Beethoven 4 began years ago when I learned to double tongue.  I taught myself to double tongue, mainly using the excellent advice of the late Arthur Weisberg in his book The Art of Wind Playing.


ArtWindPlaying

In my experience, it has not been enough to just learn to double tongue.  The technique must be constantly maintained, especially when there is an exposed double-tongued passage on the horizon.   For exposed passages like those in the last movement of Beethoven 4, I begin preparation weeks in advance.

Here's how my practice routine goes:  I set the metronome at 60 and play the passage above all slurred.  When the notes are perfectly even, I switch from slurring to single tonguing.  Then I switch from single- to double-tonguing, with the goal of making the double-tonguing indistinguishable from the single-tonguing.  (I love it when a colleague asks me whether I'm double tonguing or single tonguing - that means I've accomplished my mission!)

Next, I move the metronome up 3 notches to 63 and repeat the routine.  I don't know whether most bassoonists practice double-tonguing at such slow tempos, but I believe that it's extremely beneficial.  If you can make double-tonguing sound good at a really slow tempo, then it is much more likely to sound good at a fast tempo because your basic technique is solid.

This manner of practicing is rather tedious.  Not all bassoon solos require the extreme preparation of a Rite of Spring or Beethoven 4 performance, of course, but the solos featuring extremity of range, control, finger technique, or tonguing do require a great deal of preparation in advance to ensure success.  It's remarkable how much more challenging it is to perform these extreme solos in the orchestra as opposed to playing them at home or in the practice room.  As legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz once stated, it's necessary to always be 150% prepared for a performance.

I keep going with that routine until either my brain goes numb, in which case there's no point in continuing, or until I make it up to 163 to the quarter note.  That's really fast, and no conductor would ever consider such a breakneck speed.  But it's part of my strategy - I prepare beyond the point of reason.   That way, a tempo of 152, which might seem rather fast, will be doable and not that big a deal.

The single-tonguing part of my routine obviously has to be abandoned once I reach my top single-tonguing speed, but the slurring must be done even at 163.  Incidentally, I don't know what my top single-tongue speed is because I don't look at the metronome.  I just keep moving it up by 3 notches.  I don't want to be aware of what the tempo is, because that might cause psychological hang-ups or limitations.  I can tell when I'm at 163, however.....

I do think it's helpful to try to figure out the conduct's 4th movement tempo once rehearsals begin, however, in order to be able to focus on that tempo in the final preparation stage.  I always carry a metronome in my case and have a metronome app on my phone.

Sometimes I also isolate parts of the passage, and either include them in the routine or run the routine with only the isolated part.  Here's an example of a part I have isolated:


There is one final, but critical, aspect of preparing Beethoven 4: the reed.  I remember how surprised I was when I figured out that some reeds were better than others for double tonguing.  Once that discovery was made I became ultra fussy.  Now it's really hard for me to be satisfied with a reed's double tonguing ability.   But the reed makes all the difference in the world.  I don't necessarily use a great double-tonguing reed for practicing the above-described routine, since I'd rather save that reed for the orchestral rehearsals and performances. Those reeds can only be identified by testing to hear how they sound on double-tonguing.   Fortunately, those reeds always seem to be good overall reeds, because I don't like to switch reeds during a performance if I can avoid it, and Beethoven's 4 has plenty of other exposed passages for bassoon.  I advise beginning your Beethoven 4 reed search at least a couple of weeks before your first rehearsal.  This is why it's wise to make lots and lots of reeds, so that when you need a reed which specializes in double-tonguing, you may rest assured that one will materialize from your stockpile.

Once you've done everything you can to prepare, all you have to do is show up and lay it down.   That's the fun part, right?

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