musings of a professional bassoonist

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5 (paired with Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky was one of those rare composers who had no fear of featuring the bassoon in major orchestral solos.  What caused his lack of trepidation?  I've spent some time researching his life, and found no obvious clues.  (Was he in love with the sound of the bassoon?  Had his favorite cousin played it?  Did he feel sorry for the underdog of the orchestra?  Had he played it in 7th grade?) There's no question that the man chose a rather colorful, perhaps even risqué lifestyle.  Maybe that's it.......his generous use of the bassoon reflected his proclivity for color and risk-taking, perhaps?

Recently the Columbus Symphony performed Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 5 on a program which opened with the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1.  The Brahms second movement Adagio (widely recognized by bassoonists as a serious chop-buster) features extensive exposed passages which are mostly in the tenor range of the bassoon:

In an orchestra with an assistant principal bassoon, this type of program is no problem.  The assistant plays the Brahms and the principal plays the Tchaikowsky.  But in many orchestras (mine, for example) the principal plays everything and must figure out how to make it work.

The solution lies in the reed, as so often is the case. As bassoonists know, reeds vary regarding embouchure strain.  For the Brahms I used a reed which was rather easy on the embouchure - it required minimal embouchure adjustment from note to note, especially in the tenor range.  Thanks to that reed, my embouchure remained intact for the Tchaikowsky.  Reeds which wear out the embouchure are very easy to identify - the embouchure feels noticeably tired while using the reed.  The opposite type of reed is not as obvious;  in order to find a stable reed I tested a number of reeds, searching for any reeds which "automatically" played in tune on certain tenor range notes such as Bb3 (the 3rd Bb on the bassoon starting from low Bb), D3, and Eb3.  Each bassoon is different, but on mine, those particular notes tend to vary in stability and pitch tendency from reed to reed.  The stability (and ease on the embouchure) of a reed may be determined by seeing how readily a reed plays those notes in tune with minimal embouchure adjustment.

The second movement of the Brahms, pictured below, offers the perfect test of a reed's stability.  The tempo, Adagio, can be quite slow, depending upon the soloist and conductor.

The ending of the movement (above) is yet another test of the reed.  If your chops are tired, the D2 may be sharp, and the last thing you'll want to do is ruin the movement (yes, it's exposed) with a sharp D at the end!

Of all of Tchaikowsky's compositions, his Fifth Symphony is perhaps the most bassoon-rich of them all.  After the unison clarinets open the symphony, the first clarinet and first bassoon enter with the second theme in octaves:

bassoon part of soli in octaves with clarinet, Tchaikowsky Sym. No. 5,  mvt. 1
In the Ohio Theatre where the Columbus Symphony performs, the acoustics and stage setup create a situation whereby it's not a good idea to listen to the string accompaniment leading to the above-pictured soli.  That's because if the clarinet and bassoon play along with what we hear, we'll lag behind the strings due to the aural delay caused by our distance from the strings.  It's necessary to watch the conductor rather than to listen in this type of situation.

Of course, this goes against our training. Music students are constantly implored to listen. But the first thing I had to do upon arrival in Columbus was to learn that if I listen to the strings on the Ohio Theatre stage, I'll be late (in situations where the bassoon and strings are playing, with the rest of the orchestra silent).  If I anticipate, playing slightly ahead of what I'm hearing, or simply watch the conductor's baton, then I'll stand a chance of accurate ensemble with the strings.  Of course, each concert hall is different, and the setup of the orchestra can largely eliminate the problem.  If the strings are seated back near the woodwinds or if the woodwinds are situated fairly close to the front of the stage, the problem is remedied.  In Columbus, the woodwinds are situated towards the back of the stage.  The strings are fairly distant from the bassoons, causing the sound delay.  Again, I want to be clear that this phenomenon I'm describing applies when the bassoon (also with clarinet in this case) is playing with the strings.  If the accompanying musicians are winds, brass or percussion, there is no sound delay, because those instruments are situated near or behind the bassoons, and listening IS reliable.  And if all or most of the orchestra is playing at once, there's no problem.  The issue I'm describing only arises during sparse instrumentation when the bassoon is playing with strings.

Later in the movement the bassoon alone plays the same theme, with slight changes.  In my part, this solo is located down at the bottom of the page. Looking way down at the bottom of the page makes it difficult to see the conductor.  (Even though I could play it from memory, that's not what orchestral players are used to.  We're quite visually oriented, and in this particular solo, I want to see the slight differences which distinguish it from the earlier soli with clarinet.  Even though I rarely need to see the music, especially for a solo, there is the possibility of becoming disoriented if anything interferes with the visual, such as glancing up at the conductor and then not being able to find my place in the music after diverting my eyes.  So I wrote out the solo and taped it across the top of the pages, like so:

This may seem like overkill, but to me it makes a big difference.  Even though it's a solo passage, it's still necessary to remain in touch with the boss (the conductor). 

At the end of the first movement is an exposed passage which is written for two bassoons in unison beginning in measure 527.  (See below, but don't pay attention to the old markings in the part pictured below. They were too hard to erase, which is why they're still there.)  It's advisable for the principal to play alone from measure 531 to the end in order to avoid any possible intonation clashes between the two bassoons.  (This especially makes sense due to the dynamic range: pp to ppp!)  Also, if only one bassoon is playing, the conductor is less likely to wince at snarling low Bs at the end.  I've noticed that many conductors really seem to keep things moving along at the end of this movement, mercifully.  (There's no use in prolonging the question of whether or not the bassoon's low Bs will mesh well with the timpani, cellos and basses.....)

The second movement opens with the famous and beloved French horn solo.  Soon afterwards, the bassoon follows the clarinet in the following five-note solo:

Although the brief solo looks simple and easy, these are not necessarily the easiest notes to play in tune and with a well-matched sound from note to note.  I use the alternate F# fingering for the first note, but not just for technical reasons. The alternate F# also produces a more mellow sound and slightly lower pitch than the standard fingering.  For the A# I find it necessary to drop my jaw as an embouchure adjustment to ensure that the interval is in tune, since the A# is one of those notes which, left to its own devices, might be sharp, especially when approached from a higher note.  (On the bassoon, some notes vary in pitch depending upon whether the preceding note is higher or lower pitched than the note in question.)  The phrase leads to the D, and ends with a taper on the D and C#.  It's advisable to listen closely to the clarinet playing this solo, and to imitate the pitch, the phrasing and the timing of the clarinet solo.  That means minimal vibrato, if any.  Also, there's a good chance that the clarinetist won't make a big deal out of this passage - he'll keep it moving along.  If so, the bassoonist should do the same.  Whoever plays first sets the rules.  Of course, if the conductor relaxes the tempo for the ending of this bassoon solo, so be it.  

The next bassoon solo is one of my favorites despite its challenges.  Once again, the bassoon solo follows the nearly identical clarinet solo an octave higher.  The clarinet has no trouble soaring above the orchestra on this passage.  It's a good idea to strive to match that, and to do so without pushing up the pitch of the high B.  High B is one of those notes that tends to go sharp at higher dynamic levels, so be sure to loosen the embouchure and keep the pitch down.  Rubato is appropriate here; a slight tenuto on the high B can sound good as long as it's not so long as to sound affected, and the G# (the second to last note) can be stretched.  Romantic era works easily lend themselves to such icing on the cake.

Then at letter E (see above) the bassoon must somehow project over the thick orchestration.  Whenever I play this passage in rehearsals or concerts, the orchestra sounds really loud and I feel as though I must blow my brains out to be heard  Our guest conductor Thomas Wilkins never complained about the bassoon not projecting there, so it must have been better balanced than I thought.  I'm pretty sure that my face turned red from exertion, but that's OK.  Here's what my teacher K. David Van Hoesen used to say about passages like this:

"If you're not turning red in the face there, then you're doing something wrong!"

And of course the bassoon is rather prevalent in the Valse movement. The first solo passage beginning with the pickups to measure 19 is in octaves with the solo oboe.  This soli is well-served by exaggerated yet smooth crescendos and decrescendos, punctuated by light staccatos at the ends of measures 25, 26 and 27.  The prevalent feature, though, should be elegance, I think.

At letter B (see above) the bassoon joins the clarinets in unison.  The goal is just to discreetly fit in with what the clarinets have already been doing.  I think it's ideal for the bassoon's entrance to be noticeable only due to the pleasant yet subtle change of color.  The bassoon should not use vibrato, since the clarinets most likely won't be using it.  One of the bassoon's outstanding characteristics is its ability to blend with other instruments, and the blending process requires matching the vibrato or lack of vibrato of the other instrument(s).

The big solo begins with the three eighth notes at the end of measure 56 (above), and traditionally, those eighths are often played at a suddenly slower tempo.  Some conductors, such as Maestro Wilkins, allow the bassoon soloist to take charge here.  I played the first four notes a bit slower and at a louder dynamic, with the next four-note phrase in tempo and as a pianissimo echo to the opening four notes.  Then the rest of the solo gradually increased in volume until the f of the syncopated section.  It's good to keep an eye on the conductor to be sure the timing is right, especially after the syncopation begins.  Lots of preparation with the metronome helps the bassoonist feel more secure in this unusual and somewhat awkward passage.

Awkward though the slurs may be in the syncopated section, it's necessary to see to it that each note speaks on time, come hell or high water.  Sometimes for the downward slurs, the lower note benefits from a dramatic dropping of the jaw.  Also, some reeds are more reliable than others for such wide interval slurring.  (Yes, it seems that the number of factors affected by the reed is infinite!)

I prefer to be able to really see the conductor during the solo, so once again I wrote out the solo on staff paper and taped it to the top of the page (see below).  The orange sticker near the bottom of the second page shows my eyes where to go after the solo (once the other woodwinds join in).

The experience of performing any orchestral work varies greatly depending upon the conductor.  I think that my colleagues and I enjoyed Maestro Wilkins' approach which allowed us a great deal of freedom during solo passages.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, it is really interesting and informative. What are the plus signs penciled into your music for?

B.S. said...

A plus sign over a Bb3 is a reminder to add the low Db key to the note. (On the bassoon I was using at that time, the addition of the Db key stabilized the pitch.) When the plus sign is over an F#, it means use the alternate F# key. Thanks for asking!