musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Carmina Burana....and reeds

This weekend the Columbus Symphony presented Carl Orff's Carmina Burana as the inaugural concerts for our new music director Rossen Milanov.  It was an exciting week topped off by two extraordinary performances featuring soloists Celena Shafer, soprano, Christopher Pfund, tenor, Hugh Russel, baritone, the Columbus Symphony Chorus and the Columbus Children's Choir.

Carmina Burana is one of the best-loved symphonic works of all time.  Many orchestras perform crowd pleasers such as this one regularly; the Columbus Symphony last performed Carmina Burana four years ago and I wrote a blog post about it.  For this week's performance of Carmina, I made use of my last blog post.  I reviewed it a few weeks ago and was amused by the reminder of my exhaustive search for the ultimate Cignus ustus cantat reed, which might be defined as a reed which plays easily in the extreme high range but is equally reliable in the extreme low range (if such a reed actually exists!).  But my amusement soon morphed into the grim realization that I'd better get to work.

Although I thought I had saved my Carmina reed from the last performance, I couldn't find it.  I found a box of reeds labeled "Carmina" but I was pretty certain that none of those reeds were the one.  Then I noticed that I had posted a photo of the chosen reed on my blog.  And after further searching, I actually found that reed.

My 2011 Carmina reed

Finally I'd be able to answer a question I'd been pondering for quite some time:  is it really possible to save a reed over several years for a specific solo or work, and to actually be able to use that reed years later?  Well, in this case at least, the answer is definitely no.  My formerly stellar Carmina reed is now useless - not because it had turned moldy or anything obvious like that - it simply lost its special quality over the four years since its Carmina performances.  Wood ages, after all, and the aging process inevitably affects playing quality. 

However, it may be possible for reeds specializing in the low range, such as reeds which successfully execute the opening of Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 6, to be saved for the future with good results.  Low reeds are quite different from high reeds, and often older reeds are useful for low playing.  High solos, though, seem to require much more reed-related fussing, in my experience.  And high reeds have a much shorter shelf life.

So once again I had to go through a very large number of reeds to find the one which sounded best on Carmina.  My plan was to have a selection of reeds to try in the Ohio Theatre, but the same thing happened as last time - I ended up with only one reed which sounded right, and no others came close.

I have a large stockpile of reeds which "specialize" in the high range.  It takes a long time to go through all of the reeds.  At the same time, I continue to make brand new reeds, in case one of them turns out to be a high reed (and I always prefer new reeds).  The reason I go to such lengths to find the right reed is because I believe that in order for the solo to sound the way I want it to, the reed must cooperate at a very high level.  No average reed can do that.

Is it like this for every orchestral solo?  For me, yes.  We're playing Tchaikowsky Symphony No. 4 next, and I have yet to find "the" reed for that.  It's just as challenging to find a reed which has the right sound and control qualities as it is to find a good high reed. 

When testing new reeds, I set aside any reed which demonstrates strength in either high or low playing.  Some bassoonists claim to be able to manipulate any reed so that it will play well in the extremities, but I have found such efforts to be nonproductive.  It's impossible to control the innate characteristics of a piece of cane, so I prefer to allow each reed (each piece of cane) to let me know what it favors.  Some reeds, unfortunately, let me know that they're not good for playing the bassoon, period!   My reed making approach is to honor the tendency of each piece of cane, and that's how I end up with large stockpiles of both high reeds and low reeds (and, of course, piles of rejects!).  

Another interesting experiment took place this week.  One of the movements in Carmina requires the first bassoon to sustain low Gs, and the last G of the movement is held for a long time.  I noticed during the first performance this week that the reed I was using for this part (the non-solo part) of Carmina seemed to require more air than normal, making it very difficult for me to sustain the final G of the movement.  Was it my imagination, or was this reed making my job unnecessarily difficult?

To attempt to answer that question, I brought out the metronome and a few reeds, including the one I'd been using.  I held out the low G at a pianissimo dynamic while counting the beats for each reed.  Sure enough, the reed I'd been using was requiring significantly more air than the others, and I couldn't sustain the note nearly as long with that reed.  Once my suspicion was confirmed, I switched to a different reed and had a much easier time during the second performance.  Had I not been so hyper-focused on the Cignus ustus cantat solo and its attendant reed, I surely would have figured this out sooner.

It has taken many years of bassoon playing for me to reach reed-related revelations such as this one. There are so many things about reeds that continue to surprise me, such as this newly discovered fact that each reed requires a specific amount of air in order to vibrate, and the required amount of air varies greatly from reed to reed.  Also, some reeds are easier to tongue on than others.  (I'll soon begin my search for a great double-tonguing reed for our upcoming performances of Beethoven Symphony No. 4.)   Another fact which baffles me is that some reeds are actually easier to play fast on than others (while slurring) such as during the third movement bassoon lick of the Ravel Piano Concerto.  (How on earth is a reed able to affect finger technique?  I'd love to know.)

The bottom line is this:  bassoon players need A LOT of reeds to choose from!  Now, back to the reed desk........




EMarie said...

My friends and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole concert on Saturday, but your Cignus ustus cantat solo was a big highlight! Even non-bassoonists were excitedly talking about it after the concert. Masterful playing!

B.S. said...

EMarie, I just discovered your comment. Thank you for your kind words!